What is the right way to grieve?
Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. ― Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
The last time I saw my dad alive was in a Denny’s parking lot in Cordele, GA. It was the Friday of Labor Day weekend, five years ago. We sat there with my mom, just off Interstate-75, waiting on my friend Julia to pick me up on her way from Tallahassee so we could ride to Atlanta together. We had been waiting for about twenty minutes because Julia was lost.
I can’t remember exactly what my dad and I talked about but it was probably football since that’s the reason I was heading to Atlanta, to see my Georgia Bulldogs open the season against the Boise State Broncos at the Georgia Dome. I would stay in town for the weekend, hang out with friends I hadn’t seen in awhile and then fly back to New York to start my second and last year of grad school.
Julia pulled up just as I finished the last hot wing from my Zaxby’s lunch.
I climbed out of the truck to put my bags in her car. I came back to hug my parents and with a mouth full of chicken fingers my dad said what he always said whenever we parted: “I love you.” And then he reached his greasy hand in his pocket and pulled out a crisp hundred dollar bill. He handed it over and then told me to “make good decisions.”
And that was it. There was no odd premonition that this would be the last time I would see him. Because that’s not how it happens.
The last time I actually talked to my dad was September 14, 2011, the day before my mom’s birthday. I stood outside on Thompson Street near the NYU campus and we talked about the Atlanta Braves and what we each got Mom for her birthday. He also mentioned that a friend sick with a heart condition had recently made a recovery. I remember him being happy to relay this news. After I hung up the phone, I wasn’t struck by any subtle clues that this would be the last time we spoke. There was nothing strange or knowing in his “goodbye.” Because that’s not how it happens.
This is how it happens.
One morning, two weeks later, you wake up and immediately want to fall back asleep. The first thing that crosses your mind is not today is the day my father will die because of course you don’t know that yet. No, your first thought is let me check my email and read Twitter. Just like every other day.
Later that day you leave the NYU library around 9 p.m. The library has bad reception so when you come out you have a voicemail from your cousin. But you don’t feel like checking it or calling her back just yet because she likes to ramble plus she yells so loudly into the receiver that you always have to hold it ten inches away from your ear. You’re also hungry so you walk to Chick-fil-A. It’s closed. So you head back to your apartment.
While you’re walking by the Arch at Washington Square Park you get a call from your mom. And now you start to feel a twinge of worry because your mom rarely calls after nine. You answer and once you hear her voice — well now you know something is wrong.
“It’s your dad,” she sobs. “I found him when I got home.”
She continues sobbing.
“He had a heart attack.”
And now you can’t even prepare your mouth to ask the obvious next question.
“Is he…” you start, but your throat immediately goes dry. You try to generate saliva. Again, “Is he… dead?”
And she answers you while unleashing the most guttural howl of pain you’ve ever heard from a human being. It takes all you have not to collapse to the ground because your dad is dead and your mom — who you’re about to find out has been holding this news for five hours — has just let you feel how horrible that pain can truly be. You want to be “strong” for your mom so you pull it together and pretend as if a giant hole hasn’t been blown through your entire world. You talk about what arrangements need to be made and when you are coming home. But before you hang up you feel the need to provide your mom some assurance.
“I love you,” you say. “I’m sure everything is going to be OK.” It’s the first lie you tell your mom since you were a teenager.
“Like your dad, you’re proud. But in the two hours since you’ve known your dad is dead, this is already starting to seem like a stubborn and ridiculous way to move through life.”
You walk through the park and call your friend Lauren. She doesn’t pick up. You text her “Call me back ASAP.” She calls almost instantly.
“What’s up?” she says.
“I need to come over,” you say.
“I’ll tell you when I get there.”
You walk to her place in the West Village. You buzz her apartment. She comes downstairs.
“He’s dead,” you say.
She’s stunned, which is a reaction you will get used to reacting to. She hugs you and tells you she’s sorry. You sit on her stoop on Morton Street as she calls the Delta rep to help with your flight arrangement. You were supposed to fly to the wedding of a childhood friend that weekend in Savannah so she has to cancel that flight and make a new reservation for you. She books you the second available flight out of LaGuardia at 7 the next morning. She offers to go with you to the airport. Like your dad, you’re proud. You don’t like to inconvenience or lean on people. But in the two hours since you’ve known your dad is dead, this is already starting to seem like a stubborn and ridiculous way to move through life. So you tell her yes.
