Coping with my first fatherless Father’s Day

I’ve learned one thing over the years. I hope I’ve learned more than that, but at least one.:)

Avoiding a negative event won’t make it go away, and dread doesn’t make an unwelcome occurrence disappear.

The first Easter without Dad was bearable, but I was still in too much shock to register much. A kind friend invited me to brunch, and I remained in my stupor.

Mother’s Day was difficult, but it always is. I didn’t even get my traditional Kat and Natalie story finished. Then again, I was focusing on Mistress’s Release.

Father’s Day is a different story. Compared to mothers who are always complicated (at least for daughters), dads are a rather simple concept in our world…at least for someone like me who was lucky enough to have a loving dad. Perfect? Nah. But loving and proud, yes.

I’ve learned that preparing for a complicated day can take the edge off grief. That’s the reason for our mourning rituals, after all. The funeral and prayer service were agonizing, but they gave steps for how to handle Dad’s death. It was afterward, without the social script, that the real descent into darkness occurred.

When my mother dies, my reaction will be complicated in ways I can’t imagine because my relationship with her is complicated. I’m sure it will be difficult to lost my last tie to my childhood and my past.

But I can’t imagine anything more difficult than losing the rock who gave me quiet, understated love.

On a day to honor fathers, I’ve taken the following steps. Yes, a month early. Yes, perhaps excessive.

  • I’ve bought a simple Father’s Day card for my dad’s brother. We’ve never been close, but I loved hearing his stories about Dad in the week around the funeral. I may buy a tie to give him (my dad loved ties), but I may not.
  • I’ve given myself a get-out-of-church-free pass. If I go, fine. If I don’t go, fine. The day will be what it is. I stayed home for Easter and Mother’s Day, and that was the right decision. We’ll see for this holiday.
  • I’ve ordered altar flowers in memory of Dad for the Sunday closest to Father’s Day. Maybe I’ll show up at church and be able to take the flowers home as a memento for Dad. Maybe I won’t, and I’ll think of the flowers being given to someone else instead.
  • An author friend sent me a lovely wooden spoon bookmark and a copy of her latest book. It’s being saved as a special treat for the day.
  • Another friend sent me a copy of Carol. One more treat.
  • I ordered a few books from childhood (later books in a series that I thought ended with #5, so they are new to me).
  • No work that weekend. There is one project I might take on, but I won’t have expectations of that weekend.

And, of course, the publication of Mistress’s Release. As of this writing, the book has undergone its first round of edits and is awaiting the second. It made me cry to write the dedication, but it also felt good.

I’ve learned that the support of family, friends, and community are invaluable in times of grief. I’ve also learned it’s okay to say that I need space to grieve. Father’s Day will be one of those times. In grief, thoughtless comments hurt all the more. Sometimes we need to put up protective walls.

How about you? How do you cope with special days in the midst of grief?

 

I wrote a book, and I liked it!

Goodness.

I thought I’d never laugh again.

I never thought I’d focus, think clearly, or write a sentence again.

A book?

Pfft.

I was lucky to manage a coherent answer to, “How are you doing?”

My dad’s still dead, you see. Three months later, I’m one-fourth of the way to the first anniversary. The first year mark is a magical, amazing milestone that means the pain will somehow lessen. (Shh. Let me have my fantasies.)

A month ago, I struggled. Sweated. Procrastinated. Cried. Mewled. Fought. Begged the universe for…what? Something. Anything, anything at all. Whatever it took to get words on the page.

I picked up some drawing pens and cheap children’s drawing paper, and I wrote one word.

Two.

A sentence.

A paragraph.

It took a full week, but I wrote the first chapter.

Then I struggled to write the next.

And the next.

And the next!

I, who had lost a father who loved me more than any man I’ll ever know, delved into the soul of a girl-woman whose father cursed the day she was born.

I, who treasure memories of my dad bursting with pride at his little girl, wept as I wrote this character’s struggle to find self-worth without her father’s love.

I came to the computer day after day, tentative.

Terrified.

