On The Loss of a Parent: Grief From Love

Friday, April 04, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under General

Since writing this post, I introduced a short story that really put all my emotions in one place. Metaphor--it is lovely. If you'd like to check out Alien Landscape, CLICK HERE.


They say it comes in stages, a uniform pattern of expectations. In therapy sessions, we focus on it, at least in small pieces, based on the assumption that by describing it to people, they will recognize the pattern and understand that it will invariably progress and the pain will pass.

While the pain does pass, the pattern is not as clear-cut as many believe. It is a mess, a virtual soup of emotion.

The stages of grief are as follows:

Denial: “This isn’t really happening.”

Anger: “Why me? Why him? It’s not fair!”

  • In this stage, people often lash out at themselves or those closest to them in misplaced rage at something they cannot change. 

Bargaining: “I will give anything for a few more years.”

  • This is like a final attempt to control the uncontrollable.

Depression: “I can’t go on without them, I’m so sad, why bother?”

  • In this stage things may begin to lose meaning, living may seem pointless. Adaptively, this stage allows one to detach from things of importance to decrease the hurt and avoid additional trauma. Sadness, regret, uncertainty and fear are common in this phase. 

Acceptance: “It happened, everything will be okay, I have to move on.”

  • This stage is usually marked by less anxiety, emotional stability and a great deal of looking back on life or the life of a loved one. This stage varies greatly with each individual and the situation they find themselves in.

Shrinks do have some perspective on this topic, an understanding that things will in fact improve as a matter of course--even when it seems like an impossibility--because we have seen it so many times before. 

We know it will get better. But it fucking sucks. It does. And waiting for relief from the relentless oscillation between heart-wrenching depression and blessed numbness is a torturous position to be in, regardless of how long you’re there.

Now, because individuals experience grief in startling different ways, there is no way to tell how fast or slowly anyone will reach acceptance. Instead of giving you a bunch of statistics and quoting you research, I have decided to do something a little bit different today. 

This is my journey through grief, one that is not at this moment completed. 

Grief, Loss and Love

This is my dad, amateur magician, geology enthusiast, devoted father. He was a legend; an active, healthy, friendly, guy, a hilarious tribute to grandfathering. For as long as I can remember, I looked up to him. He taught me to read by sitting for hours with Dr. Seuss books and spent just as much time showing me how to multiply coins and rocks at our kitchen table.

He also taught me the fine art of debate, and the benefit of “smart arguing”.  In contrast, his laughter and constant practical joking was a reminder not to take life too seriously. From replacing black jelly beans with olives to baking marble cakes with real marbles, to anchovy smoothies, he was not one you wanted to go up against in a prank-off.  One Christmas early in my life he gave me a gift meticulously wrapped in duct tape and twine. He told me if I used a knife to open it I couldn’t have the gift inside, which ended up being twenty-five dollars in assorted dimes, nickels and pennies. This rouse was repeated through the years. While it has evolved since then (with other family members adding jelly packets and ketchup in a layer to dissuade would-be tape cutters) the original remained a constant part of birthdays and holidays.

A few weeks after he came down to visit me, he bought a birthday card to send to my son, smoothed out the driveway and turned my mother’s car around so she didn’t have to back down the ice in the morning. He suffered a massive coronary that killed him instantly when he sat down. He was fifty-eight years old.

Grief, Day One: Denial 

When they told me I felt icy, a numbness that spread into my brain. I cried, but I didn’t feel it. It wasn’t real. I spent the first day oscillating between packing and other normal household activities, offering support to my children, and sobbing hysterically on the floor of my bedroom.

I packed supplements and specific foods for the trip along with our clothing: fermented cod liver oil, magnesium oil, zinc lozenges, elderberry syrup, and fresh juice with ginger, peppermint, dandelion greens, cucumber, lemons and apple. I also brought coconut oil, turmeric and banana peel tea. When nothing wants to stay down, you do what you can to stay nourished and boost serotonin stores, a preemptive strike against depression.  

