Written By K:
Grief is exceptionally personal and unique to the individual who is experiencing it. Did you know that the 5 stages of grief aren’t really meant to be applied to people who are experiencing the loss of a loved one? It was actually used to describe the stages of grief when accepting your own death. But like many things, Hollywood picked it up and ran with it. We all have an idea of what “appropriate” grief looks like. The more you love the person and the more devastating the loss is, the more flamboyant the display of grief. Losing someone as close as a parent, then, should be exceptionally painful and incapacitating.
At least that’s what I thought. I was convinced if I ever lost either of my parents, that I would be inconsolable. I dearly love both of them and I have really excellent relationships with them, despite the occasional disagreement, fight or annoyance.
I was working at a mattress store, running an inventory check by myself when I got the call from my mom. I cheerily started telling a story about my week and she kept quietly trying to interrupt me. Finally, she said, “Your dad died.” I was stunned and immediately shifted into numb disbelief and she calmly talked me through what had happened. Apparently, he was getting ready for work in the morning while she made them breakfast. He suffered a heart attack and my mom found him a few minutes later and immediately called an ambulance. My mom immediately knew when the chaplain at the hospital came to deliver the news.
After I got off the phone with my mom, I numbly called my manager to let her know what had happened. As soon as I opened my mouth to talk, I found I could only stumble out words clouded by choked, confused sobs. My body was reacting before my brain had a chance to. My manager instructed me to lock up the store and go home as soon as I was safe to drive. It only took me a few minutes to compose myself, mostly through sheer force of will, because the last place I wanted to be in that moment was at work. My drive home was peppered with occasional, quick bursts of crying.
I got back to the apartment that I shared with my older brother and we both started drinking at 11am. He busied himself making preparations to get us a flight from Florida to Michigan for the next day. I stared at a wall and drank.
He snapped me out of it and encouraged me to do something, anything to distract myself. I made the obligatory Facebook post announcing his death and called a close friend who had been especially close to my parents and broke the news and tried to find a way to comfort her while she sobbed on the other end of the line. By this point, my tears had mostly dried and I settled into a comfortable numb disbelief.
When the family was there for the funeral, we spent a lot of our time outside on the deck, drinking and trading stories about my dad, all trying to make each other laugh. And the stories weren’t all flattering, occasionally we were lamenting times when he was simply impossible, all of us with tears in our eyes from laughing that deep laugh that comes from needing to release some of the energy that grief has built up within you. Laugh to keep from crying, yes? This theme of celebration continued through to the visitation and even the funeral itself, as my brothers and I delivered our eulogies, all peppered with stories that made us laugh.
That feeling of numb disbelief never transformed into the fragile pain that I had anticipated. Instead, it settled deeply in me and I found that I didn’t have the devastating kicks to the gut I expected every time I thought of him. Instead, it felt almost normal. It wouldn’t get hard unless I actively provoked myself with reminders of how he’d never walk me down the aisle, or meet the love of my life when I found her, or would never know that I’m gay, or anything else. That would usually be good for a solid 30 seconds of hard crying and then I’d be okay again.
The only exception to this rule was the last voicemail he left me, that I’d had saved on my phone. In it, his voice was light and bright and he almost giggled through a few of his words. He said, “Hi K, this is your dad. I’m just here with your mom, watching the Gilmore Girls and we were thinking of you. I just wanted to say how cool I think you are and how much I love you. That’s it. Have a nice day, and I love you.”
I would get drunk and listen to that voice mail ad nauseam and just cry. My brother walked in on this practice one night and finally convinced me that I needed to delete it and let myself move on. I couldn’t vocalize that I had kept it for so long, because it was the only thing that made me feel like I was actually as sad as I really thought I ought to be.
You see, after getting back from the funeral, we both returned to life in a fairly normal fashion. Work wasn’t any more challenging. I didn’t get teary eyed at the mention of fatherhood. When I would casually mention that my dad recently died, the people who immediately tried to console me seemed to be more upset about it than I was, which was just a bit uncomfortable. It’s always a little weird when you feel the need to make someone else feel better when they’re trying to console you.
In the months (and years really) following his death, I felt utterly awful that I wasn’t more significantly impacted by my father’s death. How could I so casually return to my life when such an important part of it is gone? Did this mean I didn’t care about him as much as I thought? If this person meant so much to me, does this show that I’m simply not capable of caring for people as deeply as I thought? Was I broken? Callous? Secretly hiding a mental breakdown that would catch me mid-sales pitch to a customer at work?
It drove me absolutely crazy and I felt worse about my lack of grief than I did about his actual death! How fucked up is that?
It’s been over 5 years since it’s happened and I’ve definitely grown kinder to myself since then. I did some research, talked to other friends who had lost parents and slowly came to realize how varied grief is. I didn’t do anything wrong. I don’t love my dad any less because I wasn’t openly weeping at the lake while we spread his ashes.
My grief is not meant to be a display for others to prove how deeply I care, or how sad I am. It’s exceptionally personal and these days it only tends to rear its head a few times a year. Usually, it’s just a startling reminder that, yes, he did exist, he is gone, and now that you mention it, I do miss him.
While working at a call center for a life insurance company, I was taking a notice of death from a woman who was roughly my age and had found her father dead. From what she told me, she had been the one in the family taking care of everything and organizing everything and no one had let her talk through the story of finding him, or talk about how she’s lost her closest friend. I was several years removed from my own experiences and I can understand how cathartic it is to share your story, so I let her talk. The more she talked, the tighter my throat got. By the end of the call, she thanked me sincerely through tears and I managed to keep it together long enough to get off the call. I then locked myself in a bathroom stall at work and ugly cried for a solid fifteen minutes before I was capable of talking without my voice cracking.
Anyways, this post got a little longer than I anticipated. Originally, I just wanted to talk about the different ways people grieve and how it’s okay if you’re not outwardly (or even inwardly) showing any emotion. The way you grieve isn’t wrong, it’s the way you need to process things and should be dictated only by what is healthy and comfortable for you. But like I said, it can be cathartic sharing your story. So thank you for taking the time to read mine to the end.
If you ever need to talk to someone about loss, hit me up. I’m always glad to listen. Take care of yourselves. ❤