Frustrated I had to do the angsty soul-searching meaning-of-life emotionally intense VitskyTM thing when I wanted light, fluffy fun.

I wanted spankings, darn it!

Instead, I got a story of finding love and life amidst hopelessness.

In writing, I affirmed the value of life no matter what our personal challenges might be.

By the end, I wanted to spread my wings and soar on the power of my words. I powered through the last four chapters in record time, and I wept again at giving my characters the peace they longed for. No, it wasn’t the happily ever ending they wanted, but it was better.

It was real, it was loving, and it made sense.

In creating chaos and then order, I found order in my own life.

I’m so grateful to be a writer.

I’m so grateful writing gives me a reason to live.

And I’m so very grateful I can bring these women back into your life.

Mistress’s Release, book three in the Mistress series, will come out (fingers crossed) Father’s Day weekend.

The story about a girl struggling to live without her father’s love, released on a day to honor fathers.

Yep.

And little ol’ me, finding how to get through my first fatherless Father’s Day, will hug this book to my chest.

Kiss it, wash behind its ears, and send it out to the world.

Won’t you love my dear Trinity and Gracie? They’re waiting for you.

Eager and shy at the same time, afraid of rejection but longing for connection.

Won’t you read Mistress’s Release?

Please say you will.

(Blurb, cover art, and all those specs coming soon!)

What I wish I’d known about grief, Part 2

For those who gave such lovely, warm support on part one of “What I wish I’d known about grief,” thank you. Thank you more than I can say. I continue to be surprised at how kind people have been, including strangers and people I’ve only met once or twice. There is something universal about losing a parent, no matter what our individual circumstances might be.

I am not grateful to have lost a father, and I am not grateful to enter the halls of grief. But I am grateful to be surrounded by a sister and brotherhood of those who have walked this path before me.

I get a little teary when I see and hear about people who have lost a parent since Dad died. I take a deep breath and can feel the fresh waves of new grief almost as if I just heard the news again. Words are never enough, but I offer my prayers and love. Losing a parent takes a minute (even if the dying process took years). Learning how to live without a parent takes a lifetime.

Grief is actually a topic that is part of my real-world, vanilla self. It’s part of what I research and write about. I’ve come to this experience with a lot of academic knowledge and secondhand experience, and I consider myself better informed than the average person when it comes to grief.

I mean, I sat in a hospice house for months to hold hands with patients as they waited to die. I’m not a stranger to death.

And, yet, there are still many things I wish I’d known.

I wish I’d known one month in (it’s been four weeks as of yesterday) that my head would still pound with incessant aching that sometimes verges on dizziness.

I wish I’d known the hospital-vigil need for soft, bland food would continue. Jello is my friend, as are bananas, apple juice, soup, oatmeal, tea, and sweets in very small amounts. Sometimes I say heck with it and have ordinary food (usually if someone has invited me for a meal). My stomach gets mad afterward, but so far it’s been worth it.

I wish I’d been prepared for the complete inability to make decisions. I make them eventually because I have to, but I have to ask people not to give me choices. Don’t ask where or when I’d like to meet. Don’t ask what I’d like to do. Give me the option to show up or not, but other than that my decision-making powers have to be saved for essential questions.

I wish I’d known that people I barely knew would send me cards, emails, text messages, and sweet notes. Even if it’s only, “Sorry for your loss,” it’s someone who has taken time and effort to express concern for me.

I wish I’d known how much I’d need support for me. Just me. Not for my family members or other people who were involved, but for me alone. I was so consumed (in the early days) by making sure my mom was okay that the consequences were not great for me individually. Here, my academic knowledge is helpful. I’ve taken some steps to get support, and little by little I’m setting goals for what I can do. Today, it’s been cleaning out my fridge and setting up a new water filtration pitcher.

I wish I’d known that grief and insanity can seem identical (not that I’ve experienced true insanity), and grief would take away my greatest coping strategy–my mind. I’m a thinker. I’m a processor. As long as I can analyze and intellectualize, I’m good. Once my brain disintegrated into chaos, I felt stripped of my powers. Defenseless.