As we set off to make the nine-hundred-mile trip to my mother’s house, I remember thinking, “I found out on a Thursday, but it happened on a Wednesday? So from now on when someone says, 'Why are you in a bad mood,' I can say, 'Because it’s fucking Wednesday…or maybe Thursday.' Oh hell, fuck them both.” In retrospect I think I just wanted to go back to Monday where I still had the chance to call him back that last time.

This was as close as I ever got to bargaining. We all long for a few more days, to go back a week, but what we really want is to reverse time but retain the benefit and lessons of the experience itself. Because if you simply went back in time, things would be as they were and nothing would change at all, a history doomed to repeat. The experience is not possible without the pain and the lessons to be applied to future situations, a possibility for personal growth, or at least a life better lived than it would have been otherwise.

Night One: Physical Meets Emotional Pain and the Vagus Nerve

As we drove through the night, I pressed my head against the glass and watched the passing trees. Suddenly, I was nine years old again, staring out the window. They were the same gray trees punctuated by an occasional streetlight or a passing semi, which was almost enough to make me ignore the barrenness of the scene, each branch utterly devoid of life, or at least hiding it so perfectly that it became invisible. It was this invisibility that started the cold dread in my stomach, as if someone was going to tell me something I didn’t want to hear, but that I needed to know, that couldn’t be avoided.

I looked at the moon and I could hear him. “It’s okay, just look at the moon and you won’t feel so carsick. It’s from everything around you moving. The moon will stay still.”

Then the road curved, the moon moved behind us and I had to crane my neck to see it. I heard my own voice in my head. “I can’t see it anymore.” But I was really saying, “I can’t see you.” I never would again. Ever. He wouldn’t be waiting when we got there, he wouldn’t quote Dr. Seuss to the kids. He’d never again call me just to hear my voice, because I knew that’s why he did it; no one really wants to know about the weather in other parts of the country that much.

It felt like someone ripped a part of me out, and replaced it with a deep hole that didn’t really lead to anywhere except darkness, and while it somehow feels right to seek it out and embrace it, you know you can’t. So you circle this jagged drain waiting for it to suck you down even while you scramble to stay at the top.

Then my son said, “Mom?”

I stopped circling. Because as painful as it is, my father gave his all to be a good parent, so that I could be a good parent. My children needed me too. I climbed into the backseat of the car and held his hand. When he was asleep, I lay on the third row seat to rest.

The tightness under my ribcage, right under my heart seemed to intensify, but it became like an ache that anchored me to myself. When I lay down, I went there, becoming the little ball of pain that seemed to spread out occasionally in radiating waves of what could only be referred to as emptiness.

I also tried to ignore the pain in my chest that comes even now, a tightening that exists in varying amounts throughout the day. I understand the chest pain to be the result of the Vagus nerve, which starts at brain stem and runs down through the neck, chest and abdomen. During highly stressful experiences, the anterior cingulate cortex in the brain activates this nerve at higher rates, causing actual physical pain and nausea.

I reminded myself of this often. “I’m not having a heart attack. I’m not in danger. It’s called heartache for a reason.”

But it still sucks when it wakes me up in the middle of the night to remind me of what I’ve lost.

Grief, Day Two: Anger

In brief moments of clarity, I had a desire to know who got his organs so I could hold their hand, or maybe so I could look into his eyes one more time. But I know that the fire that was him won’t be there. The person with his corneas won’t pretend to cut off their finger while helping me prune rosebushes and scream for thirty seconds until the neighbors come out of their house. They are also unlikely to buy food for all the guys in the garage who change their oil or bring pizza to the brake shop. Why we did those things, he never really offered an explanation besides, “Because I can.” I always took it as spreading happiness. If you’re happy, you’ve got a leg up on most. Might as well share it.

It was around 1pm on that second day that the anger set in, a burning hatred mostly for the abominable sun who seemed to be mocking me with his brilliance. I felt an insane jealousy for everyone who gets to have their father, who gets to see him interact with his grandchildren, who has one more day. But one day would never have been enough, it never is. Grief is kind of a selfish thing. I mourned not only for him and the things he wouldn’t get to do, but for all the things I would no longer get to experience.

Every inch of snow taunted me with childhood memories of him building twisty, elaborate slides over our rock gardens, that he covered with water until they were so slippery that you flew right off the end, giggling and delirious.

