On grief: My dad died, and I’m not OK.
When I woke up this morning, I realized that I ate an entire half gallon of ice cream last night.
I’m not too broken up about it.
Right now, I’m mostly focused on maintaining whatever semblance of normality I can in life. Sometimes, that means not having an emotional breakdown and, instead, just quietly eating ice cream alone in my bed.
My dad died suddenly in March. He had a stroke and struggled for several days. There were lots of stops and starts, hopeful signs mixed with demoralizing observations by doctors.
Then, he stopped getting better altogether. He began to get worse. Following his clearly outlined wishes, my family and I eventually had to make the agonizing decision to move him to hospice.
He only lasted a few days. Then, he died.
Losing a parent is hard. Losing a parent who was truly good is devastating. My Dad was truly good.
I’ve been clean and sober years. Before that I was mired in active addiction which resulted in homelessness. I’ve seen violence, I’ve witnessed death, and I’ve seen violent death. For the years that I’ve been clean, I’ve been haunted by memories of the many people I once knew who are now dead.
What happened with my dad sticks out, though. So far, it’s been one of the most traumatic events of my life. Nearly every night before I go to sleep, I hear him struggling to breathe as he did in his last days.
It’s called Cheyne-Stokes breathing. It’s a pattern where a person breathes in rapid succession and then pauses for a long period of time. As the pauses get progressively longer, the person is getting closer to death. The nurses told us to prepare for it.
I remember silently counting between the pauses. Over the course of two days, I noticed the pause increase by about ten seconds. Knowing what my Dad wanted, and how clear he was about what he thought was acceptable versus not, I prayed for the end to come as quickly as possible.
He died on March 22, 2018.
Since then, I’ve been eating a lot of ice cream.
How do you tell people you’re not OK with reality but that you’re still going about your life? How do you explain that you go from perfectly normal one day to nearly breaking down, either in grief or anger, at the slightest provocation or inconvenience?
How do you communicate that everything is fine, and you’re not in danger or anything, but that you’re still not OK whatsoever?
How do you honestly communicate how you’re doing without drawing alarm or, in some cases, abject mortification from those who ask you the most banal question, “How are you doing?”
After all, we typically ask this question when we’re not really interested in the answer.
The random triggers are the worst.
Mere words or smells or sounds or songs will recall memories which then bring on waves of intense grief crashing against me. Just like when I would visit the beach as a boy, no matter how much I try to plant my feet securely into the sand, I’m thrown asunder or, in the best cases, simply knocked a bit before I pathetically stagger back to my original position.
How do you deal with this?
To be sure, I’m not talking about the support groups, the therapists, the books, the seminars, the hotlines, or even the essays like the one I’m writing here.
And, I’m certainly not talking about the butterfly release ceremony the hospice center keeps inviting me to, either.
Truly, I am glad that these things provide comfort to others. It is good that our society has moved away from the callous approach of the past in terms of tragedy and grief. That steely reserve served little else beyond an absurdist perversion of human character. We are emotional creatures with an incredible capacity for love – and a deep gnawing to know that we are lovable.
It is not natural for us to act like things, big and small, do not affect us emotionally.
But what about the fundamental question: Why does this hurt so much and when will it get better?
I am a religious person, and I have not lost my faith throughout this great ordeal. Rather, if anything, I have grown closer to God. The fact is, though, that while God can move mountains, you better bring a shovel.
And something tells me that my part in this entire situation involves time, the minutes, the hours, the days. Time, the most misunderstood and callously consistent thing we humans ever experience, is the only thing that will, eventually, provide comfort.
Unfortunately, time does not care how you feel or whether or not you want it to move more quickly or slowly. It simply exists. As it moves forward in its banality, it provides both comfort and alarm. Things change, for better or worse.
It consumes all things.
I once read that almost all things on Earth grind to dust in about two million years. The Earth is over four billion years old. Many things have been ground to dust.
My own experience over the past several months bears this out. The people I’ve talked to who have experienced this kind of loss have confirmed this, too.
To get through, I’ve depended upon their experience. Firsthand experience is the most valuable thing we humans ever possess. I am intensely grateful to those who have been generous and shared their own with me.
I am also grateful for the people who quite honestly told me they had no idea what I was going through but were thinking of me nonetheless. That honest awareness comforted me in its own strange way. It was a recognition of my pain, and sometimes that is all you want.
So, with the passing of time, my heart isn’t as broken, seemingly, as it was in March. Yet, I am still not OK.
The most confounding part is that I’m going to work, paying my bills, going to church, tweeting, reading news, and otherwise acting normal the entire time. My father’s death hasn’t resulted in any spectacular public meltdowns or emotional explosions.
Rather, it’s just this tepid, trickle of sadness mixed with anger and, sometimes, ice cream.
Since we live in a society that clings to binaries, it feels alienating being multiple things at once: sad, happy, distressed, hopeful, giving up, trying, angry, accepting.
Over time, it will get better.
Of course, I also have a part in this that I’ve neglected a bit, too. It’s up to me to change things, to act my way into trying to feeling better.
The insidious part about coping is that a lot of the things we think give us comfort – in my case, ice cream or isolation – actually make us feel worse. But they’re our reflexive responses to emotional trauma cultivated over years.
The fact is, though, that I cannot control my emotions regardless of how much cardio I do or how little or how much ice cream I eat.
From what people have told me, grief never goes away. But, I will at least learn how to live with it.
So, I wait. I wait as the seconds turn into minutes and then turn into hours and then into days.
All I can do is let time continue on. Sometimes, that’s the best I can do.
And that’s OK, too.
Make no mistake: this is not some simpering plea to cherish what you have before you lose it. I am not engaging in a saccharine ploy to guilt you into appreciating your own dad on Father’s Day, either.
I am trying to communicate that grief is unlike anything else. And that it’s OK if you are going through something similar and you don’t feel OK, either.
The fact is, though, that we have no control over time.
And so while things will indeed get better, the fact is that it’s not ever going to be on our preferred schedule.
So, it’s about holding on and trying and going through to get through.
And, that’s OK.