I have struggled with cognitive function in the past (when I was taking so much medication for severe allergies that it interfered with my ability to write), but that was years ago. Now, I spend hours staring at my screen and trying to process information.

In the first few days and the first week or so after Dad died, people were patient with my “grief brain.” Now, people are less patient as they depend on me for various tasks. It’s been a month, after all. Isn’t it time to get back to normal? I have responsibilities, after all.

One analogy I’ve heard (that is helpful) is that the brain becomes so overwhelmed by the physiological and emotional reactions to grief that it shuts down all but essential functions. It’s as if it pulls up the drawbridge so it can focus on healing. I’ve also heard that the time to worry is not one month after a death, but after a few months. Until then, it’s normal for our bodies and minds to freak out.

I’m held hostage by my own mind, the part of me I value most and depend on in difficult times.

Heal, I want to say. C’mon, hurry up. I have things I need to do. Work beckons, and bills need to be paid. Taxes need to be filed. Houses need to be cleaned before company comes to stay.

Another piece of advice that’s been helpful has been this:

The worst grief you’ll experience is your own.

Is it harder or easier if this or that happens? Is my situation worse or better than someone else’s? I’ve spent a good deal of time playing that game, and I’m trying to let it go. I lost my father. It’s a big loss. That’s all that matters to me now, right? I don’t need permission to grieve. My tantruming body and soul have seen to that. I can’t ignore this grief, even if I’d like to.

I wish I’d known, one month after my father died, that I would long for moments of laughter. Socializing is overwhelming and I return home exhausted, but a shared smile alleviates pain better than any Advil.

I wish I’d known that words might fail me, and conversation might become difficult…but that I would treasure every note, email, card, and text message I received. I’ve said a simple “thank you” to so many people because I couldn’t manage anything else.

I long for the day when I can think of Dad without crying, and I wait not so patiently for a time when memories will bring pleasure instead of pain. I’m so afraid I will forget him, but I can only go through so many boxes of tissues.

I wish I’d known losing Dad might be the worst thing that’s happened to me so far, but the loss would be accompanied by more love and support than I’ve received in my life.

Loss hurts.

Grief sucks.

But in times of sorrow, the kindness of everyone around me restores my faith in humanity.

Dad would be so surprised at this effect–he was the most humble man I’ve known. He wanted things to be simple, loving, and good. As he was.

If you have a family member nearby, or if you have someone who is like family, please give him or her a hug. The love we receive is so precious.

Blessings to you today.

What I wish I’d known about grief

It’s been eighteen days since my father died. It seems so fresh and raw, but at the same time it seems a lifetime ago. I’ve read a lot about grief, and I’ve walked with many loved ones through their times of grief. I’ve also had my share of grieving situations (if not a parent).

Still, I’ve found that empathy and knowledge are quite different when it comes to the real thing. I’ve also found that the difference between major, first-hand grief and knowledge/empathy lies in the details.

I knew that grief would mean shock, and that the real difficulty would come once the funeral was over. I expected at least some comments that would make me uncomfortable, such as “This was God’s will” or “God needed your dad more than you did.” I would respect the good intentions but ignore the expressions.

I’ve watched my stoic older female relatives deal with grief, and I’ve seen one break down over her (very young) husband’s coffin. I expected so many things, read so much, and talked to so many people…

But I still wasn’t prepared.

I didn’t know I’d dissolve into an incompetent mess when I couldn’t find my comb. Two days in a row. For ages.

I didn’t know that I would struggle with exhaustion mimicking jet lag. I’d fight to stay awake past 8, 7, 6, 5 or even 4 in the afternoon. I’d wake up at all hours of the night.

I didn’t know my head would pound with throbbing headaches each afternoon and into the night, with sleep being the only relief.

I didn’t know that trying to “keep busy” would increase the exhaustion, until I lay down on the bed. Then I’d cry, will myself not to, and finally sit up and huddle on the floor with my ever-disappearing box of Kleenex.

I didn’t know that a three-pack of family-size Kleenex wouldn’t be enough for the first few weeks, either.

I didn’t know how helpless I would feel, how powerless to make anything change for the better.