I never went to visit in the cold once I moved away. My children never got to experience that. He would have loved that so much. They would have loved it so much.

Then, I could see the tears when I moved away. ”I told myself I wouldn’t cry,” he said. But he did, all afternoon until I pulled down the driveway leaving him standing on the lawn with tears on his cheeks.

He knew then that he would miss this. That he wouldn’t get that opportunity to be with his grandchildren in the same way, even though I think he was always optimistic about his ability to make a difference with them. Last summer he called me six times and asked me to measure up to the kids’ necks before hand-digging a pool in his backyard and having a truckload of sand delivered because they told him that they liked the beach.

If he doubted our relationship, or his ability to be a good grandpa, he never showed it, just as he was never anything but supportive of what I needed to do in my life. Now I would return and stand with tears on my checks in his driveway while the children play and see a world he would never get to show them. And my resolve to show them myself strengthened.

The last hour in the car was spent battling the desire to turn the fuck around and drive back home, as if in doing so I could escape reality, that I could pretend for the rest of my life that it wasn’t real. Obvious denial, showing its ever optimistic face.

I understood, I knew, that this was not reality. But I couldn’t shut up that voice that said, “Run. Run and you won’t have to go into the house and not see him coming to give you a hug.” Because it would not be what happened when I arrived that would spurn a fierce ache in my stomach. It would be what didn’t. He wouldn’t be there. It felt like a noose that tightened with each mile, a stabbing in my throat reminding me that I didn’t want to see, didn't want to feel, didn't want to be there.

But the miles kept going by, oblivious to my suffering. It was like swimming across a dark freezing lake where you understand that the opposite shore must exist, and yet you cannot see it despite your struggle and squinting your eyes. You can’t see because it’s dark there too and you can’t see the moon. You won’t see the moon. Ever, ever again.

Days Three Through Five

After my arrival, the next days were a flurry of visitors, activity and unintentional sleeplessness that made things meld together. I wore his sweatshirts, an empty hug made out of cloth that still smelled oddly like him, as if the cotton had absorbed some of his essence just like everyone he met. I have since decided that sweatshirts are the most bittersweet pieces of clothing.

I spent time building snowmen like he would have wanted, enjoying the children in quiet moments, though my patience was strained. I stared at the clouds trying to see all the pictures we used to see as kids, laying on the hood of the car while he finished a logging job. “Find me a piece of sassafras, a cool cloud, a rock you like,” he would say.

At night I looked out windows where the stars have always held special significance. He is the reason I see Orion every time I look up, why I notice the big dipper, why I get excited to wake my children from sleep to go outside and see an eclipse. In those days, as I showed my children the stars, I held them that much more sacred, hoping that after I’m gone, one day far in the future, they will remember those times and those stars will serve to remind them of what I was at one point in their lives.

So often I found myself thinking this couldn’t possibly be happening. Of course, you know it is reality, a new world that will take adjustment. But even in depression and acknowledgement of this fact there remains this kind of surreal quality that tricks you into complacent peace for hours at a time until it comes crashing back that this is real, this is forever.  It’s a weird sort of emptiness, like a gnawing around the edges of your chest or a blooming in the pit of your stomach that fades and tightness suddenly, a reminder of your loss.

But, it fails to remind you that every path you have chosen has required the loss of something, whether it be comfort, the security of your parent’s home, a loss of the single life for that of commitment. There is always loss in growth, but those are quite subtle and the excitement outweighs all else, happiness trumps pain. Here, the lessons are bittersweet at best and earth-shattering at worst, but all lead to the inevitable conclusion that life will never again be the same. Finding what good may come of it is a path of hard-won lessons that will shape who you invariably become, for better or worse.

Those lessons lead you forward, but not in a way chosen by you. It is a difficult pill to swallow, this lack of choice, the helplessness of a path unchosen, a lesson unwanted, an event too soon experienced.   

