Monday, August 1, 2011

Good Grief

My dad was born June 11, 1946. My dad died October 5, 2008. Here it is June 11, 2011 and I can't not remember that this date used to be his birthday. He would have been 65 today if he hadn't died suddenly while recovering nicely from a massive heart attack. More on that some other time.

 My degree is in psychology. I counseled people for a living before I had kids. People with real problems. I knew the stages of grief down cold. I was prepared. Or, you know, not. I'm not sure anyone is ever prepared for grief. There are things that no one tells you ahead of time. Or maybe they do and you don't know how to hear them. The one thing I never read in a book is how utterly exhausting grief is.

I remember that first few months after he died  like I lived inside a fish bowl and everyone around was hollering and tapping on the glass. Everything seemed muffled and amplified all at the same time. People around me became caricatures of themselves, their strongest qualities distorted and huge. Everything was a little bit too loud, too fast, a little out of sync.  There was static. A radio in my head permanently stuck between two stations, fading in and out. Sometimes I couldn't hear the person talking to me or finish the sentence I'd started because of the noise. And all of this I kept to myself. Boom! Denial. I wouldn't talk about it because I didn't want to be a burden. I wouldn't cry in front of anyone because my kids needed me to be strong. I wouldn't complain about it because so many people had it worse than I did.

And then I totalled my car. With my kids in it. The noise in my head had gotten so loud, my sleep deprivation so intense, my concentration so flighty that red looked green and I went. T-boned, spinning, airbags, hit 4 other cars, screaming, orange juice and zucchini in the street, smash. No one was hurt. When the officer came to take my report of the accident I stood on the side of the road and sobbed "My dad died!" So long, Denial.

I've never blamed my dad for dying. I've never been angry at him for leaving me too soon. I've never been angry at God and fallen screaming to my knees "Why, God, why?! WHY????" Nope. None of that. Not Angry. Not me. Unless you count the time I suddenly shrieked at some poor soul from the bank. Well, there was that time that my husband chewed his cereal too loudly near me just one too many times. Or when that lady stood too close to me at the grocery check out. Or when that man wouldn't move his car so I could get out of my parking spot. I am not, was not a generally angry or impatient person. I did, however, have a few months of sudden and immense rage that would boil up and over so quickly and so violently that I felt very near passing out when it was through.

But oh! My babies. My poor, darling monkeys. They have to live with this insane, distant, distracted, erratic mother. What have I done?! My daughter was 4 and fully aware of the situation when Dad died. She dealt with it well and in the nature of kids, bounced back rather nicely I thought. Until one night, six months after he died,  she burst into tears and howled:
"My chain is broken!"
"What, honey? What chain?"
"It was a chain and it was together and my family and Papa was at the top of it and now he's gone and it's broken and I miss hiiiiiiimmmm!"

Collapsed on the kitchen floor, sobbing with my wee girl, my Anger dissolved in her tears (mostly) and through no fault of hers, left some pretty fertile ground for Guilt and Depression. Not survivor's guilt. Griever's guilt. I thought I'd been holding up all right. I tried to keep any visible outbursts away from my monkeys. I tried to keep things as sane and life as usual around the house. And she saw me trying. She felt me trying. It stressed her out. It stressed me out. I'd failed her. Take any of your run of the mill maternal guilt (I'm not good enough, I'm screwing up my children, They will hate me and pierce their nipples when they get older, etc.) and multiply it times about a thousand. I also failed my husband who had to pick up my slack. I failed my mother and brother and sister who needed my strength. I failed my dad who wouldn't want to see me like this.  I also failed a lady at the park whose kid wanted to play with my kid and it was time to go home. I failed the landlady, a very startled group of women at church, my best friend from high school, the PTA, anyone I had ever known who had lost a loved one, the US Postal Service, my cat. And, most of all, I failed myself. So let the Bargaining begin.

I cooked gourmet meals and brought them to everyone I knew who was sick, had surgery, a new baby, a hang nail, a bad day. I volunteered for everything that needed to be done. I sewed dragon costumes for my daughter's dance class and for my daughter's dance teacher's two other dance classes. I called my mother every day. I donated to every cause that knocked on my door. I listened to every old lady I sat next to on the bus. I cleaned the garage, the closets, under the fridge.  I. Would. Do. This. I would make up for my grief. I would just work hard enough to pull us all through.

And then it was October again. I expected to be T-boned with raw emotion when the 5th rolled around and I braced myself for it. And then... nothing. Just relief. That year was done. I'd never have to do it again. I'd never again have to get that tear-soaked call from my mom in the wee hours of the morning. I'd never have to plan my dad's funeral again. I'd never have to have that first birthday, first Thanksgiving, first Christmas, first anything without him again. I was exhausted with grief. I was bored with it. I didn't want it grinding into my every day any more. After laboring and pushing it through for a year, I'd finally given birth to Acceptance and could just collapse in exhaustion and pull it close to my heart.

I've over-simplified, I've exaggerated, I've left out key details. I'm OK with that. Grief is necessary. Grief is messy and nonlinear, sometimes uncontrollable, irrational and insane. Grief is lonely. Grief is distracting and consuming. Grief is exhausting. And, ultimately, there comes a point where grief is just plain boring.  I celebrated my dad's would-have-been birthday today by playing in the yard with the kids, chatting with the neighbors, harassing an old friend, laughing with my mom, discussing furniture hardware and soccer with my husband, taking a nap and eating a cheeseburger. Good grief.

(Originally written 11 June 2011)


  1. I was perusing your older posts and this one. This one caught my eye. And my heart.

    My Dad was born August 24, 1948 and he died suddenly and unexpectedly March 28, 2003. I went through every stage at least 4 times, I swear, in that first year. Like you, I woke up March 28, 2004 and realized I'd never again get that late night phone call. I'd never again have to deal with his first birthday, Christmas, Father's Day ... Death is The Suck. Grief is at least the suck, even when it's good grief. I agree, it is exHAUSTing.

    I remember the fish bowl days/weeks/months/whatever. I'm thankful that while it still sneaks up on me sometimes, it's never as debilitating as it was at first.

    Hugs to you.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing that. One of the greatest comforts, especially that first year, was learning that I wasn't completely insane and that as far as grief goes, it was "normal". It seems impossible to explain to someone who hasn't experienced it, but so comforting to hear from those who have. Hugs to you, too.


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