I didn’t know that having a dad dead would feel different from a dad so far away we saw each other once every few years, if that. It shouldn’t feel different for my dad to be absent for a different reason, but it does.

I didn’t know I’d burst into tears going to Target (to pick up tea for the sore throat that’s plagued me the second and third weeks of grieving) because Peeps were on sale and Dad always bought us Peeps. It’s been decades since I came home to a box of Peeps on the counter, but it might as well have been yesterday.

I didn’t know how raw I would feel, and that every comment or interaction could hurt as much as Dad’s death. It sounds silly from the outside, but the funeral director assuming the daughter-in-law was the daughter is something I won’t be able to forget for years (if ever).

I didn’t know my body would ache as if from fever, shivering and shaking from alternating chills and heat. I didn’t know my bones and muscles would ache as if I were an old woman. I didn’t know.

I expected denial, anger, bargaining, guilt, and all of those intricate variations of the stages. I didn’t expect the stages to be linear, as they never are, but I also didn’t expect to be lost in a morass of uncertainty and fear.

But most of all, I didn’t know how much it would hurt to receive advice.

The thoughtless comments, I expected. I’ve lived through various versions of those my whole life, and I’m accustomed to deflecting inappropriate comments.

The advice?

Not so much.

I didn’t expect to be rocked with guilt as friend after well-meaning friend advised me not to spend so much time with Dad on his deathbed. Even my mom had to tell me to turn the phone off and not listen when another message would shake me up. I should step out, I was told again and again, to give privacy so Dad could die.

What the hell, I thought. My dad. I need to be with my dad.

Then other advice came, some useful and others less so.

Don’t forget to eat.

Try to sleep.

Don’t let anyone tell you how to grieve. You have to grieve in your own way.

Keep busy.

You have to keep your mom happy.

You can’t do this.

Family does this.

You will not do this.

The hardest part about grieving my father is that I have watched my friends lose one or both parents. The grief doesn’t end after the first year (right now, an insurmountable goal…how can I get through a whole year without my dad?) or the first decade.

If I have one piece of advice for those experiencing grief, it’s this:

Let your loved ones hold you close, but don’t let anyone take away your truth. If you get advice that doesn’t mesh with your inner voice, separate yourself. Your inner voice knows what you need…better than any outsider.

 

And if I have one piece of advice for those who love someone experiencing grief, it’s this:

Listen. Love. Be present.

Think very hard before giving advice, and think yet again before giving it at all.

I wish I’d known that grief would make me feel as if I’m going insane.

I wish I’d known that, despite the insanity, I still have to trust myself.

After all, I no longer have a dad. This is part of growing up.

Miss you, Dad. Miss you so much.

How to write a sympathy card

For those of you who don’t keep up with my Facebook and Twitter feed, this news may come as a shock. My father died very suddenly two weeks ago. In the huge rush of both ritualized and personal mourning, my family has read hundreds of sympathy cards. Some are great at providing comfort. Others make us cringe, even though we appreciate the sympathy. After all, intention matters most…right?

That said, some sympathy cards have provided an exceptional amount of support and comfort. Since writing these cards is such a difficult task for many, I thought we could have a discussion about helpful practices. Please feel free to add your own items to the list or provide feedback if some of these items haven’t worked for you.

By the way, these are Midwestern US observations. They may or may not be applicable for other regions, cultures, and countries. If you have different customs where you live, please add that to the discussion.