Grief and Reflection

It seemed to me in these early days that refection should be an official category of grief as opposed to a subset of one. It is a necessity in moving through any stage to be certain, but also the most powerful determining factor in how you progress through each phase. The pessimism inherent in those with negative thought cycles have a more difficult time moving beyond the bad, the guilt that they glean from reflection, whereas those committed to finding the good are more able to see a light, no matter how dim, past any regret or depression they might feel. This is one reason that altering negative thought patterns early is so critical: positive thought patterns steeped in practice are easier to revert to in times of crisis. 

For some, negative thoughts may be a factor of having more positive versus more negative things to reflect upon, but this is not always the case. Good and bad exist in the mind, a lesson or a curse, a glass half full or half empty, the growth of a new path or simply the cessation of one. Reflection and acknowledgement of sorrow can exist without losing sight of a bigger more beautiful picture, a place where everything we love stays with us and makes us into better people. It is something that my father taught me every time he put on his deceased sister’s socks so she could accompany him to a family function, his mother’s shoelaces so he could represent her as well. Every day, even those lived in grief, matter deeply. Hold on to what matters. 

Sadness fades, reliably and absolutely so long as you find a way to keep moving and leave it behind. If you sit still you never get the opportunity to see beyond it. You can’t outrun something you take with you, strapped to your back like a desperate windbreaker. Love keeps you going. Love will eventually fill the space that feels empty. It’s already there, you just have to pass through the sorrow.

Loss and Moving Beyond Week One

When I got back home, away from the constant physical support of family, I contacted local friends and asked simply, “Hey, if I start freaking out and need to talk, can I call you?” While I have relied on my husband and have not yet had to call in such favors, it is comforting to know that those individuals can be summoned over at a moment’s notice, just as good friends the world over have offered immense kindnesses remotely.  While such phone calls may be hard for some to make, one cannot overestimate the importance of good social support.

Grief is not something to be ashamed of. I am proud that I had something so very special to mourn. 

Sometimes I have good days where it seems to hurt less, and the guilt settles around me like a fog, an irrational belief that I should feel worse for longer, should cry harder because I loved him so much, and what does it mean if I don’t sob the day away at his loss? Of course, I recognize this as an irrational and completely normal part of the grieving process, and the following day when the despair settles in again, I know it isn’t retribution for the night before. It is a common fluctuation of hormone and mood, one that will occur many times before all is said and done, that will be triggered by certain days, certain holidays, certain songs. It is my brain getting used to a new reality that does not include a father in life but in memory instead, where I must consider what his responses to a question about my garden might have been instead of asking directly. Where all that I am and all that he made me lives on through me and in his grandchildren, a legacy of love and kindness instead of having the kindness that was always just him. This legacy certainly existed before and yet it is felt ever so much more poignantly now, every step and response to my children a testament to what he made me, to all that he gave me so I could give as well.

Complete acceptance—normalcy with a new reality—will happen, but not today, nor do I expect soon. While suffering was never a part of his plan for me, for as long as it takes, I need to miss him. Because the person that I am came from him, a place which now holds the constant ache of a missing a piece that will never be recovered.

Nor should it be. There was only one of him.

But, he didn’t work so hard to give me everything I needed just so I could fall apart. He raised me to be someone who stands up in the face of challenge. He raised me to love fully, to embrace the world and live every day as if it mattered. In me he has the ability to see his life’s work realized, and I have the unique opportunity to ensure that it wasn’t all for nothing. The love he showed me can and will live on in my family, in my children, in my work. The crazy thing about secure attachment is its ability not only to provide you with the possibility of intense pain at loss, but also the strength to carry on, a subtle knowing that it will all be okay because someone once cared for you and helped you find peace the inside yourself.

So, on behalf of my father, The Rolling Stones rule, hail to geodes, geology and all things outdoorsy. Hooray for practical jokes, poker and love that sustains even in death.

Fuck Justin Beiber and politicians, not necessarily in that order.

Even if I only end up being half the person he was, I will have served humanity more than most. I have a legacy to continue as I await the day when I can look back and it doesn’t hurt so badly.

But waiting I can do.

If there is one thing unwrapping twine and duct tape-bound gifts teaches you, it’s patience.

I love you, Daddy. Always.



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Alien Landscape
Some things are too horrifying to understand let alone fix.