Thursday, March 19, 2020

Grief is a Funny Thing

I went into my graduate program to help families with the tough things that happen in life: marriage, family fights, family conflicts, and among other things, death. I didn't think I'd be going through surviving one, especially during the program.

On May 6th, 2019, my father passed away. We sat with him and waited for it to happen once the doctors told us it was starting. This went on for about two weeks, one of my brothers, my sister, my siblings-in-law, and my mother and I were there at his last breath. This is the only time I've ever missed a graduate school class so far.

There will be a lot of "I" and "me" statements in this blog, and I apologize for this, it will seem really selfish. It's a blog really about myself and my experiences.

Daddy's military medals
I got emotional that day. I passed a few tears, but I didn't weep uncontrollably. But all I could think about was how to honor my father. Death is something we try to pretend doesn't happen in our society. There's such a fear surrounding it and it's controversial to speak of. But it's a part of life. If it gives you the "heebie-jeebies," as my mother says, this blog probably isn't for you.

To start with, I'll tell you that my father and I were close. I really bonded with him as a small child and I count myself as lucky. So many people are raised in single-parent homes. I was not: I was made to call him Daddy, not Dad, because we are Southern family, and Dad sounded like something a Yankee would say, I was told. I have a lot of great stories about him, but this is not where I'm sharing them.

The lone chopper at the funeral
I'll bypass the laundry list of details of what I did the day he passed. That stuff is boring (and private) anyway. I'll talk about the grieving process.

It's been ten months, and grief continues to present itself in weird ways.

The first thing I did was I went back to school the next day. A friend in my cohort saw me at the elevator and was stunned, since the news had broken among the class the day before. "What are you doing here?" she gawked.

I can't remember what I said to her next, word for word, but I believe I said something along the lines of "I can't think of a better way to honor my father than to work hard at school and get my career on track, since he worried so much about me and my future." In class, everybody but one person said something to me in sympathy or gave me a hug. My codependence and boundary work started slipping, I know that's when it started, but I didn't see it at the time. It felt like these people loved me more this day. Maybe they did, but I'm not a huge part of their lives when the dust settled, and I had to be reminded of that. It was nice of them, though to show sympathy.

I don't remember crying or venting publicly very much. The funeral was what Daddy wanted: Catholic and Military. My sister did an incredible eulogy. I didn't have it in me to write one or even give one at that moment. Daddy got a nine gun salute from the 279th ACR and the current Colonel presented a flag to my mother. There was an Army emblem on the lining of the coffin. Daddy looked really good after being embalmed and we put his dog's urn in at his feet to be buried with him. My cousin Maggie printed beautiful large posterboard pictures of Daddy throughout his life, especially during his time in the military. I know the mortician, a childhood friend of my father's, took careful care of his funeral, and I am very thankful for that. It was beautiful and special and a celebration of his life.
Daddy flying a helicopter, probably
in German in 1974? IDK

The next few weeks went on. I don't remember particular sadness. Growing up, my father went to Drill with the 278th often on the weekends. I was used to him being gone for long weekends, leaving for work at 7 am and not getting home until after 6. As bonded as we were, he was absent a lot, being the provider and defender. It was tough on my family, it was technically a separation. I had been through enough schooling by the time he died that this was akin to the stress of a divorce and was similar. This is what military families put up with that a lot of non-military families don't live through; this is what sets us apart.

After he passed, it just felt like Daddy was at Drill.

He'd be home soon.

I pre-emptively decided to go to therapy again, for my grief. In the application, I listed that grief was something I was concerned about, trying to be responsible and proactive in dealing with it. It was around the corner, right? I was about to have it, right? It happened to fathers and daughters like me when my father died, right?

No. It didn't. Not like I thought.

It came out in weird ways. After a few blow ups with friends over dumb stuff, I realized my boundaries were slipping and I was falling back into codependency again. My dignity took a hit.

My therapist pointed out to me that we didn't talk a lot about my father that much. We talked about other subjects, weirdly. My therapist moved on in November, and she discharged me. I went without therapy for a while.

