On Grief And Grieving

Day Four: What have you lost? What are you grieving?

This year, thankfully, was not a year of loss. Friends and family, both human and furry, stayed relatively healthy and alive. Friendships were only strengthened, not lost. For all of this, I am grateful.

But I began thinking about grief. About death and dying. It’s something I began worrying about at a very early age.

My mom had me, the youngest “oopsy” of seven children, when she was 45. My dad was 43. (One of friends recently exclaimed, “It’s amazing that you don’t have Downs Syndrome!” We laughed. Hard. It’s true, it is amazing.) I never knew a time when I didn’t feel horribly self-conscious about having older parents. In elementary school I remember noticing that some of my friend’s parents seemed closer in age to my older siblings than they did my parents. At night, I would lie in bed and recite the only prayer I knew…”Now I lay me down to sleep…” and every night I would finish my prayer by saying “and may mom and dad live for many, many, many, many, many, many more years to come.” Early on, I would count the “manys” I said on my fingers, making sure I never said less than the night before. Later, I would inevitably drift off to sleep in the middle of the “manys” and neglect to say “amen” and wake up worried that perhaps my prayer didn’t count.

I might be wrong, but I just can’t imagine my own kids having this preoccupation with my potential death. At least I hope they don’t.

My mother knew grief early on, as a young adult. She lost her only sibling, her sister, to suicide when they were in their early twenties, on the cusp of their lives. She never spoke to me about it. I remember thumbing through an old photo album and coming across the newspaper clipping when I was twelve years old. Not many years after her sister’s death, she lost her first husband, Scott, in the war. As a young girl, I used to sit at our piano in our living room, painstakingly plunking out tunes from the beginning piano book. I recall the one morning that I was playing and singing “My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean.” Suddenly, my mom appeared from down the hallway, her eyes red and swollen, her voice imploring me to stop. Please. Stop. Just stop. She was crying and angry. But she never told me why. Later, I figured it out on my own. Scott was my mother’s bonnie.

Learning how much loss and grief my own mother had endured was my first understanding of just how unfair life could be.

I had lost all my grandparents by the time I was in middle school. Both sets had lived with us in the attached mother-in-law apartment that we had on our house, but I didn’t have deep relationships with them. Plus, they just seemed “old” to me. In my immature mind, it simply made sense that they died. I don’t remember being terribly sad at all.

My prayers must have paid off, because my parents did live for many, many more years to come. Through serious car accidents and heart attacks and congestive heart failure, both lived long enough to see me, their youngest child, get married and have my first child. It was when my son, Evan, was about two years old when my father became ill.

I always remember being amazed that my dad lived for as long as he did. He was a chain-smoker with chronic health conditions and did not take good care of himself by any stretch of the imagination. But if there was one quality he did have, it was chutzpah. My dad was pretty feisty.

I was in my early thirties when my dad became ill. Within a month of his illness, he was placed in hospice care. An inoperable blood clot in his heart, they said. “Are you sure you can’t do something more?”  he would ask the doctors. You see, my dad really wanted to live to see the year 2000. It was 1997. The morning that he died, I was on my StairMaster, dutifully getting my workout in. The phone had rang, but I let it go to the answering machine. It was the hospice center. “Your dad is showing signs that he is close to death,” they said. An hour later, I called them back and asked what they meant by that. What exactly were the signs? For some inexplicable reason, I had to know.

The Mister, my son and I got to the center as soon as we could, but it was too late. My dad was gone. No family member had been by his side when he took he last breath and I believe he wanted it that way. Stubbornly independent until the bitter end. A hospice angel asked me if I would like to see him and I said yes, I did. I walked into the room and saw what they said was my father, but I looked at him and immediately thought, “Wait…no, that’s not my dad.” I didn’t linger. I turned and walked out, more sure than ever that our physical body is simply a vessel of tissue and bone to house our soul.

My dad had left the building hours prior.

Driving home from the hospice center I gazed out the car window. It was a drippy, dreary day in March, one of those late winter days when it seems that spring will never come again. Here it was, I thought to myself. My first significant death. My first significant experience with grief. I was fully in it’s midst. My most vivid memory is being so struck by the fact that life went on. That cars and people buzzed by, distracted by their own lives and their concerns and yet I wanted to shout at them, “The world has changed today! My daddy died! Everything is different! Pay attention, will you?” But I knew it was of no use. Intellectually, I knew that death and dying happened daily, hourly, minute-by-minute even. But emotionally I couldn’t believe that life went on, seemingly unscathed, when mine would never be the same again.

The month prior to my dad’s death, I had studied up on it, as I always tended to do. I wanted to be prepared. I wanted to know exactly how to grieve, and then to do it well. I read books about the stages of grief and about the process of death. I got this, I thought. No surprises.

We had my dad’s memorial service a month after his death so that all my siblings would be able to attend. It was held at my childhood church, the church my father had been the choir director and organist at for as long as I could remember. For days leading up to the service I urgently prayed “please please please please please don’t let me cry.” For to cry–to really weep–would show a complete loss of control. I would not be grieving well at all. Grieving well meant I would be the dutiful daughter sitting on the church pew with a single tear, carefully rolling down her cheek, dabbing it delicately with a tissue. This time, my prayers were not answered. For as soon as the opening strains of “A Mightly Fortress” rang out in the sanctuary, I was a mess. A snotty, teary, weepy, sniffling, hiccuping, beautiful mess of a daughter grieving the loss of her father. It wasn’t until a year later that I understood that that was just as it should have been.

I had grieved very well, indeed.

On the evening of that March day that my father died, I stood at my bedroom window. The grey and rainy skies had finally parted to shine the final beams of sunlight on to the day. I stood at the window as The Mister played trains with Evan downstairs. Dinner was simmering on the stove. I felt spent and tired and sad and alone, like I never had before. I looked out the window and then saw a flash of color rise up into the sky. My eyes focused and I saw that it was a red mylar heart-shaped balloon with the words “I love you” printed on it. It rose up into the dusky sky right before me. I looked out the window and saw the balloon and I knew. I just knew.

I know, Dad. Thanks. I love you, too.