Flick. The sound of the red Bic lighter. Inhale. Hold it. Exhale. Breathe air. Looking out at the Bay as if it were already a black and white photograph on postcard paper with tattered edges. Sad, waves invoked the gravity of my tears streaming down my cold and blistered cheeks. The juxtaposition of the clouds and mist with my suffocating sense of failure stung like the cool intermittent ocean breeze. I would never return to the Bay Area. I never did. I probably never will.
When dad died, a part of me went with him. I haven’t been the same. I write about grief because I know that others are suffering too. Others know as I do that the struggle with grief of a loved one is throughout life, not just some pinpoint in time. For me, the day was precipitated by a series of three steps backward, one step forward. He wasn’t going to get better. We were all in denial. Days of hope were days when we thought dialysis might help or that it would even still be possible. I was living away from my hometown and family in Missouri. I was living an exciting life in the Bay Area. I couldn’t return home to see a dying man and lose my job, my life — everything. I couldn’t. I could maybe go home when the time was right. When the death occurred. Would he even know I was there if I went home?
People, this is grief. The questions you ask yourself a million times. The what if’s? The should haves. The might haves. The denial of truths that never get wrinkled out because life with the truth would be too much to bear. This is grief.
Grief means stages of time and feeling. Grief may even begin before a person is gone. It wasn’t shocking and yet it was. I gravitated toward death with my suicide attempts and lust for the end to come in my despair and depression. But, dad’s death was different. It was a different kind of death than all of that other death. It cut through me like an injury from the universe. I had bought a bottle of really nice Reisling, some snacks, a movie to watch on my laptop in my pretty room in the Pink House in Berkeley where I lived. It was a gorgeous spring day. So beautiful. It had been days since I’d gotten any news, and for all I knew it would be days or weeks before I would receive any. I was feeling glorious. My lovely room, my books, my things, Berkeley, the sunshine, the park outside my second floor bedroom … I hadn’t fucked up yet. I hadn’t gotten too out of hand in some mania. I was making it in the Bay Area at that time. Yes, I was sad some days. I didn’t have a permanent job yet. But, it was a really fabulous feeling I had the day I got the call.
All settled into my bed to watch my movie, my cell phone rings. It’s Landmark, the long-term care hospital that dad was in. The nurse’s words were like an echo in my head.
“He isn’t going to last much longer, I’m afraid.”
She had to call me back, but she wanted to let me know it would be soon. We hung up. I was pissed. I cried, not out of sadness or fear of losing my father, or … was that what it was all about? No, I was simply upset that this news had ruined my day. I was pissed off that I couldn’t drink my wine, watch my movie and relax as I had planned.
She called back, “Your father passed. I’m so sorry.” It was only minutes from her previous call. Only minutes. Only minutes and tears. Damn. And, I entered Grief Stage: Anger. I was angry that dad had died.
I very well could have been sad or anxious or any number of feelings. My hope is that in reading my reaction you will realize that there is no correct way to feel when you find out someone you love or are close to has died. That moment is not entirely your own. Don’t beat yourself up for not reacting a certain way. It could have been a sucky day for me when I got the call, and my reaction would have been completely different.
Since that day, I have lost everything and come back to life again only to still, eight years later, struggle and grieve. Grief is just that. I will grieve in a different or even the same way 20 years from now. It NEVER ends! It is miserable and wrong. It is the despair that causes us to both lose God and find God. It is the temptation to just go with the ones we’ve lost because the pain of being without them is too great. It is remembering with joy only to have it lined with darkness. And, depending on one’s interpretation of death, it can seem either hopeless or hopeful. It is so individual that you look around and see other people grieving, but not quite like you’re grieving. So, you end up not reaching out. And, you end up feeling alone. There is no healthy way to sabotage when that is what feels good about grieving. A gallon of ice cream and a sad movie to just do yourself in. Worse, drunk and uninhibited, you can drive everyone you know away in a single Facebook post or Tweet.
It’s cathartic at least. Some of us journal, some of us weep, some of us do both or neither. And, it does get better over time. The single hope is that it fades. It fades, and we don’t forget but become more numb so that we’re able to move on and live life. I wish someone would have written this for me to read before my father died. I had no idea how to grieve or what it would be like! And, when you’re grieving, you may not be apt to look for help or therapy. So, I write with the hope that it will be useful, helpful, hopeful to someone.
For now, I reflect on the good things. The good days. I do that not because I don’t want to face the hurt, the painful things, the negative things. I focus on the good because I’m wiser for it. I focus on the good because it gives me strength, courage to live— and there is no shame in doing that.
And, that is hopeful. That is the kind of healing you get with grief. And, for now, that’s all I’ve got.