Sunday, December 24, 2017

Goodbye is Only the Beginning

It has been five months since my Dad passed away. Sometimes it seems like much longer since I was sitting at his bedside. Other times it feels like it was just yesterday. Most days I am still in disbelief about everything that happened.

Disbelief is not the same as denial, which is one of the phases of grief. Denial is more actively asserting against something. Refusing to accept that it happened. I accept what happened to my Dad. I was there with him every step of the way. I just can't seem to wrap my mind around it. I don't know how to process it. I am not sure how to function in this new reality. Or even what this new reality is, because it seems to be constantly shifting.

Grief is different than anything I have ever experienced before. So far, the hardest thing about grief is trying to figure out how it fits into my life. Before my Dad got sick, I was in a very happy place in my life. I was working at home in my yoga pants every day. I was living with Mark Johnson in our apartment. We were exploring spiritual growth and practicing yoga, taking long walks and planning our future together. Then my Dad's health started to decline and suddenly I was spending lots of time in Michigan with my family. Within just a few short months, my Dad was gone.

Aside from losing my Dad, everything else about my life is the same. I am still working at home in my yoga pants and my business is thriving. Mark Johnson and I are still living together and we are very much in love. We read books and write in our journals and take long walks. He makes me laugh every day. And yet there is this new "thing" present in our life. This overwhelming sadness that sometimes hides away in the corners of my mind and sometimes surges up to the surface and brings tears to my eyes.

It is unpredictable and unexpected. It is confusing and overwhelming. It can be dark and sinister at times. I am trying to get to know this strange and unfamiliar emotion called grief. I have never experienced it before. And it is very much the opposite of me. It is totally inconsistent with how I normally live my life. But it is inside of me. And it will be staying for awhile.

I am trying to understand my grief so we can somehow come to terms with each other. Here is what I have learned so far:

Grief seems to get deeper over time. I thought saying goodbye to my Dad would be the hardest part. But that was only the beginning. I had assumed that the funeral would be the low point and then I would slowly start to feel better over time. But that is not how grief works. I went to see my counselor and she told me that most people don't come to her for grief counseling until 6, 8, or even 10 months after the person is gone. She told me that grief actually gets deeper as you start to process what happened and as you begin to experience your life without that person. That has definitely been my experience so far. The scary thing is that I am not sure how I will know if I have hit the low point in my grief. So far, it seems like I am still going deeper.

Grief is an individual experience. We all lost my Dad as a family and yet we are all grieving individually. Even though my Mom, my brother and my two sisters are dealing with the same loss, I feel very much alone in my grief. We don't often talk about our grief. And maybe that's the way it needs to be right now. It is so overwhelming that I can't talk about it. I don't want to talk about it. Right now, talking seems to make it worse. I can barely manage to keep it contained within myself, let alone opening up to others. Maybe that won't always be the case. Maybe there will be a time when we are all more able to open up and talk about it. But we are not there yet. And I am ok with that.

Grief changes you. Losing my Dad has changed me in ways that I am only beginning to understand. Some of the changes are temporary, like the overwhelming feelings of sadness and uncertainty about the future. Some of the changes may be permanent. Like the sense that there is something foundational that is missing from my life. And the feeling that I am now an "adult" in a different sense of the word. I feel like I just started to learn how to live with my anxiety. And grief has thrown all of that out of balance. It has added a layer on top of my anxiety, which can render my usual coping mechanisms ineffective. Now when I can't sleep at night, my mind has plenty of new material to cycle through. I have flashbacks of the funeral or things that happened when my Dad was sick. All sorts of emotions come to the surface and it's hard to shut them off.

Grief changes other people. I am not the only one who is changing. Everyone in family is changing too. And that means my relationships with them are changing. In the past, we could rely on each other for support. But right now, we are all vulnerable. We are all struggling. And we don't necessarily have the capacity to give to each other because we can barely take care of ourselves. Losing my Dad changed the entire family dynamic. In my family, the whole was truly greater than the sum of its parts. Losing my Dad feels like much more than just losing one person. It is losing the impact that he had on everyone else in the family. Without him, there are little holes in so many places. And the biggest hole is in our hearts.

Grief bursts. I had never heard of a grief burst until after my Dad passed away. But now I have them all the time. Grief bursts are just what you'd expect, based on the name. They show up suddenly and out of the blue. They can be triggered by anything. A thought, a memory, something you see or hear. A few weeks ago, Mark Johnson and I were walking in the neighborhood looking at Christmas lights and I suddenly had this memory of putting up lights with my Dad in front of our old house when I was a kid. I used to help him every year. I hadn't thought about that in 20 years. Then I just started crying. Grief bursts are a part of life and they probably will be for a long time.

Healing from grief is not a linear path. As much as I have tried to train my mind to be more flexible and fluid, I am still a pretty logical and analytical person. So it makes sense that I would want to understand the process of grief and what to expect. But there are no clear answers. I am in uncharted territory here, with very little to guide me. Healing is not a slow and steady process with measured improvements over time. It has ups and downs, twists and turns. There are days when I feel ok, and there are days when I am an emotional wreck. And it not only changes from day to day, but it can change from moment to moment. When it comes to grief, I am learning to expect the unexpected. Or better yet, not to have any expectations at all.

There can be beautiful moments in grief. Grief is not all about sadness. Most times when I start crying about my Dad, I inevitably find myself smiling or laughing. I have so many happy memories of my Dad. I was so lucky to have such a wonderful Dad. There are many people whose Dads are still alive, but they don't have the connection or relationship that I had with my Dad. When I think of my Dad, I have to smile in gratitude for everything he was and everything he did for me. He was always loving, supportive, friendly, giving and kind. He was funny and wise. He was calm and peaceful. He was non-judgmental. And I always knew that he loved me.

One of the most wonderful surprises is when my Dad visits me in my dreams. It happens much more than I thought it would. Sometimes he is just there in the background, but I have gotten better about spotting him and trying to interact with him in my dreams.

The most amazing experience is when I get to hug my Dad in my dreams. It has happened a few times since he passed away. Every time, it feels the same. I wrap my arms around him and I can feel a tingling sensation in my heart and around my chest. Energy passing from him through me. It usually happens toward the end of a dream and I am conscious that I might wake up, but I try to hold on to him just a little longer. Then I wake up smiling because I know that he was there.

My dreams are a way to continue our relationship. There is always a chance that I will see him again and say something I want to say or hear something he wants to tell me. Of course it's not the same as having him here, but it helps.

I have learned a lot about grief in the past five months. And I know that there is so much more I will learn as time goes on. In writing this, I hope to start to come to terms with my grief and allow it to find its proper place in my life. My favorite yoga teacher used to say that what we resist, persists. The only way to move through this grief is to accept it.

The hurt is so powerful that it can be really hard to do that at times. It might seem easier to hide from it or try and push it away. But I have a feeling that will only make it push back harder. Even though I feel like I am alone in my grief, I am really not. I have Mark Johnson to support me. And I have my family. And I still have my Dad.

Goodbye is only the beginning, Dad. I will see you in my dreams.

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