You lost someone you love. Stop looking for a reason and start thinking about the meaning you are going to assign to that event.
Steve Case, F**k Death
When I lost my father in April, I thought I was ready for it. He had been ill for quite some time. His first cancer was 15 years ago. While he beat that first cancer rather handily through surgical means, the operation later led to other chronic health problems. He was never quite out of the woods ever again.
But Dad was a trooper through it all, a stoic. He rarely complained, stayed future oriented, and did as much as he could given his physical condition.
His health didn’t care about his positive attitude though. His body slowly deteriorated over the years, betraying him. And then a few years back, he was diagnosed with a second cancer, multiple myeloma. This was completely unrelated to his first cancer but still a big blow. He was brave through it all and aggressive with treatment. But the chemo didn’t do what it was supposed to. The doctors kept switching him onto different agents, hoping they’d find something that would actually make a difference.
But nothing was working. The cancer didn’t respond like it was supposed to. And then he began to have horrible side effects from the chemo. Mysterious internal bleeds that landed him in the ICU. He could have died during the first one. He almost did.
The trouble with the bleeds wasn’t just that they were life threatening, although that was terrifying and miserable enough. The bleeds also meant he couldn’t do chemo anymore. He couldn’t do anything to fight the cancer until he was medically stable again.
My father lived another year after the bleeds started, most of that year in the hospital, but he was never stable enough again to fight.
I Thought I Was Ready for My Father to Pass Away. But I Wasn’t.
I spent that last year knowing that my father could go at any minute. And treating all the time I had to spend with him — whether that was texting, over the phone, or in person when I flew back to Maine to spend the Christmas holidays with him — as though it could be the last time I ever spoke to him.
The rest of my family was in denial about the stakes. But I had accepted the severity of the situation. I had come to terms in my own head that he wasn’t going to make it. It would take some kind of medical miracle to even begin to turn his situation around, and every sign was pointing sharply in the opposite direction.
And yet… when he finally passed, it still hurt. It hurt so much. That was what really surprised me. I had expected to be sad when he died but not in so much physical pain. But I was. The chest pain in those first few weeks was incredible. If I had felt it at any other time — meaning, if it weren’t a pandemic and my father hadn’t just passed away — that pain would have driven me to an emergency room.
But I knew it had to be grief. And the hospital was the last place I wanted to go during a pandemic. So I stayed put.
When I first felt that pain, it felt as though I might always feel that way. But the physical pain did get better gradually. Four months out, and I’m still grieving, but it’s quite a bit different. The attacks are fewer and lessened in intensity. Sometimes when I think of my dad, I smile before I cry. It’s all progress.
I had told myself when Dad first passed that if I wasn’t able to make progress on my own that I could do some grief counseling. It’s an idea I might revisit sometime down the road — particularly if I get stuck, or if there’s something specific I want to talk over with a professional third party. But for now, I’m moving through this better than I thought I would, especially in the beginning.
I Was Initially Very Impatient and Frustrated With My Grief.
But I was very frustrated with myself in the beginning. I would get so exhausted from the pain — and I’d just want the grief to go away. To give me a break. Because I was very quickly sick of myself. Sick of the pain. And sick of the pity and condolences offered by others.
I suppose it didn’t help that I was dealing with secondary stress — as most grieving people are. Not just having to contend with the pandemic, which made it so I couldn’t attend my father’s funeral in person (although I’m sure that didn’t help either). But having to deal with how my family members lashed out in their own grief — or judged me for how I mourned.
I was tired of living in a world in which my father would be so sick, suffer, and die. Tired of being assaulted by the unfairness that he’d worked so hard his entire life and hadn’t gotten to enjoy a healthy, happy old age benefiting from the fruits of that labor. I wanted him to still be whipping around the lake in a speedboat, taking sharp corners to make the passengers squeal. To be inventing novel tractor hitches for fun. Fact checking pipe-fitting and welding textbooks that were sent to him for his consultative input. Making extraordinarily bold jokes that would shock you coming from such a generally quiet, reserved old man.
But that wasn’t going to happen anymore. The world was a jerk for incapacitating him and cutting his life short.
I just wanted to be past it. If I had been able to snap my fingers and make the grief go away, I would have done it. No question about it.
You Can’t Make Grief Go Away. All You Can Do Is Make It Count.
But you can’t make grief go away. It is on its own schedule. And it never really goes away, that feeling of loss. It just eventually transforms into something else, something more bearable, something you can live a little better with (hopefully).
However, as the days and weeks wound on, I realized that even though you can’t make grief go away, you can make it count. And that’s what I focused on. I looked inside myself and saw the parts of my father that I admired, the gifts I was thankful for. And I resolved to do what I could with those. I thought back over our last conversations, the things he told me. And that, too, gave me meaning and direction.
I resolved to make one of the most painful experiences of my life — losing my father, who was in fact my hero, even if I usually felt like the admiration I paid him was one-sided — meaningful.
I’m still doing that. It manifests in small ways. I find that I write a little differently. Think a little differently.
It’s a difference that might be subtle to other people — but I feel it.
And it’s how I’m getting through this. You can’t make grief go away. All you can do is make it count.