Here is a slice of life from me, you can read other slices here. I haven’t sliced in a while, it is good to be back. A warning: this is a little raw.
The other day I was walking on a trail near my home. I found this large dead branch of a tree on the side of the path. It stood out because the rest of the area was green with sprouts from the recent Los Angeles rains. Usually this would all be brown, but it was a vivid green, alive and fresh. So the branch stood out. It didn’t block the path, it was off to the side. It made me think of my grief over the death of my father. It has been blocking my path. I want to move it to the side. I want to walk on without its heavy burden.
“When loss is a story, there is no right or wrong way to grieve. There is no pressure to move on. There is no shame in intensity or duration. Sadness, regret, confusion, yearning and all the experiences of grief become part of the narrative of love for the one who died.” On Sunday morning, these words reached out and wiped my tears as I read them. Thank you Patrick O’Malley, for your beautiful article in Sunday’s NYTimes. “Getting Grief Right” is what I have been trying to do for the past year and a half. My father died in May of 2013. I feel badly because I am still grieving. I can’t shake it. O’Malley talks about his work with grieving people. He thinks of the depth of one’s grief as a measure of the depth of love and relationship that was lost.
This makes sense to me. Of course one of the people I loved most and longest in my life would leave a ginormous crater behind when he left. O’Malley sees grief not so much as a series of stages, but as a narrative. Three chapters of narrative. The first is the connection between the relationship with the person who is gone and the intensity of the grief. For me – this is understanding that the story of my life is one that reflects everything my father did for me, everything he made possible, the depth and intensity of his love for me. He was a role model, an amazing teacher. He loved children and loved being a part of their lives. He loved having fun, being silly. But he was serious, stern, even rigid at times. Yet there was always a twinkle in his eye, a bending of the rule when necessary. Like the time the stray dog ended up on our porch. Nope, we couldn’t keep it. Yet it remained for a few nights, and hadn’t wandered off like Dad said it would, for it was Dad who had been feeding him. It was time for a family dog.
He always made me feel safe. Loved. Cherished. The chapter of my life up until right before he was gone. And now my chapters don’t include him. That first chapter is big, long and heavy. But it is one of unconditional love. A beautiful chapter.
Chapter Two is the death. And his leaving was difficult. I have been thinking of this a lot lately. Reliving those last days, that last month. Cancer is not a pretty way to die. But it gives you time to say goodbye. Drugs took most of his pain away. They took most of his anxiety over dying away. But not all of it. He did not want to die. He was great at living. Not so great at letting his life go. It was painful and confusing and difficult to know how to help him. On the afternoon before he slipped into that deep sleep of his last days, he was agitated and angry. I hugged him and told him everything would be okay. It would be okay because he was not going to be alone, we would all stand by him. I looked him in the eyes and told him how much I loved him. He looked at me. We both knew I was speaking truth, but that it wasn’t enough. I could see it in his eyes. It was not going to be okay. He was leaving. It was scary.
Hospice is a beautiful thing, but it doesn’t make it perfect. It just makes it possible. He got to die in his home, surrounded by music and family and pictures of his life on the wall next to his bed. But he still died. And his last breath, while beautiful because my sister, brother and mom were there, and we all said goodbye, and held his hands, was still his last breath. Gone. I remember the mortuary guys rolling him in a sheet. I can’t get that image out of my head. I hope by writing that partof the chapter down, it loses some of its power over me.
Chapter three is what comes after the world stops grieving with you. After the “appropriate” time. Still being written. Right now. Living my life as it is. Cherishing the people I love, just like he taught me. Loving the work I do, just like he did. Celebrating traditions and holiday rituals, just like he enjoyed doing. This third chapter is what I make it.
Thank you for reading it. And helping me write it down.
I am moving the grief to the side of the path. It is still there, but the story is still being written.