“Nobody said it was easy, it's such a shame for us to part. Nobody said it was easy, no one ever said it would be this hard; oh take me back to the start.” ~ Coldplay
It’s been ten years since my father’s passing, and these lyrics still hit. These were the lyrics that rang in my car radio in the wake of my fathers death as the weight of the words reminded me of him and hit me like a ton of bricks, before I found myself weeping behind the wheel. Now, ten years later, and the song doesn’t make me a sobbing mess, but it always gets me choked up. And I find myself wondering - really, why is it so hard? Losing a parent; ten years later certain days still trip me up; ten years later I’m not a blubbering mess like I was that first year after (hell first few years after), but the pain of losing my father is still very real.
Like clockwork, the loaming start of September gets me riding that grief coaster. I’m reminded more of those stark and vivid memories of his deteriorating health. His once tall and stocky body turned thin and frail. Chemotherapy and how it made him perpetually exhausted. The image of my father hunched over, as I watched him inch down the front porch in a walker. This was a man who would hoist me on his shoulders, now he barely had the strength to walk. When we started in-home hospice for him, he lost his ability to speak. The times we’d feed him, give him water, sit and talk by his bedside just to be with him - it was all we could do as his time was quickly approaching. As much as I try, this time of year, I can’t escape this coaster, or these painful memories.
And September 3rd always wakes me up at the exact time my mom came rushing in to tell me he was gone - 3:52am. Her sobbing tears echo in my ear; my heavy footsteps down the hall to his body flash in my mind; his lifeless body as I weep to my knees at his bedside are always so vivid on that day. But then I’m hit with his sweet smile and the glimmer in his eye when he’d genuinely smile or laugh; or his great big hugs; watching him iron his work shirts and tie his work tie in the living room mirror in the morning, or put his Aramis cologne on. The memory of them pulling a white sheet over his body before they rolled him out of the house after 6am; summer camping trips as he’d teach me and my siblings how to pitch a tent, sitting by the campfire listening to him talk about and point to the constellations; later that day in the mortuary standing as close as I possibly could to him; stroking his face; studying his expression; and not wanting to leave his side. I couldn’t leave! Don’t make me leave you dad! Dad, please don’t leave me!!! Please - is all I could scream in my mind. His barefoot walks to the school bus stop as a kid; tickle monster wrestling in his lap paired with him pushing me on our front yard blue rope and wood plank swing that hung from a great and grand ficus tree. The morning after his passing a crying into a bowl of Cheerios as the pain of his death still stabbed hard; mornings with my dad as we’d sit on the front porch and chat over our morning coffee. It’s really like that - a constant juxtaposition of memories whirling through my mind on that day. I’m willing to admit this time of year always gets me feeling a little like Eeyore in the Hundred Acre Woods, gray cloud and all.
In a recent conversation with my therapist on the subject he didn’t go to the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Rather he spoke about the four tasks of grief: acceptance, processing the pain, adjusting to a new life (some people might call it “the new normal”), and finally staying connected with the deceased while embarking on a new life. While I know the stages of grief all too well, I like to think I’ve done a fair job of the four tasks, including staying connected while moving forward. One shoulder blade tattoo of my father, a drawing I did of him that now hangs framed above my teacher desk at work, countless blog entries of him (including this one), retelling stories of his life and taking moments to treasure those moments, remembering his essence and temperament during crucial moments to get me through and come to decisions, appreciating the older I get, how I look more and more like him - like a chip off the old block. But it’s this time of year that makes me question. How much of these grieving tasks have I really accomplished if I’m just thrown right back to those vivid memories and pain? Am I to be tormented every year this time of year? Some of me tries to make sense of it humoristically by saying “it’s the Pieces in me,”or “I’ve always been particularly sensitive.”
While I miss my father terribly, and while losing him in my 20’s was a traumatic and defining moment, I will say I’ve definitely learned a lot from this kind of pain and grief, in the way it’s shaped me. For one, most people (without realizing it) are inept to their emotional intelligence and are absolute buffoons when empathy is needed. While it pains me to admit it, the worst cases of compassion and empathy I received was from my Sunday church folks - and this is coming from a Catholic girl. It’s always fascinating and infuriating to me how so many of the people you’d expect to be the most empathetic are so often deprived of these skills. Do yourself a favor and don’t say any of the following “it’s part of God’s plan” “everything happens for a reason” “I guess it was his time to go” “it’s been a while, aren’t you over it yet?” “he’s in a better place.”And for the love of God, when someone walks in who just lost someone, don’t all unanimously go silent. Rather, do say “I can’t imagine what you’re going through” “I wish I knew what to say to comfort you” “can I give you a hug?” “I’m here for you.” And just show up. Don’t ask, just show up.
After ten months - to the day - I did just that. A couple of acquaintances who suddenly lost his mother I found myself attending his mother’s memorial service, and as is customary in Indonesian culture every guest processes down the aisle to offer a hug and condolences to the family. And as I stood in front of my loose friend who just lost his mother, and his wife I looked them both in the eye and said “I know the pain you feel, and you will be seeing more of me, I will be checking in with you.” What was not given to me in the wake of my dad’s passing, I gave to them over and over. Now nearly ten years later, the wife is my best friend, they consider me family, and their eldest is my goddaughter.
Again, a defining moment in how it’s shaped me.
While I know my father is still looking out for me, I still can’t help but miss him and what I’d give to hear his voice and talk to him on that front porch with our morning coffee just like we used to. The reality of not having him around during the holidays or milestones stings, and I find myself thinking of him and trying not to cry. And while I know he’s in a better place, and I know I’ll see him again, still what I’d give to feel his embrace. Too soon, he went too soon, and I’m left with this pain, this awful heart wrenching pain.
People often describe grief in countless metaphors, but my favorite one is the one being out at sea. One moment you’re floating along, aware of the sadness around you, but navigating it all just fine. Next, you'll be slammed by the rush of feelings—gasping for air and desperately trying to gain your equilibrium before the next wave hits. And that’s just it, grief comes in waves. Sometimes I can predict it, and other times I’m blindsided. In moments of storm I find comfort and hope knowing this too shall pass, and like the story in the book of Matthew, God will calm the storm and I will find peace again.