No one wants to grieve. It feels messy, painful and outright overwhelming. So overwhelming in fact, that we’d rather pretend grief doesn’t exist.
Grief is the colonoscopy of emotional well-being. You don’t want it. It is terribly uncomfortalbe, but if you never experience it, you could miss vital information about your health.
Not feeling that analogy? Ok try this one out. Grief is the check engine light for our psyche and spirit. Ignore it long enough and the problem compounds with ever-worsening effects.
Grief sucks, but it is of vital importance.
I bring it up this week because April 10th is my dad’s birthday. Its been nearly 8 months since we lost him. 8 months since the phone call I’ll never forget.
I’m in my living room having just gotten home from an overnight shift at the hospital. As I sit in my arm chair, I feel the familiar vibration of my phone. I slowly fish it out of my pocket so I can see who is calling before deciding if I want to answer it or not. (Don’t judge me. You do it too.)
I’m surprised because my mom is calling. We don’t talk on the phone every week, so when she calls, I make it a point to answer. Within five seconds of hearing my mom’s voice, I sense something is wrong. She sounds tentative, unsure, almost unwilling to speak the words that must be said.
“Son, are you sitting down?“
I know what this phone call is…someone died, but who? The thought lingers for a split second before I intuitively know she’s calling about my dad.
She manages to say the words though she still can’t believe them herself. She sighs deeply and chokes back tears as the conversation continues. We speak for a few more moments before she ends the conversation to make more phone calls. We hang up and time stands still as if its awaiting my response to this life-altering news.
The news that my dad, the man who chose to love me when others couldn’t or wouldn’t, is dead. He’d collapsed while finishing a landscaping job, presumably from a heart attack. All at once a million thoughts flash through me.
“Had he felt pain? If so, for how long? Was he afraid to die? Did he feel alone?”
I imagine these are things the things people who’ve never died wonder but can never know. A blanket of shock and sadness slowly settled on me, but I knew I didn’t yet feel the full weight of my loss. I wondered how I would respond once everything finally hit me?
Eight months later, I still wonder. For much of the last week I watched April 10th approach with curiosity and trepedation. I sensed the sadness grow within me day after day like the rising waters of a flood plain. What will happen when the river crests? Will I lash out at the people around me, make destructive decisions or find myself completely immobilized?
I honestly didn’t know how I would respond. Having watched the 10th, come and go, I can now report that I made it through the day, and most of the week, without lashing out or being self-destructive. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel different.
My world is different. I’m in the strange position of being fatherless. Losing my dad was like losing a guiding presence in my life because I believe our parents, at their best, serve as guides for us. There was a sense that even if my dad and I disagreed, and we always disagreed, I knew he was covering me with prayer and love. I somehow felt protected and safe.
Spiritually speaking, he still reaches out to me from time to time to give me advice or to let me know that he is okay. Those assurances ease the grieving process, and remind me that though we aren’t connected in the physical world, our spiritual connection remains.
I’m grateful for our spiritual connection, but I miss his big ‘ol bear hugs and his grizzly laugh. I even miss his grossly innappropriate sense of humor which included utilizing the term “pube” as an official metric unit of measurement and creating a NSFW version of The Night Before Christmas involving a drunk Santa and rodent diaharrea (my dad was a trip).
As I remember all of this, I feel the gulf that is now between us and grieve. Not necessarily for what I’ve lost, but for what will never again be. I feel blessed that several weeks before he died, my dad and I got to have a conversation in which everything we needed to say was spoken. He knew that I loved him despite our differences and I knew he was proud of me regardless of my beliefs. We finally heard each other over the noise of our disagreement, and it was beautifully healing for us both.
Looking back at Wednesday, April 10th, I can say that the tide of grief rose within me and I faced it as best I could. I accepted that it was my reality in that moment and knew that it was not only necessary for healing, but also evidence of deep love.
The last 8 months have rocked me in ways I never imagined being rocked. Along the way I have become more willing to be uncomfortable, more accepting of my pain and more trusting of my grief. As I continue to embrace this grieving process, I’ve learned a few things that you might find helpful.
Grief is not something to be expelled from your system. Like a runny nose or a mild fever, it is actually a sign that your system is doing what it is supposed to. Accept it, and allow it to run its course.
Learn what you need to be healthy while you grieve, and adjust your rhythms accordingly. When we’re physically sick, we know we need rest because our body is exerting energy to fight an illness. Active grieving also exerts a great deal of emotional and physical energy, so adjust your life rhythms accordingly. This may mean you need extra space to cry, rest, pray or write. As much as you’re able, make that space. Put it on the calendar, so you know it is there. Take care of yourself. You deserve it.
Own your grieving process. There is no single right or wrong way to hold and process grief. Your body will give you clues as to what it needs, so pay attention. There is no set amount of tears that should be shed to legitimize your pain. Your grief is as unique as your fingerprint. Accept it as such, and appreciate it for what it is.
I still feel the dull ache that reminds me I can’t pick up the phone to call my dad. I miss him. Each holiday that rolls through will bring with it the reminder that he is gone; there is a different degree of separation between us now. I can neither escape this reality nor change it, but I can embrace it and allow my grief to cleanse me, heal me and teach me about myself. I pray you’re able and willing to do the same.