After Dad Died
My dad died when I was 29. It hasn’t quite been 2 years yet. It was a sudden death — a problem with his heart that hadn’t been detected, couldn’t have been detected, until he collapsed on the pavement. Some people nearby tried to resuscitate him, but it didn’t work. No lead up, no goodbyes; a beautiful day, out to get the paper, gone.
In the time after my dad died I thought I was losing my mind a lot of the time. I felt closer to madness than I ever have. I was dealing with pre-existing depression and anxiety, and with grief that big on top there were times when I didn’t think I could cope. I didn’t cope. I was a fucking mess for a long time and sometimes I still am now.
The only thing that helped me back was talking to people who had been through similar things. In talking to people I realised that what I was experiencing wasn’t weird or insane or wrong, it was normal. The worst kind of normal, but it was what it was — terribly normal.
I am not the first or the last person who will grieve someone they love. I am going to share a little of what I went through in the hope that the shitty thing we will all go through at some point becomes a little less mysterious and isolating.
My grief is not your grief is nobody else’s grief
People who say ‘I know how you feel’ are liars. Nobody knows how you feel. I thought my brother, sister and I would all know exactly how each other felt, but we didn’t. We all had different relationships with Dad, we have different life situations, we have different ways of dealing with things, we are different people. How I have dealt with things is the only way I could find to get through them at the time. Not right or wrong or anything.
I did get really hung up for quite a while on ‘grieving properly’. I thought if I went through this in the right way then I would best remember Dad, best honour him, and come out the least messed up on the other side. I’m over that. There is no best and there is no other side. I have got through every day in my own way and that’s good enough.
Crying is exhausting
Grief is exhausting! I never knew this until, over a year after he died, I saw my doctor and said that I was so tired and she said ‘of course you are, it’s still so early’. Grief is this little thing ticking away in the background all the time. Your mind and body are processing. That takes up energy and leaves you exhausted.
And that’s just the background processing. Then you’ve got the times when it’s front and centre and you feel floored. And then crying. At the time I wrote about all the ways I cried:
“I’ve sobbed and whimpered and let the tears stream down my face. I’ve cried without tears, I’ve cried without sound, I’ve cried without being awake. I’ve cried ’til I screamed and cried ’til I can’t breathe. I’ve cried on beaches, up hills, in parks. I’ve cried ’til I thought my eyes were going to pop out, like, really. I’ve cried on family and friends and colleagues. I’ve cried alone. I’ve cried when I’ve cooked dinner, I’ve cried when I watched an advert, I’ve cried when I saw a rainbow. I’ve cried so hard I burst the blood vessels around my eyes. I learned pretty quickly to stop wearing make up.”
Crying is cathartic and necessary and it hurts. Not crying is equally tiring and differently painful. Sleep and rest have been so important through all of this.
I screamed at the sea
Part of the anxiety I had before Dad died involved panic attacks. They got worse after he died. I described one once like this: “I tense up and scream and I can’t breathe. I have a shit load of adrenalin running through my body. It feels like I’ve been put in a full body restraint and it’s being tightened crank by crank.” It is not a fun time. It took me a little while to realise how many physical reactions I was having to grief. I got a twitch in my eye, I threw up, I was so tired all the time.
Not long after he died I went to the sea with Matt and I had a panic attack. I screamed at the sea and the sea did not give a fuck. Eventually it was the waves that calmed me down and brought me back. I’ve spent a lot of time in nature since Dad died. He loved it and so it’s felt a little like a tribute, but its beauty, its longevity, its realness were the things that helped me. That, and that it does not give a fuck when I scream and shout and lose it.
Talking is really good
Like I said up top, talking to people is what helped me through this. Some of that has been with friends and family, and some has been with professionals. I was already seeing a therapist and I’m so glad I was. She helped me through the early days, the funeral, and finding ways to cope. I was also in regular contact with my doctor. She reminded me that GPs aren’t just there to hand out medicine, they are there to look after your health, both body and mind. And I saw a bereavement counsellor. It was a free service through Cruse Bereavement Care and they were really lovely.
Matt has been, is, amazing. We had only been together 9 months when it happened and he was there with me through everything. I stayed with my mum for the week after and he was there with me, making tea for an array of people that he hadn’t met all that much, listening to people talking about a man he wished he’d know better. For a while I was getting all my emotional support from him and that wasn’t good for us. I had shut friends out for a while and created a safe area where I could be vulnerable and break down. But I needed support from them, so I asked for it and they gave it.
Most of my friends hadn’t been through this and so sometimes would say things that’d sting, but it’s easy to forgive that kind of thing. There were other people I spent time with who said things that were more than just insensitive, and I found it was best to avoid them.
I took a month off work and when I went back I struggled, but I had a great friend there who would go out for a walk with me every lunchtime and talk through stuff or come and give me a hug if she thought I was having a bad day.
I know a handful of people around my age who’ve had a parent die and talking to them helped so much. It is a bullshit club to be a part of, but I am grateful for all that they shared.
Be super kind to yourself
I thought that breaking up with my boyfriend of 8 years would be the hardest thing I’d have to go through. Hooo boy. I wish. But during that a friend said something that stuck with me. She told me to be kind to myself and to do whatever I needed in that moment, whether it was having a bath or booking a flight half way around the world. When this has all felt too big, that has been the best advice.
It is okay to be happy
I struggled with happiness for such a long time. If I wasn’t crying, did that mean I wasn’t thinking about Dad? Was laughing and being happy disrespectful? If the pain went away, did he go away too?
I got engaged this year and I found it really hard. I was so happy! But Dad. A wedding! But Dad. Matt was incredibly understanding through all of it, but we both found it hard when I would burst into tears or fall into a quiet bit of depression when talking about venues or whatever. Why couldn’t I just be happy? That was it though, I could be happy, but happiness felt so conflicted. I chatted to my mum about it and she told me all the things I already knew — that he would be so happy for me, that he would want me to be happy — and it sort of gave me permission to start feeling that.
I still struggle with happiness. I am trying to find happiness in the stories I tell about him, or in the times that I notice something he would love. He is still with me and it isn’t always painful.
I miss my dad so much
At the heart of this is one thing, and it’s the thing I always come back to. I miss my dad so much. I want to talk to him, but I can’t. I want him to be around, but he isn’t. I want to have told him that I loved him more and hugged him more and spent more time with him, but I didn’t. He is gone and even though it’s coming up on 2 years it is still painful. I don’t know if it’s got easier, but it has got different. Less intense, maybe?
What I am trying to do these days is let myself enjoy a happy memory of him, talk about him without fear of getting sad, allow myself the space to get upset and reflect. I have so many good things to remember and sometimes that makes it easier, sometimes it makes it harder.
Grief is hard and if you’re going through it, I’m sorry. There is no fix or formula to get through it. I don’t even think there is a ‘through’. It is with me and my dad is with me and I hope that it won’t always be painful.
I’ve kept a blog since a couple of days after my dad died to help me work through some of these things. It’s here: https://www.tumblr.com/blog/getastrategy