You hug and leave. On your way back you call two more friends.
The first one thinks you called to talk about the Braves, who, on the last day of the season, will miss the playoffs after blowing a 10-game division lead. He quickly learns you aren’t calling to bitch about the Braves. He’s stunned.
Your other friend doesn’t pick up but a few minutes later he texts you: “I’m at the effing Braves game now”.
You’re still hungry so you wander into the Morton Williams around the corner from your apartment. It’s cold inside and not just in the dairy section. You shuffle up and down the aisles like a zombie on the Walking Dead, searching for something palatable. You settle on a turkey sandwich and an orange. But you’ll later fall asleep without eating either. You walk up to the checkout counter and you make eye contact with the cashier. You wonder if she knows. Does she know that your dad just died? Can she tell? Is there some sign? Some giveaway? Is that a look of pity you spot on her face? She hands you your food and you walk out of the store.
On your way home more calls pour in but you really don’t remember what was said. You get back to the apartment at 1 a.m. You wake up your roommate to tell him the news and let him know you’ll be gone indefinitely. He’s stunned, searching for something appropriate to say. He says he’s sorry.
You walk into your room, open up your laptop and email your advisor. You tell him what just happened and that you don’t know when you will be returning to school.
And then you try to fall asleep. You try for four hours. You’re tired and still hungry yet you can’t sleep or eat. You throw on your headphones and listen to the same Zero 7 album you always listen to when you can’t get to sleep. It doesn’t work until around 5 a.m.
Thirty minutes later your alarm goes off and now it’s time to head to the airport. Lauren texts to see if you’re up and then heads over. You meet her downstairs. It’s raining. You hop in a cab and head to LaGuardia.
On the way there you think about how much you are dreading the week ahead and how you wish there was a way to travel through time and already be past it. There is literally nothing about this week you are looking forward to.
You arrive early at the gate and take a seat. You shuffle songs on your iPhone. Just then Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” comes on and suddenly tears start to stream down your face. You don’t know what triggers it. Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man play a song for me, I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to. It’s not a song about death or fathers and sons but it is about a tired man, suffering from a lack of sleep and searching for meaning. Plus the tune is melancholy and the sound of Dylan’s voice is enough to make you feel something. It’s going to be a long day.
The first leg of the flight is fine, if a bit draining. But while you wait at the gate in Atlanta to board your connecting flight home, your mom calls and you lose it. The combination of sadness and exhaustion is too much and you can’t stop crying.
You hop on the 50-passenger jet you’ve taken a million times that will fly you to the small regional airport back home. You sob uncontrollably for the entire 40-minute flight because you just lost one of the only two people on the planet who loves you unconditionally. You’re sure you’re making everyone around you uncomfortable. You’re surrounded by passengers but this is the loneliest moment in your entire life.
“As you walk out of the airport you realize it’s the first time your dad wasn’t there to greet you.”
You land back home. The airport is so tiny the plane practically pulls up to the security gate. So when you get off the runway you see your mom and cousin immediately. You run to your mom and you both collapse into each other’s arms. It’s just the two of you now. You want her to make you feel safe like when you were three years old and scared but now it’s you who feels the responsibility to protect her.
As you walk out of the airport you realize it’s the first time your dad wasn’t there to greet you.
As soon as you get home you run straight to your room, sprawl over your bed and cry until your head aches from dehydration. Someone knocks on your door because people have already started to gather at your house. It’s one of the ladies from church who just wanted to stop by. You don’t want to be rude but what you really want is to be left alone in the dark to cry. She let’s you know that you shouldn’t worry because God will not put any more on you than you can bear. This is the first in a series of utterly meaningless and empty phrases you will hear.
Calls keep coming in and you answer every one and respond to every text and email. You feel that if people are nice enough to reach out you should do the courtesy of responding.