I took the spring semester off, and I used the time to do something I've been meaning to do for a while: I got a breast reduction. In that time, my cousin and her husband separated, another cousin's mother died (her mother was related to me by marriage) passed away. During this time, I saw pictures from someone's wedding that happened earlier in the year, and it was like someone clapped their hands in front of my face to get my attention: Daddy would never walk me down the aisle, that rite of passage. And no other man in this world would ever love me like he did, I realized. They say stop looking for a man as good as your daddy, you'll never find him when dating. And it's hitting me very hard.

And of course, no excess financial aide meant I was short some money, especially with medical bills. So, I went back to driving rideshare in Nashville before the social distancing started and killed business. I drove some Vanderbilt students home and my pulse rose, my ears buzzed, and I got dizzy as I looked up: the Nashville VA loomed, next door to the VUMC campus.

Sunset at Camino Reál after
a long day at the hospital
In the years preceding Daddy's death, the last fifteen years, he was in and out of the VA and Vanderbilt University Medical Center. I don't feel comfortable citing his illnesses publicly, what he went in for. But I spent hours in those hospitals with him. Trading visiting hours. Bringing food and supplies for whomever was staying with him. Relaying information on his progress with friends and relatives. Relieving my mother from her bedside duty so she could get some rest. Bringing him a Wendy's Double stack with a Diet Coke because he wouldn't eat the hospital food, and bringing chargers for his Kindle and iPhone to keep him entertained.

I realized that I was very slowly moving through the phases of grief. They are denial, bargaining, depression, anger, and acceptance. And you don't move through them in any particular order, but acceptance almost always comes last. And a lot of the time, I'm not sure I can tell when I've hit a stage until it's over.

I can see the denial in retrospect: the feeling that he was at work or a Drill for so long. I missed him, but it felt like he'd pull up in that red Pathfinder, unloading his gear like he always did, with a Diet Coke and packet of peanut butter crackers on a Sunday night from his drive home from Knoxville.

I started to see the anger part in me, too. I started to question things that now I realize I really have no right to question. I wonder if I will bargain, if I already have but can't tell, yet, or will do it more. I wonder if this sadness is depression, or is the worst yet to come.

I thought I accepted it right away, and I magically skipped the grief part. I felt guilty for that. What kind of daughter doesn't grieve her father's death?

There was a realization that I was compartmentalizing. My mother really wanted me to become a nurse when I was younger because I was good at compartmentalizing in a crisis. In intense situations, I can put my feelings aside and deal with the matter at hand. I'm not one to be paralyzed by an anxiety attack when I take someone to the ER, nor am I one to break down into a sobbing mess when something like a car accident happens. I tend to put my feelings aside or try to be helpful and of use. This is not a humble brag, but a coping mechanism I've developed, a codependent one, to help other people manage their emotions. I am not responsible for other people's emotions, though. It's humbling to see this. I started with a new therapist recently, and when I spoke about my father, more than I had with my previous therapist, I cried. I really did for real, like tears streaming down my face, not just getting a little choked up. It struck me that I never did cry for his loss. A friend offered me a ticket to see Glennon Doyle a few days later when she came to Nashville, and I got a copy of her newest book. I really enjoyed getting to see her right before the social distancing started. She is really amazing and I hope her work will help me with the grieving process.
Holding Daddy's hand
for the last time

Grief really does work in weird ways. I still have overwhelming sadness when I pass the Nashville VA or bite into a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It feels like something's missing. I will probably miss him forever. He was my father, my first hero. I have to remind myself, in my saddest moments, how lucky I was to have him, when so many people in this world don't have their own fathers or have strained relationships with them. I am trying to be grateful for that, but I am still now a half an orphan. That's a terrifying feeling, too, no matter how old you get, to not have an "umbrella" against the world, which is what a parent is. I still miss him. Maybe I always will. At times, it feels unfair, but it's a part of life, and it reminds me of my own mortality and how short life is. Everyone has just a short time in this world, a blink of an eye in the big picture. It's hard to contemplate, still, but if you matter to a few people, your memory is eternal. That's the most you can ask for.

Godspeed, Daddy. See you on Fiddler's Green.


your Baby-san

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