September 24, 2018, was the seven year anniversary of my dad’s death. The only people who remember to check on me without prompting on this day are my stepmom and sister. We check on each other, because we can’t forget.
I have always loved fall, but now I dread it because of this anniversary. As summer wanes, my body betrays me. I have trouble sleeping. My anxiety spikes. I feel like the cracked plate I keep in my cabinet; every day the crack travels farther, threatening to eventually cleave the plate in half. But really, I’m not like that plate at all. In my dad’s absence, I’m the one who keeps it all together. I can’t crack. I glue my own cracks back together.
I hesitate to tell people how hard this time of year is for me, partly because I resent them for their luxury of forgetting. To most people, even those who cared deeply for my dad or care deeply for me, his death was an event. It happened, and time went on. But losing my dad — my sole parent — at 20 years old altered my entire life. The loss still affects me every day. It’s more a condition than an event.
I’m 27 now. Many of my peers are only just experiencing their first major losses, mostly of grandparents and elderly relatives. Most of them won’t know the profound grief of losing a parent for years, even decades to come, and even then, they still won’t know the utter devastation of a loss that comes decades too soon. They worry about their parents getting old; I envy them the chance to see that happen.
The other thing that stops me from talking about my grief is the pity. The awkward silences and sad, uncomfortable sounds that people make when I bring up my dad. The people who can’t let me talk about him without melodrama. I know how awkward it is to try and support someone who has experienced a loss. I know there’s nothing good to say. I don’t want anyone to say anything. I only want them to remember, and to listen.
Tired as I am of the awkward silences — especially when they come on first dates and other first meetings — I’ll take an awkward silence any day over another common reaction: patronizing, unsolicited advice from people who assume that having lost a parent at a young age means I need someone, anyone, to be a parental stand-in. This was most common in the first few years after my dad died, when I was still in college, but it still happens sometimes. If it weren’t so insulting, it would be funny: I started dealing with “adult” responsibilities at age 20 that most people don’t encounter until middle age, but sure, give me some advice.
Do I sound angry? That’s another thing that bothers people: anger. I’m supposed to have transmuted my grief into something beautiful, soft, fluffy, inspiring.
Though my grief, and anniversaries like this one, make me feel isolated, I know that I am not actually alone. I am lucky to know (unlucky) others who lost parents, or others very close to them, at a young age. Just knowing that they understand what it’s like buoys me. I also know that others have suffered far more, and that my life has in many ways been very privileged.
I have started and given up on this essay at least five times. I have hardly been able to write about my dad’s death, because everything I write about it manages to feel overwrought and insufficient all at the same time. I have too much to say. I wanted to finish something in time to publish it on the anniversary of my dad’s death, but I couldn’t. Today, World Mental Health Day, was apparently the push I needed.
There is significant debate as to when, or if, grief constitutes a mental illness. According to some experts, prolonged feelings of grief do qualify as a disease. According to others, grief is something that doesn’t go away; we don’t “get over it,” it becomes a part of our lives. I am personally more inclined to agree with the latter; as acutely painful as my grief feels in times like this, I do live with it. In fact, especially in the first few years after my dad’s death, some people seemed almost disappointed that I was still in school, still living my life. I can’t win: either I show too much grief and make people uncomfortable, or they don’t think I’m showing enough.
As much as I resent the pathologization of grief, there is no question that the experience of losing my dad has had a huge impact on my mental health, then and now. Grief makes us uncomfortable in part because it reminds us of our own mortality, and our fears of losing those we care about most.
On this World Mental Health Day, I suppose I’m asking you to make a little more space for grief. Instead of seeing your own fear and discomfort, see the grieving person. Let them be, just be.