The day my father left his body, I, for the very last time, kissed his cheek, hugged what remained of him, held his hands, and walked out of the hospital room. I approached the parking lot, got into my same car, took the same route home, walked into the same house to see the same husband and the same kids. Everything in my life was the same, yet everything was completely different. My world as I knew it had changed.
It was the end of my dad’s life. It was end of his struggle with cancer. It was the end of him attending birthday parties or family functions. It was the end of his career. It was the end of long conversations. It was the end of surprise visits. I felt it was the end of so much. Death does that. It highlights the ends, causing sharp pain which cuts through your heart. Even though I felt this sharp, deep pain, I found myself comparing my situation to others’ and I didn’t feel that I deserved to be in pain. After all, things could be worse. Some of my friends lost their parents much earlier in life. Their parents had not been around to walk them down the aisle or see their grandchildren born. Some of my friends lost children, which is out of order. Our parents are supposed to leave before us, not the other way around. Some friends have lost their spouses, young and old. Knowing this, I thought to myself “Who am I to complain?” So I didn’t.
I also wanted to believe that my father’s presence would remain with me. I had to believe that we were still connected and he was still here with me. I needed that. But by the same philosophy I thought if he was here with me, then I “should” not miss him. I should not grieve him because he has not left.
I suppressed my pain, thinking that was the right thing to do.
At the time, a friend of mine sent me Rob Bell’s podcast interview with David Kessler on grief. It took me a while to muster the courage to hear it. I thought it would be too heavy for me. But eventually I did press play. That podcast did something for me that I will be eternally grateful for. It gave me the gift of grief.
By concealing my pain, what I was really trying to do was avoid suffering. I did not want to be a victim of my loss. My father had taught me to focus on the positive, to use humor in all circumstances, and to be strong. If I grieved, I thought, I was letting him down. But Kessler said something that will forever stay with me. “Pain is inevitable, Suffering is optional.” I was merging the two and I did not have to. That changed everything. Pain is inevitable. I have permission to grieve. It doesn’t matter if my loss is more or less tragic than anyone else’s. It doesn’t need to be compared. It is my personal and unique loss and it sucks.
Kessler also helped me reconcile the internal conflict I was having about missing my father but wanting so desperately to feel his presence. “It’s not about the grief, it’s about the change.” My relationship with my father had changed. A relationship, by the way, that I had for 35 years. A relationship that helped mold me and define me. I no longer had a relationship with my father, the person. I had a relationship with my father, the soul. I had lost one of the most important senses we humans have, the sense of touch. I could see my dad in my mind or in videos. I could sniff his cologne and smell him. I could hear his voice. I could remember him. But I could no longer touch him. I could not kiss his cheek, hug him or hold his hand. I am allowed to feel the pain of that loss.
The most beautiful realization I made, however, was not while I was listening to the podcast. The realization came later. When I gave myself permission to grieve, I found that I was still the same person as before. I was still positive. I still used humor. I was still strong. I often think of my dad, cry, and minutes later find myself laughing at something adorable my child did. I can miss him and feel his presence simultaneously.
I can grieve with grace.
I have also come to appreciate the cycle between ends and beginnings. The end of one thing is always the beginning of something else. A newly wed welcomes a life of companionship and romantic dinners, yet misses the simplicity of being single. A new mother thanks God for her beautiful, bouncy, baby and yet sometimes mourns the time when she was only responsible for herself. As parents gloat with pride of the college their bright and independent son has been accepted to, they mourn their little boy who creeped into their beds in the middle of the night. Even happy beginnings come with sad ends. Although I reached the end of my human relationship with my father, it was the beginning of a new relationship. A relationship in which I carry him with me, everywhere I go. If we deny ourselves the joy of the beginning or the pain of the end, we are denying ourselves the act of fully living.
The gift of grief has allowed me to live fully, in the present moment, truly feeling the happy and the sad. I used to have a mantra whenever I felt a twinge of pain, “I am strong. I do not feel sorry for myself. I am not a victim. I am blessed. I have a good attitude.” I continue to reiterate these mantras but I add “I am also human…and I miss my dad.” That’s ok too.