Outside, people are setting up folding chairs and card tables and bringing by fried chicken and sweet potato pies and collard greens. They’ll camp out in the yard for the entire week because that’s what black people do in the South. It’s a sort of Shiva, but unlike the Jewish version, it’s performed before the funeral.
The week creeps along. Friends you wish you could see under happier circumstances stop by. Your friends drive down from Atlanta just to watch the Georgia game with you. Even an ex-girlfriend you haven’t heard from in years sends flowers. You are touched by the outpouring.
“While they lower his corpse into the Georgia red clay, you’ll think to yourself, all that’s left of him is in me — his meaningless middle initial, his flat feet, his love of politics.”
You don’t remember much about the funeral except that it was standing room only. But outside of your mom, you really can’t be sure who was even there.
You do remember staring into the casket and deciding in that moment that that is not your dad. While they lower his corpse into the Georgia red clay, you’ll think to yourself, all that’s left of him is in me — his meaningless middle initial, his flat feet, his love of politics. This will become more apparent after the funeral because while everyone always said you look like him, you’re now the closest representation of him, and the people who wish he was still alive can sense his presence in you and want to be near it.
We want it to be true that if someone we love dies, we simply have to pass through a series of phases, like an emotional obstacle course from which we will emerge happy and content, unharmed and unchanged. — Cheryl Strayed
In the immediate aftermath of my dad’s death I wanted to believe that my suffering had deeper meaning, that I wasn’t enduring this pain merely because I was at the mercy of a cruel and indifferent universe. I hoped that with enough self-reflection I would come out on the other side with a sense of clarity about how the world works and what I truly wanted out of life. Having stared down my greatest fear, death, I would become the bravest version of myself and live my best life.
That did not happen, exactly. I remember quietly raging at the world and catching up on Breaking Bad. And writing. I did start writing.
Sure, some things were put into sharper focus. For instance, I learned the difference between an annoyance and an actual problem. And after burying my father, most people’s problems sounded like annoyances, to the point that I really didn’t care to hear about them.
I also gained a greater (but not complete) appreciation for the finite nature of time and why it shouldn’t be wasted. For better or worse I’m now not very good at suffering through things I don’t want to do or being in places I don’t want to be.
But the worst part was the dreams I’d have that my dad was still alive. I remember the first one vividly. My mom, dad and I were all in my Chevy Tahoe, riding down a Georgia highway. Then suddenly the car lifted from the ground and we began riding through the nearby woods like the Jetsons. As we picked up speed, I lost control of the car and floated higher and higher, weaving between the oak trees. Faster and faster until I shook myself conscious in my bed drenched in a pool of sweat. As bad as the dreams were, ending them was even worse. Sometimes in the middle of one I’d realize what was happening but was too afraid to wake up because once I did, that meant I’d have to lose my dad all over again.
To be human is to be constantly at war with forces outside your control. Nothing drives that home like failing to will your father back life no matter how hard you try. But one of the most important steps to maturity is learning what you can and can’t control. It’s the basis of the serenity prayer Lord, help me accept the things I cannot change…
“I wanted to believe that my suffering had deeper meaning, that I wasn’t enduring this pain merely because I was at the mercy of a cruel and indifferent universe.”
In order to gain some semblance of control, I did what I normally do when I have a problem: I tried to tackle it intellectually which means I read a lot. I read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. I read essays on death and grieving, like Cheryl Strayed’s “The Love of My Life.” And in an attempt to demystify death I bought (but never read) How We Die, a landmark book on the biological process of dying and how our bodies will betray us in the end. While it was comforting to read about how others handled grief it didn’t make me any less sad.
And the sadness would always be accompanied by guilt.
How dare you be so mopey? Other people lose their parents. They get on with their lives. Why can’t you?
I felt guilty when I was happy. How dare you laugh right now? Your dad just died. You must not really love or miss him?
I saw a child in the park playing with his dad, and became jealous and sad at the same time. Jealous because this kid’s dad was still around. Sad because, I knew one day he’d have to say goodbye too.
