What My Dad’s Sudden Death Taught Me About Grief

I had just walked into my apartment on a high after winning an intramural soccer game. Even better, my boyfriend was baking, something that never happened. I turned on some 1960s music and picked up my cat who was looking particularly cute and fluffy. We had moved to Seattle a few months prior and everything felt weirdly perfect and settled. My phone illuminated with a text from my mom. “You up?” Considering it was only 8:30 at night, it was a weird question. Why wouldn’t I be? I immediately picked up the phone and called her. It only took half a ring for her to pick up.

“Hi mom,” I said casually. “Candace?” She asked quietly, “I need to tell you something.” Her voice cracked. Within the two seconds leading up to her next sentence, I had thought of three possible scenarios: Someone had cancer, a family member was in the hospital, or my mom lost her job. Unfortunately, I was 0 for 3. “Dad died.” I felt nothing. I laughed and blurted, “That’s not a funny joke. What really happened?” My knees began to buckle. “It’s not a joke. Dad’s gone.”

I fell to the floor. For a moment it felt like time had stopped. My mind was outside my body. Then the screaming started, an animalistic noise I never even knew I could make. It felt like everything was collapsing around me. It didn’t make sense. How could this happen? My parents we just sending me selfies with their White Russians relaxing during a weekend trip to Florida. He was planning a knee replacement. I even had a trip booked to surprise him for his birthday the next week. This wasn’t happening. There was no way. He had just lost 30 pounds and was healthier than ever. Sadly, pulmonary embolisms don’t care about your plans.

The only way to describe how I felt was lost and confused. My first true journey with grief was only just beginning. I had no idea what would happen and how I would even make it through. The one thing I have learned through this process is that you will never truly know the pain of losing a parent until it happens. I had lost grandparents and even friends to suicide but this was a whole new level of pain. Over the past few months, I’ve learned a thing or two about grief and it’s important to know what to expect, and more importantly, how to treat those around you going through a devastating loss.

People will say really stupid things, because they don’t know what to say.

“Are you still going to wear your wedding ring,” a woman asked my mom. Yes, this actually happened. She was stunned for a moment. Why would she just throw away 32 years of marriage A WEEK after her husbands death? People will say dumb things, and you have to realize it’s not on purpose. Like many mental health issues, we don’t talk about grief nearly enough so people don’t know what to say other than “I’m sorry for your loss” (which if I hear one more time…).

You will feel guilty, pissed off, and devastated all at once.

One of the first things I thought when my dad died was, “Who’s going to walk me down the aisle? He’ll never get to see my grandkids. Why did this have to happen to me?” Then the guilt and “at leasts” set in. Well, at least I had a dad and a beautiful family. At least my parents had a loving marriage. At least he didn’t suffer. I felt guilty for crying over something that people would die to have. But I’ve realized, you can’t take your grief on a guilt trip. I was incredibly lucky to have the loving and protecting dad I did, but that doesn’t stop the pain. Then, I got angry not only at him, but at others. Every time I saw someone who looked like my dad I got enraged. Why did they live and not my dad? Screw you dad for leaving our family like this. I just had to realize this is normal. Your mind goes to crazy places when it’s under an insane amount of stress.

Don’t ask me how I’m doing, ask how you can help.

Every time I’ve texted or reached out to someone going through loss, I was always confused as to why they took so long to respond. Now I know. Your mind is in such an altered and hazy state, the last thing you want to do is text people the same thing over and over again. The only response I can think of when someone asks me how I’m doing is Ilana from Broad City asking, “How ‘AM’ I?” I felt horrible not being able to text everyone back but it was comforting to see some people say “You don’t need to respond.” The one thing that was so amazing, especially for my mom, was the outpouring of friends asking what they could do to help. I had no idea how much work goes into someone’s death. If you don’t know what to send, go for food. The meals were like Christmas every day and it was one less thing we had to think about.

Seek out professional help, even if it’s a frustrating process.

Finding a therapist was not easy, but I knew I needed it. Three weeks in, there was no way I was going to be able to do this on my own, and that’s OK. I realized I needed to be easy on myself. I was putting too much pressure on “being strong” like everyone told me too. After weeks of research and interviews for the right therapist and psychiatrist, the only thing I can say is that I wish I did it sooner. Because of my age and the circumstances, no one I really knew had gone through this. I was walking this path alone in the dark not knowing what was coming next. Find help and know this is not a sign of weakness but one of strength.

Grief doesn’t just affect your mind, it ravages your body.

I noticed that my body just didn’t want to work. It peaced out and left me feeling like I had been hit by a bus. Every morning I woke up physically feeling like what I imagine the little old man from “Up” felt. My back ached, my head hurt, and my legs just didn’t feel like walking. It was completely exhausting. I was starting to get worried, but because I had sought out therapy, I was reassured that this was all normal. On the plus side, I got a prescription for massage therapy.

Don’t suppress your grieving, because you will explode.

I went back to working only a week and a half after my dad died. For some weird reason, I wanted something to keep my mind on something, anything other than reality. I felt OK working and thought I had things handled with the occasional breakdown in the bathroom. Well, that was a mistake. Two months after my dad’s passing, on the way home from a weekend in Oregon, I exploded. There’s no other way to say it. It hit me like a tsunami I didn’t see coming. Suddenly, I was drowning. I couldn’t breathe. The water was so far up to my neck, for the first time I felt like there was no way out. My therapist called this the quintessential “grief bomb,” a very common thing to happen to people who suppress the grieving process. Once everything slows down, reality sets in. All I can say is, don’t do what I did. Don’t put pressure on yourself to please others. Don’t pour yourself back into work, and most importantly, don’t overbook yourself to avoid the inevitable. For once, be selfish. Take time to heal, and know this is a process.

The only way to describe the death of a parent is, “It f*cking sucks.”

Whenever someone asks me how I’m feeling or says they can’t imagine what I’m going through, the only thing I can tell them is that it sucks. There’s no other way for me to describe it. That might sound crude and overly simplified but that it, because time is the only thing that heals you, and sometimes I just want time to move a little faster.

Grief isn’t linear, nor is it predictable.

For the past few months I’ve been riding a roller coaster in the dark. Think Space Mountain, but not for kids. Some days are a smooth ride up a hill, others are a high speed plummet to the bottom. Then, you have the vertical loop days, where you don’t really know what’s happening but you just go with it. The truth is, everyone experiences grief differently and has their own set of breakdowns. There is no hard and fast date where things will magically get better. It’s a process, and it’s incredibly frustrating, but makes you appreciate the relationships in life that not many others get to have. I’ve learned to be forgiving of myself, patient with others and it’s completely changed who I am for better and for worse. All I can say is that if you’re going through this, you’re not alone. As my dad said, “shit happens,” and people like me are here for you. If you know someone going through this, be patient, read up, and don’t be afraid to talk about it. I love thinking about my dad, although bittersweet, it helps in the healing process. Don’t worry, talking about the person who died isn’t triggering. It’s the random song you hear in the grocery at 3:00 PM on a Saturday.

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