Someone close to you has died.
No, they are not alive somewhere else.
No, they are not coming back.
No, it doesn’t make any fucking sense.
No, they are not in the next room reading a book or doing the dishes.
No matter how much you want to believe they are coming back, they aren’t.
-Steve Case, F**k Death
“Of course you’d be taking this really hard,” my sister said. “You didn’t know how sick he was, so this probably seems rather sudden to you.”
Taking this really hard? I thought. My father had only been dead for a day and a half. He wasn’t yet buried. My mind was still replaying the deathbed conversation we’d had, the last words I’d ever spoken to him, and what he slurred back to me, words that reflected he knew it was me but that he was in great agony, already slipping away.
Our last conversation was like a horror movie personalized for me. A kind of boutique trauma service.
I had, of course, known how sick he was. The rest of my family made a concerted effort to keep me in the dark about it, “not wanting to worry” me when there was nothing I could do. Because they couldn’t do much about the situation themselves. Neither could the doctors. And I was 2000 miles away, so I had even less impact than most.
They tried to keep the truth from me, that my father was dying, but I figured it out anyway, because they weren’t as good at hiding it as they meant to be. Five months earlier, in November, I’d realized my father was terminal from a few different things my mother said about his medical situation.
And I knew when I visited at Christmas that there was about a 99 percent chance that this would be the last time I ever saw him. (Because medical miracles do happen but not very often at all.)
I didn’t try to push it out of my mind, the fact that my father was dying. Instead, I kept it front of mind. I reminded myself to make sure to stay mindful, make the most of every moment I had to spend with him.
And I’m so grateful. The last handful of months I had with him were incredible.
Not “See You Later,” but “Goodbye Forever”
But none of that made the pain of late April any easier. Nothing made it easy to talk to my father on the phone during the last hours he could understand anyone. Knowing how sick he was and had been didn’t make it easier to fight off tears and thank him for being my father. To tell him I loved him. To avoid talking about the future, because I knew he didn’t have one — not at least the way we were all used to.
But it was easier for my sister to assume I’d been in denial, and that that was why it hurt when my father passed away. Not that I was in pain because I loved him and I was finding it impossible to use denial as a coping mechanism.
Not because I looked at this not as “see you later “but as “goodbye forever.”
It hurt not because I was in denial or surprised, but because I wasn’t in shock at all. I was practicing a deep acceptance of a difficult reality. An excruciating one.
People did try to comfort me in the days and weeks and months that followed, with small nips of denial, proffered as readily available spiritual analgesic. Relatives reminded me we’d be reunited in heaven one day (for the record, I’m agnostic about afterlife; I lean no on it, but I also recognize it’s impossible for me to know for sure that it doesn’t exist). No guarantee of that.
“He’ll always be with you,” some said. “Smiling down on you. You’ll have moments when you know his spirit is there with you, guiding you, protecting you.”
No guarantee of that. Not in a literal sense anyway.
Part of Him Will Always Be With Me, But That’s Different
I know they mean well, and perhaps those ideas are giving them solace, but my grief — and desire to accept the situation — revolve around being okay with his being gone. Forever.
Now, that doesn’t mean it is as though he never existed. Quite the contrary. I have wonderful memories of him. And I meant what I said. I’m so grateful he was my father. He gave me a lot of who I am. I’m a lot like him as a person. In a metaphorical sense, he does live on in me, in my love for him, in the way we all learned from him and will remember him.
And that’s a beautiful, profound feeling. But it’s a feeling. It’s different than him actually being there. And that’s what I’ve been coming to terms with, really since November.
Some People Feel It All at Once, at the Very Beginning
I’m talking on the phone with my mother when it just comes out of my mouth, what my sister said. I immediately want to take it back. The plan has been not to involve my mom in any dramatics, especially not now, as she’s coping with living on her own for the first time ever as an adult.
But my mother has been complaining about my sister in another light, and it reminds me of my own situation, and before I know it, I’m saying it.
I tell her about what my sister said, about my not knowing how sick Dad was. That my sister said I had been in the dark.
“She doesn’t know what she’s talking about!” my mother snaps. “She never came to the hospital anyway. You saw him practically as much as she did the last year or so he was alive.” She pauses. “You texted him more.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“No, it’s just that she can be so condescending sometimes,” my mother says. “She does it to me, too, which is rich when her own life is such a mess.”
And for the first time, I confess to my mother that I knew that Dad was terminal back in November, on my trip to Houston for a writers’ retreat. That I figured it out by reading between the lines. And cried alone that night in my hotel room because I knew Dad was dying, that he wasn’t going to beat this.
She’s quiet for a second, then says, “I know. You figured it out before the rest of you kids. I could tell you knew, even though you didn’t say anything. Just in the way you talked about stuff.”
We both stop for a moment. The phone call is dead air because we’re choked up at the same time. And we both hate to break down that way. I finally break the silence. “I bet I’m crying harder than you are,” I force out, willing my epiglottis open, which makes a terrible embarrassing noise.
She laughs at that awful sound and at the two of us, half-drowning in our tears. “You’re not upset because you didn’t realize,” she continues. “You’re upset because you get upset right when something bad happens. It’s just the way you are. You don’t go numb and take a while to feel anything. You feel it right away and you deal with it right away.”
“You always said I was a tough little kid who didn’t always act tough,” I say.
She agrees. “You fell down a lot when you were little and skinned your knees. And every time you did, you’d cry like crazy…for about 10 seconds, and then it was over. You were done. All smiles. You’d get over it. It’d be like it never happened.” My siblings aren’t like this, she says. We all have different timetables, different schedules for coping. They tend to react less right away. It takes them a while to react because they start with numbness, with shock, but then they react for a longer time.
“I’m not sure I get over things so quickly anymore,” I confess.
“Well, skinned knees are easier than what you have to deal with as an adult,” she says.
Everyone Grieves Differently & Each Loss Can Hit Us Differently
Grief is a deeply idiosyncratic process. Everyone grieves differently, and each loss can hit us in a different way.
People say many unintentionally hurtful or unhelpful things when someone dies (part of why I normally just say “I’m sorry for your loss” and don’t freestyle or risk saying something dumb). A lot of the unfortunate things people say can stem from forgetting this, that grief is a very individual process, and working from flawed assumptions.
Anyway, it’s something to keep in mind: No matter what you’re going through, there are many different ways to be tough and resilient.