  1. When you send a sympathy card, include your full name. Especially if your name is common (Jennifer, Sara, etc.), it’s easy for your name to get lost in the shuffle. If you include a memorial or other gift, this applies all the more.
  2. In the card, explain how you knew the deceased. Again, if your name is Jennifer or Sara or John (and if you don’t sign your last name), it’s hard to keep everyone straight. Just a simple, “I worked with So-and-so at this company at this time,” or “So-and-so stopped by my store each morning on his way to work,” helps the family to identify you. The prayer service and funeral are a blur, as are visits from family and friends. I was lucky to remember my own name, let alone names of almost one thousand mourners. Even if you are sure the family will know who you are, explain anyway. It will give a piece of memory for the family to cherish.
  3. If you include a memorial or gift, write your mailing address. An easy way is to affix your return address sticker or business card to the inside of the sympathy card. Unless you write “no thank you necessary,” and perhaps even if you do, the family will want to send a thank you note. Including your address helps them at a time when everything has become more difficult.
  4. If you’re not sure what memorial or gift to send, consider enclosing a book of stamps. Obviously, if everyone does this the family will drown in stamps.😀 But out of hundreds of cards, my family received stamps from only two people. It was a smart, thoughtful, and helpful idea. When we had to buy stamps for mailing thank you notes, it helped to have a few books of stamps right away.
  5. If you give a gift or memorial, write it in your card. This is not bragging! It helps the family in several ways. First, it’s a tangible expression of your respect for the deceased. Second, it helps the family with record-keeping. Third, it’s a reminder for the family when writing thank you notes. Even if it’s just a cheap dollar-store card, please do consider mailing or giving a card if you do give a gift or memorial. My family received far more memorials than cards, and we have been afraid of missing someone for thank you notes.
  6. Please don’t use a sympathy card as a place to give advice. Certain phrases I found least helpful include:
    1. “He will not be forgotten.” (I never considered he might be forgotten. Please don’t put the idea into my head. Now I’m worried he will be forgotten.
      BETTER: “He will always be remembered.”)
    2. “I know exactly what you’re going through.” (I understand the good intentions behind this sentiment, and I appreciate your effort to establish a connection. But unless you are me and had my dad, you don’t know what I’m going through. BETTER: “I’m sorry for your loss. Grief is different for everyone, but I hope you’ll let us support you.”)
    3. “Everything will be fine.” (Maybe. Right now, it feels like maybe not. Again, I appreciate the sentiment. But I just lost one of the most important people in my life, and I will never get him back. Ever. It’s okay to offer hope and reassurance, but try for something more original–and genuine–than tried-and-false cliches.
      BETTER: “Even if things seem overwhelming and difficult now, please know you are loved by many.”)
    4. “It was God’s will/God needed a new angel/This was God’s plan.” (Even if this is your sincere belief and you are sure this is how the grieving family feels, use this statement with the same level of caution as “Doesn’t that outfit make you look fat?” or “So why did you choose to have an abortion?” The family may or may not feel comforted by this statement. Even if they are normally, they may not be in a place to hear it right after a death.
      BETTER: (Assuming the family shares your religious faith) “May you find comfort knowing we are holding you up in prayer, sending you love and strength and light. When things seem unfair, we need each other the most.”)
  7. Please do use the sympathy card to share stories, memories, and favorite qualities about the deceased. You don’t have to make the person sound like a saint. In fact, portraying a larger-than-life person can be confusing and seem unreal. I treasure most the hilarious stories and anecdotes about Dad’s quirks, foibles, and funny situations. I never would have thought of this before reading cards for Dad, but condolence card stories can be humorous. Yes, really! We laughed out loud at a few stories in the cards, and it was a lovely, healing laughter. It hurt to think of Dad no longer here to produce funny memories, but it was such a blessing to laugh at a card after getting teary at the others.
  8. Even if you can only manage signing your name to the card, do it. You’re grieving, too. A card with signature only will keep longer than your constant but unwritten thoughts. It’s nice if you can write a bit more, but don’t feel obliged. Some of the greeting cards now are written so eloquently that your choice alone will convey your sympathies. Don’t worry about what to write–just do it. If you make a mistake, so what? I just lost my father. Do you think I’ll throw a tantrum because you phrased a sentence differently than I would?

What about you? What practices have you found helpful in writing and receiving sympathy cards?

 

Read for Ron

Read a book for Ron

Today is my father’s birthday. As many of you know, he has fought a long, painful, and difficult battle with a last-resort bone marrow transplant after the third occurrence of cancer in twenty years.

Many, many beloved friends and even complete strangers have sent love, strength, well-wishing, and requests for anything you can do.

