My shrink gave me an assignment, so naturally I will complete it here. Why not make everything you think public and available for public consumption?!
(One of the reasons I do this is because I have benefited greatly from people who are candid. It has made me feel understood and not as alone as I was convinced I was. This applies to everything. Parenting, Wifing, Humaning, so I continue the process publicly in the event I can somehow pass this favor on)
I will attempt to work on this process while sitting here the morning of my follow up appointment, trying to keep my 5 year old busy and happy and not feeling rushed. (HA!)
So recently I heard from my long ago step family. This did a number on me, to say the least. It was frustrating and infuriating and hurtful, so I talked to my therapist about it all. She had an interesting take away. She said, “From some of the things you’ve said, it tells me you haven’t fully accepted what happened.” She drew up the stages of grief on her handy white board and I sat and looked at all the numbered stages.
1. Denial and Isolation
Looking at all the stages, I realized that I could name all the people I watched go through each one and who was stuck in a certain space, but I truly feel I have accepted my father’s death. (It was 15 years ago)
Digging deeper, I realized that the problem is not my acceptance of his death, my problem lies in the lack of any support, empathy, care, or just concern I felt from my own family while I was the one helping my stepmother arrange, manage, and deal with the logistics of someone dying.
I’m definitely stuck on anger still with this. Maybe it’s even fermented into bitterness.
My family is not an overly communicative bunch. My older brothers lived an entire life before I really got to know them. They were not at all close with our dad, and thus had a very different reaction to his death than I did. However, this did not mean we all became closer at that time. It meant they went into isolation mode. They disappeared until the funeral.
My mom and dad were divorced. They had been high school sweethearts and were married for 17 years when they divorced. It was not as if his life did not matter to my mom, but that did not mean we sat and had heart felt conversations about him. I don’t remember her dealing with his death at all.
My stepmother was front and center for me, however. I sat with her the day he died. I cried with her and the visitors that came to give their condolences – to her. I had strep throat, so I had to do it from a distance. I was with my step mother for all the planning. I had to drive her to the funeral director. I helped plan my dad’s funeral with her, made decisions she couldn’t, wrote the obituary, and helped plan the service. In other words, took care of her. She has three children of her own much older than I who were nowhere to be seen during that time. It was up to me to take care of her during the loss of her husband.
The whole process and logistics involved when someone dies is so alien to me. The logic of it makes zero sense. The people closest to the deceased have to make all of the decisions immediately after hearing a giant hole has been punched from their lives and hearts and souls. Why are we expected to do this? Everyone speaks in a low voice with a cocked head and lots of nodding happens. A lot of soft squeezes and gestures. It’s like a sudden movement or loud noise may spark consciousness at any moment and all planning momentum will screech to a halt because none of it makes any sense.
I never felt my family come together during this horrible time. We all did it like we do everything; separately. No one pulled me aside at 25, sat me down, held my hand and just said, “I’m so sorry I couldn’t help with the hard stuff. Thank you for doing that for your dad, for the family, for those of us who couldn’t pull it together to pitch in.”
I was never told, “You were so amazing to have handled that with your step mom. That couldn’t have been easy. How are you doing?”
“How does someone have words to write an obituary for their father at 25? You did an amazing job, and I went ahead and saved a copy for you.”
“I see that his widow is being taken care of and sat with and things done for, but you have lost your father. You are the youngest of his children, and you are managing to do the jobs of everyone else. Thank you.”
It didn’t occur to me at the time, of course, that I needed any of this. Having to relive it all recently has made it all clear now, though. If anyone did anything resembling the above, I do not remember it. I never felt like I was checked in on or taken care of. Admittedly I’ve never been good at letting people take care of me, but you don’t know what you need when grieving the loss of a parent until you are in it. People react so different to death. Most people just get uncomfortable and don’t like talking about it. Lots of people try to change the subject. Mostly people want to make you smile, but that’s the last thing you want to do at that time.
I watched my uncle get stuck in Anger. He was so mad at my father for not taking more control of his health. I watched my brothers try and deal with their guilt and anger and confusion. My heart broke for them. I watched people numb their way through it and never actually deal with it.
I can honestly say I’ve accepted his death. Hard not to when someone spends their life ignoring massive health concerns. It was inevitable. I was so blessed to have a rare heart-felt conversation with him the night before he died. I have held onto that conversation this whole time and it’s truly helped me accept it all. What I have yet to accept, however, is the lack of acknowledgement, appreciation, and just plain recognition for managing this massive life event with zero help or support from the people who were all supposed to come together for each other in the name of love and respect to say goodbye to someone who admittedly meant something different to all of us.
I will say this for my family; the funeral was beautiful. Everyone was supportive and emotional and showed up for the burial and service. I like to think we all remember the moment standing in a circle around the casket while a hawk circled above us. That moment was one that will be with me always. We had our arms around each other and we were smiling. Smiling because if my father failed at everything else in his life, the one thing he excelled at was making the people around him smile.
If someone in your family passes, go beyond your own grief for just a little while and put yourself in front of each other. You don’t have to commit to an amount of time. You don’t even have to commit to a duty. But be present to witness the grief your family shares with each other. There is nothing degrading or embarrassing about grieving a family member. So much goes into the days following a death, and you don’t know what level of acceptance everyone is at. People will tell you, “It’s ok, don’t worry about it.”
I’m saying to you now, worry about it. Go to their house. Be there. Bring them coffee, or tea, or Xanax, but bring something to get in the door, and then just sit there. It will be uncomfortable. It will be sad. It will be painful. But those feelings will be there whether that person is alone or in front of someone. Just for a little time, it’s nice to feel you aren’t alone in your sadness.