When I got the call from my mom, I was driving home from a work trip. I picked up the phone, and she was gasping and sobbing so hard all she could say was, “I don’t think I can even say it.” I said, “Mom, take a deep breath, I’m driving, should I pull over?” She said yes. Then there was a loud noise like she had dropped the phone, and the call ended. I pulled over and texted my good friend Meredith: “Pray.” My phone rang again, and the phone screen said Mom, but when I picked up, it wasn’t her. It was a paramedic who informed me that my dad had died.
When the worst happened, it would have been easy for me to become a shell of myself. To curl up into nothingness and hide from the pain. But it’s been essential for my survival to remember the good parts of myself, the good parts of the world. In order to cope when the worst happens, it’s helpful to know yourself well beforehand so you have in place what you need to survive. And no, I’m not talking about candles, a flashlight, and a first aid kit. I am talking about coping skills.
My dad died September 7, 2017. When he passed away, I was young, single, and had just started a new job in a new city. There was so much potential in my life and good things seemed to just be falling into my lap. Before I got the news about my dad, I was feeling pretty euphoric and high on life. I was driving home from a work trip that had gone phenomenally. I had just won concert tickets. There was a new guy I was interested in dating. So many positives! Then I got the call, and my whole life, all those great things, turned sour. They took on a dark, twisted tinge. It was an awful feeling.
To complicate things, I also felt some relief for both of my parents. My dad had suffered through an awful, debilitating disability for years, and I was happy he wasn’t suffering any more. My mom had suffered through tirelessly taking care of him. I was relieved for her, that she didn’t have that burden anymore. Then I felt guilty for even thinking that.
Sharing memories and emotions
Some days the tiniest memory makes me sob. Other days I avoid talking about him because it’s too painful. Most days, I find myself bringing him up more than I would like. It hurts every time. In retrospect, the weeks right after Dad’s death were the easiest time to cope. Everyone expected me to be sad, and I had tons of things to plan and prepare and clean: It made the time surreal. I was in a fog of adrenaline and disbelief. That helped.
The later weeks and months have been much more difficult. With time, people forget about your pain. Other new tragedies show up in your circles. Most of all, for me, it has gotten harder because the reality has fully set in. My dad is gone. I won’t ever see him again on this earth. He won’t be at my wedding. He won’t hug me or help me fix my car. Each day I live without him, I understand this more fully. The distance from his death does not reduce this pain one bit. In fact, more time increases it.
For some people, coping looks like hiding from your emotions. For others, it looks like letting all the emotions out through writing or talking or a massive cry-fest with your friends. I’ve found that a balance is healthy. I naturally tend toward the hide side. So, I know that means that I have to deliberately make an effort to talk about my feelings, to talk about my dad.
Accepting the pain and leaning on friends
I promised to help teach you how to cope, and most of what I’ve told you so far is how everything feels like a mess since Dad died. And that’s the truth. A big part of coping is accepting that and letting go. Be a mess. Cry on people’s shoulders. Eat junk food. Stay in bed until 1 p.m., get up, order pizza, and go back to bed again. You are devastated and being devastated is hard work. Let the other stuff go and be okay with being a sad slobbery mess. It helps. The world will keep on spinning while you grieve. I’m glad that I let myself do that. I think my dad is glad I have too.
The loss of my father wasn’t something that I could plan for in advance, but I have realized that the work I have done to form myself into a mature adult gave me the strength to meet that loss head on. I know what my weaknesses are, and I work to counteract them by building up the strength that is their counterpart. I know that I’m an introvert. So being social and making friends is a priority in my life. Because of that effort, I have a network of friends to help pick up my broken pieces, especially my friend Meredith. She was the first person I told, and she dropped everything to help me. She was there when they wheeled the gurney out of the house, she sat next to me at the funeral, and she is still my closest friend. Along with being introverted, I tend towards being too independent. So, I make a deliberate effort to ask for help more than feels natural to me. This made it easier to know how ask for help in my current distraught state, especially when what I would rather do is close myself off from the world and hide from my problems.
I wish I could give an easy fix. I wish there was a 12-step program for pain. I wish I knew how to totally heal from this, how to make it less like a bulldozer and more like a flea. But I can’t. And I know now that I can’t plan for tragedy. There are too many potential terrible things that could happen. However, I can plan to be the best version of myself.
And I know that woman; she can handle anything.
Originally published on March 5, 2018.