And one of the terrible things about suffering a loss at such a young age is that your friends, while well meaning, have no clue how to react. There are probably no people more ill-equipped to deal with the messiness of your grief than people in their early and mid twenties. It can be a very self-absorbed and self-conscious time in a person’s life. You’re still trying to figure out your own life, let alone empathize with a situation you know nothing about. Your friends are mostly terrified of saying the wrong things, and with good reason because (even old) people do this all the time!
My deep fear of making people uncomfortable didn’t help either. Cheryl Strayed talks about this in her essay about grieving over the loss of her mother:
“We are allowed to be deeply into basketball, or Buddhism, or Star Trek, or jazz, but we are not allowed to be deeply sad. Grief is a thing that we are encouraged to “let go of,” to “move on from,” and we are told specifically how this should be done.”
In attempts to make me feel better or simply fill the air with words people would say misguided things.
“Everything happens for a reason.” Can you please tell me what that reason is?
By the way, knowing The Right Thing to Say becomes only marginally less difficult once you suffer the death of a loved one. I know what it’s like to lose a dad suddenly to a heart attack. I don’t know what it’s like to watch a parent die from cancer or lose a brother in a car accident or bury a child or have a cousin commit suicide. Suffering a tragedy gives you empathy but it does not automatically give you a window into someone’s soul to let you know exactly what they are feeling or thinking.
Once the calls, texts and emails slowed it was just me left alone to deal with my sadness.
But grieving created a strange paradox for me. Part of me wanted people to genuinely be concerned about me, ask how I’m doing, and never forget that I was walking around with this burden. But another part tried to hide any sadness. You can’t really be disappointed if no one sees your pain when you try so hard to bury it. I don’t know if people could pick up on it but I do know you’re never as slick as you think you are.
“Part of me wanted people to genuinely be concerned about me, ask how I’m doing, and never forget that I was walking around with this burden. But another part tried to hide any sadness.”
And when someone would actually ask how I was doing I had my pat reply down: “I’m doing OK, but I’m really just worried about my mom.” This was complete bullshit. Not the part about being worried about my mom. But the part where I would deflect the worry from myself. This was a lie, because I was worried about me.
And the people who did openly express concern for me, like a nice girl I briefly dated? I only pushed them away and shut down. Or worse, I was just too flat out angry and immature to appreciate them.
But what is the right way to grieve? The best piece of advice I received from people who lost a parent was that everyone grieves differently and there is no right way to do it. Whenever we visit my dad’s grave my mother will talk to him there. I think this is strange. And though she’s never said it, I get the impression she thinks I’m hard-hearted because I don’t speak to him. But like I said, I made up my mind as soon as I saw him lying in that casket that he was no longer my dad so what’s the point?
A few months after the funeral an email from Julia popped up in my inbox:
Was just thinking about you so thought I would write. I don’t want you to think that just because some time has passed, that we’ve forgotten about all that you’ve been through, and I’m sure are still going through with your dad’s passing.
I know that I can’t relate to what you’re dealing with, but I’ve heard that it’s the months after a tragedy, when things have died down a bit, that can be the hardest.
Just know that we’re all still thinking about you and are here for you. You’ve handled this all amazingly well, I don’t know how you do it. Your family is still in my thoughts and prayers. (by the way my autocorrect wanted to change that to “thoughts and oysters”).
Love ya bud! Hope to see you soon.
Peace and oysters,
I closed my laptop and cried. Sometimes you’re not as alone as you think.
Charles Bukowski once said, “We’re all going to die, all of us. What a circus! That alone should make us love each other, but it doesn’t. We are terrorized and flattened by life’s trivialities; we are eaten up by nothing.”
And that is my constant battle. To not be eaten up by nothing. To not get distracted by life’s trivialities because that is exactly why they are there. Deep down we want them to distract us from the fact that life will someday end. Actually sorting out our values and what we want to love in the short time we are here takes effort and is confusing and intimidating. Ignoring, or trying to “get over” death and grieving was a way for me to avoid dealing with this, to avoid loving. Having something you love snatched away is a difficult thing to deal with but you have to love because who wants to be flattened?
This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn’t make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grievedifferently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let’s talk about living with loss. If you have a story you’d like to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.