Grief- what a ride. It’s not a ride that anyone asks to be on, but it’s something we will all experience in our lives to some degree. If you’re lucky, it won’t be until you are old and gray.
My first experience with gut wrenching, life changing grief came 10 years ago (how has it been 10 years?!) when my dad passed away. It’s not something anyone can prepare you for. But, it does remind you how much you have loved. There is no grief without love.
As a way to honor my dad, I reflected on my decade of grief and compiled a list of things I’ve learned. My hope is that this makes someone else’s experience feel more “normal,” or that it helps someone who is new to grief. I especially hope that we can learn to talk about grief instead of shying away from it.
This seems obvious at first. But it’s truly shocking how everyone carries on when your world has just stopped. You can’t blame anyone for not feeling your pain…but HOW can they not feel it when it’s ALL you are feeling? I remember being at a party shortly after my dad’s passing. Everyone was laughing, the music was loud, and people were dancing. I looked around and wanted to scream, “don’t you people know that my dad just died!!” And they did know. But, it didn’t affect them like it did me. Why would it? Rationally, I understand this, but in the beginning of grief, nothing really makes sense.
In my experience, after the initial announcement, there’s a stream of phone calls and visits and sympathy cards. However, after the funeral… all of that sort of just stops. Death and grief is a scary topic to so many people because they don’t want to make you sad. That makes sense, but I’ve learned that sharing memories and stories with friends is a way to help them help me grieve. Let people know you want to talk about your loved one. Share stories. My friends love to laugh about how my dad would give us a $100 bill to get snacks at WAWA or how much he loved Polish food. It makes me feel supported by them and closer to him in those moments.
Who doesn’t love a celebration? I know I do! Celebrations of any sort are now a combination of happy and sad. I’ve learned it’s a personal choice of how much you want to honor your loved one during holidays, weddings, or anniversaries. Me? I skipped the father daughter dance at my wedding. While someone else may have danced with a sibling or their mom, I am much more comfortable honoring my dad in a quiet, personal way. For example, on his death anniversary, I think of him all day, spend time with loved ones, and toast to him at dinner. That’s what works for me. Be patient and find what works for you.
Denial, bargaining, depression, anger, and acceptance. You will go through all of these stages of grief, and you will experience some of them again, and again, and again. Ten years in and I’m sitting comfortably at the acceptance stage. While this stage isn’t for the faint of heart, it is also comforting to be able to be here. However, that doesn’t mean that anger or sadness won’t still creep in from time to time. That’s okay.
In the early days, weeks, and months of grief there were a lot of shower cries. There’s just something about that space that feels safe to let it all out. And it feels GOOD because crying is such a release. We can’t forget about “car cries” either- those are good, too!
In the beginning of my grief, I adopted this “I don’t need anyone” attitude. Shockingly enough, that didn’t help, because I pushed away the people who loved me. I now know that it was a coping mechanism. If I didn’t allow anyone to get close, I wouldn’t be hurt like this again. However, I ended up hurting people in the process. It took kindness and patience from my now husband for me to recognize this. (Thanks, babe!) It also took practicing grace and self compassion to move forward from this. (Thanks, me!)
My friend who lost her mother years ago recently said to me, “life without my mom will never get easier.” I agree with her. Not having that person in your life will never, ever get easier no matter how much time passes. However, you DO get used to it. After a decade without my dad, I’m used to him not being here. I’m used to visiting home and only having my mom there, and I’m used to milestones without him. I’m just used to my life without my dad alive. But all of this does not make it EASIER.
As I mentioned earlier, my dad loved Polish food. One way I stay close to him is to eat that type of cuisine when I’m missing him. He was also quite the handyman who was always in the garage tinkering around. I actually seek out the smell of gasoline because it reminds me of him. It’s truly the little things for me that keep him close, and that’s not weird because it’s my way of staying connected.
Initial grief is a tidal wave. At first you’re knocked over, scrambling, tossed around, and you don’t know which way is up. That tidal wave might come back again but you’ll be able to find your footing faster than when the first wave hit. In time, the waves will come and go. Sometimes you’ll get knocked down. Sometimes you’ll just stumble a little. And sometimes you barely feel the water touch your toes.
No two experiences of grief are exactly alike. My experience may resonate with one person and not the next. And that’s okay. I must say, finding someone with a similar grief experience is SO HELPFUL. An old friend (who also lost his father) said this to me in the very beginning stages of my grief: “I get it, you just want your dad back.” It was so simple and SO validating. What it comes down to is this: your grief is yours and no one else’s. Your journey is personal.
Like I said, I hope this can be helpful to anyone who is on their grief journey.
You are not alone.
Stephanie King, LPC is Therapy for Women’s Clinical Coordinator of the Main Line Office and specializes in grief, eating disorders, anxiety, and depression. To learn more about Stephanie, read her bio here.
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