By Sara Pippus
Once in a while, writing is very hard.
I know how it feels in my head but getting it out in a way that means something to someone else becomes considerably more difficult the more personal it is. I will admit openly that I am stunted when it comes to being vulnerable and bearing my heart to anyone who is not close and trusted. I have been putting off sharing these ideas and my jumbled bits of learning. But the more I searched for answers over the past year, the more I came up short. We are put off by certain taboo subjects. And here I am, avoiding mentioning IT, as I write. In these few short sentences I already want to stop and just pick up a new subject. Already, I hear the judgemental response to how I want to talk about this. You know how we shut others down and say things like… “Maybe she should just keep that in her head” or the classic “maybe she should get some help”. So don’t think less of me if I sound like I am already trying to change the subject or I throw in a joke to hide how I really feel.
I’m actually quite afraid. I’ve changed my mind over and over and hit the delete button and hovered over the ‘empty the trash’ icon more than once while writing this out. And maybe that’s it – we don’t like to think about the hard stuff while we are busy living and doing: enjoying life to the fullest, following our hearts, or living our best lives. Well here goes… and like I said if you feel judge-y maybe just click away to another inter-web spot altogether. The longer I wait to start the harder it gets…
My dad died.
Ok I said it. Died.
I was not – I repeat NOT ready – I’m still not ready most days.
But this little bit of writing is not about pity or sympathy so please don’t do that. I’ve written about dad before – about where I know he is spending his eternity – I’m not worried about that bit. I am not sad about heaven – I’m just devastated that he has gone on ahead, without me. I’m lonely for my dad everyday – that’s right, every day. And I didn’t expect to be.
I want to talk about the last two years. Again, not to be selfish to say HEY LOOK OVER HERE AT ME, I’M HURTING — but to help in some way and give a glimpse into what death and loss has helped me see. To start, I should say that this in no way needs to be how anyone else sees loss. It is purely from my own experience. So don’t use this as a Band-Aid to cover over your view of it – everyone goes through death in their own way.
Let’s start at the day you say goodbye.
You are not going to be ready. We like to be prepared for things. We are used to making plans. We want to be consulted when there is a big decision to be made. Life ending is one of the biggest moments that there is no set time for. You are not going to know the hour or minute. But even more, you are not going to be prepared for how it feels. There will be shock. If you love people at all, shock will be there. Shock that we didn’t have some say in the leaving. Shock that they hung on, or that they didn’t. Some of us feel more qualified than others to handle death when it comes along, but let me assure you, you cannot be prepared. Death is the last act of spontaneity.
Now before you go getting afraid of the spontaneous measure death is full of – to me it has become a gift. The gift is learning to love well: a shocking new perspective that you can’t plan or prep for. You really don’t know; therefore, let loss, especially the big losses, be the way you learn to love people. Let it speak loudly into how you use your time and what you spend your life on. Grief has an incredible way of sorting what is important from what can wait.
Because we really do not know what to say about death, we say what has been said.
“It’s for the best, his turn to go, it was his time to go Home, he suffered so long, it’s what it is (oh how I hate that one), move on, get on with your life, put it behind you, you knew he wasn’t well right?, you’ll get over it –just give it time.”
All the pleasantries tell you death is hard to talk about. We want to make it ok by saying something caring and wise. While so many of the phrases may have truth in them, they really do only make it harder. I know that’s not what we’ve been taught about giving comfort but I told you this might not be what you want to hear. And please resist the urge, if you have not experienced the loss of someone you love dearly, to tell someone grieving, that you know what they are going through – you don’t. How do I know? ‘Cause I have said those very words before dad died and I really had no idea at all. I thought I did, but I didn’t.
Now, let’s take a breath here while I reassure you that there is no right way for you to support a grieving person. It will be a fumbling process. I will not do it right even though I feel closer to knowing how loss really feels now. But I can tell you the moments I remember most now that the fog has lifted. I connected best with those who knew how to be with me without trying to explain it all, soften it, or push me to stand again before I could.
There is no timeline. Throughout history, there have been all sorts of norms and customs around grief and mourning. How long to mourn and what someone should wear were paid particular attention. There is, however, no timeline. When I say that, it feels more clinical than it should. In the weeks and months after dad died, I really wanted to ask, “When will the ache and missing dad go away?” Hurting makes us ask, “When will it be over?” I spent part of my summer after dad died with a dear friend who gifted me with the answer. She said – “Never”. She was able to say that to me because she was ahead of me on the journey. Her dad had died years before mine. She gave me a beautiful gift: gently encouraging me that it is best to do away with the notion of avoiding grief. Knowing that gave me a great deal of relief. There are no rules except the ones you put on yourself. So be kind and allow yourself to grieve. Grief is the love you have for the one you have lost. So don’t skip over it like it is nothing.
You will enjoy life again. One of the most horrible shifts in my life came when my dad died. I spent 547 days in what I call deep grief. I can tell you the exact day when the fog cleared and I felt lighter about losing dad. Nothing spectacular happened that day, there was no earth shattering experience, except I laughed. For the first time in over a year and a half, I laughed out loud. It didn’t feel forced or contrived. I felt joy again in that moment. I knew in my head that everything was going to be alright, even in the days after dad died but I couldn’t get my heart on board. I wanted very badly to get back to normal and feel good again and enjoy life. I did all the things I normally did; going through the motions and yet it all felt the same. Kind of bland and lifeless. I felt like I was under water. But that laughter was an upward shift. It’s a tough one to explain. But I can say with certainty that you will enjoy life again. You may have to really fight for it some days. Most days now, when I think about dad, I smile and enjoy going over a good memory or have a chuckle at something he would say or do. And then other days, the sadness of missing him creeps up on me. I am slowly learning to really feel that and not brush it away: to go through it and not around it. Again there is no timeline, right?
Time will become important to you. You now understand how quickly life can disappear. You may spend time thinking about lost chances and times you could have had with them: dreaming about one more road trip, adventure, or even simply a dinner with them. Use this new understanding to agree to do things with people because you may never get another chance. You realize how important adventure and time spent with people are. Death helps you understand that these moments are what bring life. Don’t be surprised if your priorities change or you suddenly know what you want where you didn’t before.
Nothing lasts forever. Ah, this one was the most bittersweet for me. No holiday or shared tradition, family event, or memory will ever be the same again. Every moment going forward after loss is marked for a while by what dad would have done or said or liked. Before loss, we are blind. Life lulls us into a sense of security and makes us think that things will always be what they are. Death perks you up in a way that nothing else can. It has taught me to enjoy people and moments thoroughly. To get my head up, to see and to savour life. Don’t expect that everything will always be the way it is now. Nothing stays the same. Therefore, you better have a look around and see what you need to remember.
As cliché as it sounds, life does go on. At first this can be the hardest part, the world seems to be going about its business, while yours has just crumbled. One of the gifts that time and forming new memories gives us, is to shape your new normal. Mourning and loss can shape you into someone who becomes a guide to another who is coming along the same path. And like this article which has no real end, neither does this process. I can’t really say how it will end because I know now not to get hung up on my best made plans.