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.
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.
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.