Thirty years ago this week, my life changed forever when my father passed away suddenly at the age of 44.
I realized at the time my life would be completely different from then on, but what I didn’t realize was that as flawed as my father was, he was the secret glue that held his family together. At least, he was my tether to it.
I also didn’t realize how once grief enters your life, it never leaves. Grief is part of the human condition, but somehow gets left out of most conversations. Everyone grieves differently – I’ve read there are no right or wrong ways to grieve and while I understand that on a certain level, my 19 year old self – the age I was when I lost my father – begs to differ. The extremes of grief – on one end, the wallowing in it that threatens to swallow you and everyone around you whole and the other end – the complete burial of it, ignoring it, going on with your life as if that person never existed – can be detrimental to the person grieving and everyone around them. And those two extremes existed in my family, with no tolerance for the middle ground.
I remember after my dad’s funeral there was this assumption that life would just resume where it had temporarily paused. Most of my friends weren’t comfortable discussing my loss, so it just didn’t get mentioned. I get it – none of them had gone through that experience yet, so they didn’t really know what to say. I found it took years before anyone my age knew how to acknowledge such a loss – and usually it was because they too had experienced it. It’s still something I find people aren’t comfortable with discussing, especially now that it’s been so long ago.
We’re not warned that grief shape shifts – that it occasionally pops up out of nowhere, whacks you over the back of the head with a proverbial 2×4 when you’re not looking just to let you know it’s still there. They say (whoever ‘they’ are as my favorite yoga teacher quips) that the first year after losing someone is the hardest – and it is. But it doesn’t magically get easier once you’ve made it through that year. Gradually, the loss begins to fade into the fabric of your life. You don’t stop missing that person, you just get a little more used to the hole of them as the years go by.
The first year after losing my dad, every aspect of my life turned inside out. The first anniversary of his death found me living 1000 miles from where I’d grown up, away from everyone I’d ever known previously. Part of the upheaval had been planned before his death, the rest just sort of unfolded that way. That may actually have been how I got through that year and all the years that followed – by just walking away and starting over.
It is simultaneously easy and hard to put into words how this loss has affected me. My whole thing about real food and eating a more organic, local plant based diet sprung out of this epiphany I had in my early twenties where I realized that it’s not normal for healthy adults to drop dead of a heart attack at the age of 44. That combining poor eating habits, smoking and alcohol abuse with high blood pressure and cholesterol catch up with a person faster than you think. I can only imagine that my relationship with my mother and my siblings would probably be different had he lived longer as well. But you just can’t go down that rabbit hole of ‘what if’ because in the end, it’s all illusion and wishful thinking and you can only dwell on the reality that’s in front of you.
As I’ve moved through my life, there have been days where he was missed terribly, like my wedding day. The day I graduated from college. The day my daughter was born. But then there are the ordinary other days where he’s missed. Like the Fourth of July, which was one of his favorite holidays. Some years his birthday would be one of those hard days to get through, other years the anniversary of his death. Sometimes I just miss him because it’s Thursday and some comment that came out of my girl’s mouth sounded like something he would say and the whole nature vs nuture would slay me. It’s amazing what’s in our DNA.
The last few years though, this particular stretch of May has been hard. I think in part because I lost the person who remembered this day with me. Somehow not having someone else to remember the grief with you adds to the grief.
The year we lost my cousin Henry was the year I was the same age as my father was when he died. It seemed bizarre to think 25 years had gone by without him, but something about approaching that anniversary, on top of the grief I was experiencing with losing Henry made that day almost unbearable. But worse, I dreaded that I wouldn’t get to have the conversation Henry and I often had that went something like this
“Your father died on my birthday you know”. “No Henry, my father died the day AFTER your birthday”. “Well, I will never forget your mother calling and saying (and with this he’d move into a absolute deadpan imitation of my mother) “Happy Birthday Henry. Uncle Bob is dead.”
And from there we’d segway to some other conversation we’d been having most of our lives word for word on repeat again. But that’s the part I miss the most. Because he was the only person who remembered and openly acknowledged that day with me. And it turns out, having someone who remembers with you helps stave off the grief.
Grief tangles itself up into so many other parts of your life you sometimes don’t notice until it comes at you with the 2×4 again. And when those days come, you just have to give yourself the space to handle them. Even thirty years after the fact, sometimes, you still have those days.