Alicia and her father, 1997
Getting hold of myself the last few months has been difficult. Grieving has been projected to be this wild, emotional, tear-jerking experience but it is so much less hollywood than that. Grieving has been a slow, stagnant process. I honestly don't even feel as though I've stuck my foot in the door to grief yet which is ironically the "first step" to bereavement. It's been a flip-flop of denial, anger, and sadness but mostly silence. My thoughts have been radio static and I know part of that is because I haven't devoted myself to writing in a while. I haven't been open with myself. I've been sitting with these thoughts trying to prolong their entrance into the world, when it's actually the world I've been living in this whole time. It just doesn't feel like it.
I thought the holidays would be the hardest but it turns out, the holidays just felt empty and different. It was more of how do I get through this best? What would my dad want us to do? while still having an unrealistic expectation that this has been a big joke and he'll walk through the door and things will go back to normal. Obviously I know he's not, but recalibrating my brain to understand that he won't be home is going to take a long time because it's natural to imagine he will be. I've been conditioned to him pulling in the driveway after work at 3 p.m. Although he hasn't been at work in a while, and I haven't been twelve in eleven years, it still seems like a reasonable daydream that would reset this back to normal.
When my dad was diagnosed, I remember he and my mom standing in front of me and telling me what was going on. Prior to that, he had been going to doctors appointments frequently and I knew that wasn't routine. He was sitting in our kitchen one day and when I walked by, he was researching liver cancer. It didn't make sense but despite my uneasiness, I put it in the back of my mind and figured it was nothing. Of course he came into my room the next day and told me he had been diagnosed with liver cancer. Which also didn't make sense. Stigma associates liver cancer with alcoholism or drug use. My dad's lifestyle was entirely opposite of both. Still, we don't know why or how it could have been biologically possible for him to have liver cancer, but he did.
So I responded as anyone would, and freaked out. I cried, I shook, I panicked -- I mean, I asked questions and reassured my parents we'll get through this but inside I was a mess. I couldn't comprehend it. I couldn't imagine any of it.
"I couldn't imagine my dad dying. Everybody tells you not to."
My dad had surgery after this diagnosis and was confirmed cancer-free. Until he wasn't. The doctors said it had metastasized to his bones and we all knew what that meant... Oh. Shit. But how? Six months of recovery led to: what's next? What do we do now? How do we treat this? My parents went to Sloan Kettering, Yale, and Midstate. My dad went through radiation, clinical trials, and chemo. We were excited for new beginnings and new chances at recovering from this disease. Every obstacle meant finding something else because something had to work. "Something had to work" was my coping mechanism for the fact that something might not.
Going back to this moment feels similar to how I'm feeling now... what the hell just happened?
Since October, I have just been wondering. I've spent much of my time trying to grasp and understand the concepts of hospice, death and grief. It was a continuous cycle of not knowing what would happen next, when it would happen, or what I would do. I was consistently anxious. Every time my phone rang, my eyes would widen and I'd choke up because it could be that call. Time either went by too quickly or not fast enough. All I wanted was for my dad to be better. It was almost convincing to believe that if one more person had told me to be hopeful, it would change something. All I really wanted was a goddamn miracle, and I knew I couldn't have it. I hated seeing my dad suffer. It is an ache that still turns my stomach upside down and stuns my body with anger.
"There was no fair bargain in realizing my dad's only freedom from pain was dying. He didn't deserve either of those things. Then one day, it happened."
I couldn't stop and try to figure it out, I just had to keep moving in whatever direction each moment needed me to go towards. That's how Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years felt. Now, I don't have those forceful distractions and I have to replay this with a harsh sense of reality. Pieces are missing all over the place. The love and understanding I've been surrounded by have helped fill those spaces, and guided me through moments I wouldn't have been able to otherwise. Unfortunately, there's only so much looking outside I can do before it brings me back inward. My feelings haven't been clear or sensible and while I don't expect them to be, I'm trying to find my footing in this new world I'm living in. Things look differently, feel differently- I think differently. I am more attuned to myself. Which is a weird thing to experience for lack of a better adjective. The most accurate way, I have found so far, to describe it is from a book I read last week, Four Funerals and a Wedding (which is a must-read for anybody who has experienced grief or is grieving): "I see now that what came through were sharp, precise reminders of who I am, how I navigate, and how I cope best." Being thrown back into the world with a heightened sense of self brings me to a place I can't turn back from. I am in a mental and emotional purgatory but now that I've given myself a chance to speak to all of this, I have found some clarity. I'm going to let my hard days be hard days, and thank my good days for shining light into the shadows.
This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let's talk about living with loss. If you have a story you'd like to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.