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Today is my dad’s birthday. Tonight we should be heading to my parents’ house for a birthday celebration. I’ll choke down my dad’s favorite meal of eggplant parmesan, even though I’ve never liked it. We will drink too much wine and talk too loudly in that boisterous way of Italian families. He will playfully tease my kids and discuss politics with my husband, and we will leave late in the evening with our stomachs and our hearts full. This is what should be happening tonight. Unfortunately, it will not.
A dream stolen by death
Cancer stole my dad from us in 2011. There are moments when that pain is as fresh and heady as it was eight years ago. He fought the good fight before that heinous disease overtook him. You might think that would have given us time to prepare, but it did not. No one wanted to believe that it would ultimately overtake him. As I stood in that hospice room and watched my dad, our patriarch, spiritual advisor, protector, and sage, take his last breath, an unyielding, unapologetic rage descended on me. It wasn’t the reaction to grief that I was expecting, but it was what overcame me.
Grief looks different than I imagined
I fought the wrath for months. I was angry with his employer, who didn’t allow him to continue working when his brain was no longer capable of performing the job he once did so well. The doctors that pumped poison through his veins and gave him false hope of a cure infuriated me. At the funeral, I wanted to scream when I saw the church fill with people that hadn’t bothered to visit during his illness. I was mad at God, for not healing this man that had spent his life believing in Him so steadfastly. The fury was all consuming, and it caught me off guard.
Eventually, that anger abated. Ultimately I realized that I was helping no one. My dad would have been heartbroken to see what his death had done to me. Always the child that strove to my make parents proud, that served as motivation to step out of my funk.
The anger was gone, but the loss remains
Even though my anger has long-since subsided, the loss of my dad still has a way of tackling me from behind and overcoming me. It is a news article about an issue he was passionate about, a book I wish I could discuss with him, my eleven year old’s love for music. He’s in a sunrise on the drive to work, a song on the radio, a trip to the grocery, the smile of his three year old grandson he never got to meet.
Grief never leaves you. It just changes form. It will lie dormant in the deep recesses of your heart for a while. But it is still there, threatening to reveal itself at the most inopportune moments. My dad and I loved Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Every year we read the novel in my freshman English class, but occasionally-randomly- I will be reading to my students a particularly touching moment between Scout and Atticus and it hits me. I have to pretend to lose my place on the page in order to blink back the tears and quell the sob that suddenly swells in my chest. There is nothing that makes that day, reading that passage, any different from another. It’s just the moment that my grief decided to make sure I hadn’t forgotten about it.
The five truths I’ve learned about grief
1. There are no “stages of grief.” That suggests that you will be able to go through the process and come out healed. While you will travel through your own “stages” as you deal with your pain, there’s no real acceptance. Even eight years later, it’s hard to believe that my dad is really gone.
2. There is no healing from the loss of a loved one. The hole that was once filled by that person will remain a hole no matter what you try to cram inside to fill it. Do not try to numb the pain with alcohol, or food, or any other unhealthy habit. It will never fill the void, but it may very well cause new problems.
3. Time does not heal all wounds. Rather, time just keeps passing, and with that passing you somehow learn to live with and get use to the pain.
4. Your grief is always present. However, your heart protects you by trying to keep those messages of sadness from traveling to your brain. When you smell a continuous odor, you eventually stop sensing it. Your body is wise enough to keep your nervous system from exhausting itself and it blocks those messages to your brain. In much the same way, the pain doesn’t go away, but you learn to tune it out.
5. Grief is a sneaky shapeshifter. It may change form, but it is always there, lurking. And knowing that makes it easier to deal with when it decides to make an unexpected appearance.
The ugly truth about grief is that it doesn’t go away. You will not magically be healed. So feel what you feel and don’t feel rushed to “get over it.” Quite frankly, you will never get over it. But you will be okay. And if you need to cry, you can come back here and cry with me…we will get through those waves of grief together.