This coming November will mark ten years since my dad’s death. The day that I received the news was one of those beautiful autumn days. The kind where the air is crisp and the trees are multifaceted with reds, browns, yellows, and oranges. The kind of day that welcomes an adventure.
The adventure that day was not what I had imagined. It was meant for a visit to Fort Sumter in Charleston, but instead the adventure was a long, silent drive home to North Carolina. Funeral arrangements needed to be made, but I couldn’t focus on that. The man who loved me no matter what, and never made me question that, had died alone, and had laid in his home for two days before anyone knew. Although his unanswered phone calls prompted me to request a welfare check, I never suspected he was gone from this world. I don’t know why. I feel kind of dumb for that–for always hoping for the best.
The days ahead were filled with lots of crying, decision-making, half-hearted laughter, genuine laughter, smiling, crying again, anger, lack of understanding… needing so desperately to understand, seeking answers, and trying to navigate a territory that was completely uncharted.
Uncharted for me… but not for others. I have to acknowledge that loss is not unique to only me. So many others have experienced loss, as it is a part of life. But unless you have experienced it, you cannot truly understand the depths of grief. Unless you have lost someone close to you, you cannot understand the strange little rituals that a person performs on their loved one’s birthday or the anniversary of their death. Unless you have lost someone close to you, you may not be able to fathom how sinister dreams can get– your loved one “starring” in them every night; Avoiding sleep is the only way to escape them. You may not be able to understand the sudden fear of the dark one experiences, or the physical pain from hurting so much emotionally. You may not understand why, even after many years, grief can take hold of a person without warning and completely take them down in a moment.
I recall the evening we came home from the hospital after having my firstborn. I laid in bed, squirming with afterbirth pains, and suddenly my mother-in-law (at the time) was crying while holding my newborn son in her arms. She was grieving the fact that her late husband would never hold my son; He would never meet him. And after nearly ten years since his passing, that sneaky little shit called “grief” hit her right in the gut. I remember forgetting all my physical pain in that moment and feeling her sadness.
When my second daughter was born less than ten days before my dad’s 69th birthday, a nagging ache inside of me appeared because he was missing her birth and she was missing out on knowing him as a person. I knew how crazy about her he would have been… how he would have loved that she had the same dimple in her chin as he did. The same dimple in her chin as I do.
Whenever I hear Don McLean sing “A long, long time ago, I can still remember…” on the radio, the breath is knocked out of me. Even to this day. I tell myself that my dad is with me in that moment and I pause, imagining his spirit all around me. I think about the times we sang it in the car together. It was his favorite song.
When I went through my divorce and thought my life was over, needing my dad was one of the hardest parts of that experience, as it was kind of like an itch that you cannot scratch.
And when I was about to get married this past year, grief mauled me like some sort of crazed animal, watching and waiting for me to crumble under its pressure. And I was ashamed because I couldn’t explain the utter sadness that swept over me… Couldn’t pinpoint the reason why I felt so empty. I wanted him to be here to tell him how happy I finally was, but how silly does that sound?
I do believe grief changes a person. Not just for a short time… no. Forever. The magnitude of what is summed up in such a puny word- grief– is unmatched. It becomes a part of your makeup. You eventually come to accept the fact that that person is never coming back, but a small part of you is always a little bit blue. And when that person is someone in your immediate family, you feel like a part of you died, too. It is a very odd, yet human experience. I still do not know the “right” words to say to people when a family member dies or is actively dying because the experience is different for everyone, but I always feel their pain down to my bones. I can only tell them to lean into it. Ride the wave. Don’t try to escape it, because you can’t. You literally can’t. Grief will always find you, so you might as well face it head on.