After a day and a half of almost nonstop crying and a host of wonderful friends alternately listening to me cry and distracting me with topics ranging from silly to thoughtful, I’ve come up with a way to celebrate my father’s birthday that includes everyone. Young and old.

My dad was first an elementary school teacher and then an elementary school principal. He loved children, loved books, and loved children reading books. He was so proud of me because I loved to read. He was passionate about education for all children and wanted every child, rich and poor, to have access to learning–which most often meant books.

Today, on my dad’s birthday, could you do something for me? Could you read a book for Ron? In keeping with my dad’s love for children, please read a children’s book, whether that includes grown-ups or children. Any language!

If you have a child or a child nearby, please read a book together.

If you don’t have children or access to them, read a children’s book. To yourself, to a neighbor, to a friend, to a patient at a nearby hospital, or to someone you meet who could use a smile.

If you have the means and desire, give a children’s book. Doesn’t have to be to a child; we’re all children at heart. Give a children’s book (or books) to a homeless shelter, domestic violence shelter, library, church, or a kid who’s screaming in the aisle at Target. Even to yourself. I might buy myself a children’s book today.:)

I want to encourage caution when posting children’s photos online, so I ask you to please do this:

Please take a photo of the book(s) that you read/give and upload the photo as a comment here. Give whatever location information you feel comfortable sharing (at least your country, please.) If you’d like to post a photo of yourself reading the book and/or the ones who are being read to, go ahead.:)

If you read a book not in English, please tell us what language your book is written in. (And translate the title into English, if you can.)

Then tell a friend.

My dad would be so happy to know that children all over the world (big and small) are reading a book in his name.

Read a children’s book for Ron.

And receive thanks for keeping my father’s love alive for one more day.

I’m en route to see my dad one last time and say goodbye.

 

Blessings and gratitude,

Ana Vitsky

 

My father’s birthday

It’s my father’s birthday tomorrow.

He lies in the hospital ICU room. Sedated and intubated, with no consciousness. He hasn’t been conscious for two days.

I planned to practice until my playing was good enough. I wanted to play How Great Thou Art or This is My Father’s World but my playing sucked. It was terrible. I couldn’t hold my bow properly, get a good resonant tone, or keep my hand and fingers in proper position.

I couldn’t deal with being this far away and unable to do anything.

I show love by action. Words don’t mean much; actions do. I write for a living, after all.

When I went to college, my dad sent me a card. On the outside, it said Everything I need to know I learned in kindergarten.

On the inside, it said, Boys are stupid.

Dad signed it with his name. Most likely, he put a little smiley face inside the capital D. That was his way.

Today when I was cleaning up (company came over at the last minute, a friend from church who dropped everything when I asked if she could come and pray with me), I found a note he’d sent me last Christmas.

Dad with a smiley face inside the first D.

(I’ve done so well not crying the second half of today, and writing this post has wrecked that.)

I want to tell stories about my dad. I want to remember. I want to hear his voice again. I want to hold his hand. I want to blink back tears as he tells the ICU nurses, “This is my daughter.”

My daughter.

Tomorrow is my dad’s birthday.

Just when I was at a breaking point and couldn’t handle one more thing, a friend came over to share an impromptu meal (mac & cheese, croissants, and lemon pound cake–I haven’t gone grocery shopping in ages), hold my hand, and let me talk for ages about my dad and everything else going on right now.

And another friend stayed on the phone with me almost all day, letting me cry and talk. Reminisce.

Tomorrow is my dad’s birthday.

Thank you to everyone in my life who has given, is giving, and will continue to give love, support, and strength. May it be returned to you a hundredfold.

I love you, Dad. I’m sorry things couldn’t have been easier in our family. I’m sorry you had to work so hard to provide for your family. I’m sorry, so sorry.

I asked my mom if she could put me on speaker phone tomorrow morning when they check Dad’s vital signs so I could talk to him. I meant to play him a crappy rendition of what I used to play just fine on my violin.

My mom said she didn’t think he would be conscious.

Dad, on your birthday, I want you to know this.

You’re always my dad.

And you are loved.