I hope I’m alone in this, but right now, there’s an bizarrely high number of people in my extended circle sloughing off the mortal coil. One of my best friends lost her dad a few days back. He was just sixty-five, healthy active guy, low-stress job, and BAM—heart attack. Gone.
My dad died when I was twenty-one, and, ever since my wife, Margaret, and I got the news from our bewildered friend, getting ready to board a plane to go back east for the days of nightmarish crisis that follow the death of a family member, I’ve been pacing and organizing my thoughts; trying to figure out what information I have that’s useful to pass on, since at my age, there’s not a load of my friends who have been through this process before.
Here’s what I got. Ahem.
There’s a dead parent club. If you’re in it. Congratulations. Poor you. All of us who are lucky enough to outlive our parents join it eventually; some of us join earlier than others. Being part of the Dead Dad Club, or it’s sister organization, the Dead Mom Club, doesn’t make you instantly wiser; on the contrary, it makes you more prone to wander around in a dysfunctional haze and possibly do some stupid, dangerous, self-medicating things for the first few months. The only benefit of membership is that you’ve probably lost part of that buffer of assumed safety most of us wander through the first part of our lives with. I think most of us unconsciously assume that we’re mostly safe while we’re young, and if we’re lucky enough to have loving, committed parents, we probably grow up assuming that they’d take that metaphoric bullet to keep us safe. Unless you’ve actively worked to deconstruct this belief, it’s probably still there—until somebody dies, and it’s gone. This is the hidden membership fee of joining the Dead Dad Club.
Peeling off that psychological layer of protection is a big existential shift; acknowledging that you’re number’s up next. This offers you either the opportunity for some fabulous self-destructive behavior, or the chance to get a lot more honest about your limited time on the planet and use the fire that will inevitably consume you to fuel your passion for whatever you want to do before you die. Hopefully, you do a little of both. Me? I wrote a novel because my friends started getting wrinkles. You’re never the wrong age for a midlife crisis. Because you never know how much longer you have to live. Mwoooahahaha.
What’s often overlooked when we’re busy laughing, rightfully, at forty-five-year-old dudes driving late-model penis cars, is that a crisis like this is a shitty, painful opportunity to recognize the consequences of your actions, and clean up your act, let go of unhealthy, draining relationships, bad habits, or whatever is holding you back, and use that freed-up energy to plunge heartfirst into where ever you suspect your personal sweet, juicy, meaningful bliss might lie. You don’t have to take advantage of this opportunity. But as long as you’re suffering, you might as well get something beneficial out of it.
This leads me to one of the best, most useful things anybody told me when I was grieving for my Dad; you’re never too old to feel like an orphan. Yes, it sounds like wallowing claptrap. Guess what. Your parent died. Within the appropriate time frame, you’re allowed some wallow. As we get older, being an orphan is an increasingly universal constant. What does it mean? Orphans in children’s books get to have all the adventures, partly because nobody’s there to protect them from having them. But ultimately, we as readers feel their experiences more keenly because, unlike most ten-year-olds, orphans (in the literary, no adopted/foster/step parent sense) are entirely responsible for their actions. Nobody is going to step into the middle of the story and say, “I’m sorry my daughter rubbed the magic lamp setting a djinn loose and wrecking your antiquities shop, Mr. Suleman, I’ll pay for the damages.” Nope. If you’re an orphan, it’s up to you to wrangle a shop-fixing wish out of that djinn yourself, and get it back in the bottle before it wrecks Lower Manhattan. Or whatever. It’s lonely and scary losing that protective buffer. But it can make you a better, more interesting person. Or not. That’s optional too.
My best advice to someone grieving, is, as long as you’re engaging your grief, you can’t do anything wrong. If you’re downing a half-bottle of whisky so you can let down your guard and really be in touch with the pain, chug-a-lug, my friend. If, however, you’re downing a half-bottle of whisky so you don’t feel the pain, you’re setting yourself up for a short lifetime of alcoholism. Because that pain is there until you sit with it and let it have its way with you. You may need to do weird things. I felt the desperate need to be outdoors with my grief. For me, God, or whatever I needed to draw solace from couldn’t be found indoors. Since I was grieving on a college campus, and had no car to get away to, say, a large park, this led to some awkward circumstances.
But whatever. This is your time to be an entitled bitch--as long as you’re aware of the consequences of your actions, and can live with them. Cry when you need to. If people are disturbed, it’s probably because they’re out of touch and you get to be the little blackbird of dourness that offers them the chance to enter a more compassionate reality.
When my Dad died, I had to mourn every single way I loved him. It’s like my mind had this giant mourning checklist; hundreds of items long, and I’d be unpredictable around those things until I had time to sit down, dig in, and really feel miserable about them. Somebody would offer me coffee, and I’d start tearing up because I’d realize I’d never get to steal another sip of Dad’s mug of coffee, which was always a quarter milk with five rounded teaspoons of sugar. I hated never knowing when something would come up and I’d start crying. So I became a marathon mourner. I was going to set the world record for getting over it and back to normal life. When I found a new bubble of sadness, I’d try to go off by myself and push on the idea, find what hurt, bawl if I needed, until it stopped hurting. I was the massage therapist of grief.
Here’s a hard-won secret. You can only feel so bad. The best thing to do—for me—was to let myself feel as miserable as I could. Just plunge in to grief as deep as I could go. What I found was there’s a bottom. You can’t go beyond a certain point. Like the ocean floor, you can settle in there for a while, under the weight of all that’s happened, and be held, as long as you like. Then the energy naturally dissipates, and you get kicked back up to the surface for some cathartic deep breaths. After a while—and I mean months, it became mechanical and assured.
How bad is it? That’s completely individual, and depends on your relationship. My Dad and I weren’t super, secret-telling close, but we loved and respected each other enormously. His death was about three times harder than when my first partner of four-ish years left me. I figure when Dad died, I had four months of being an utter mess, and another five of the exhausting but predictable hard work of grieving. Take that and do your own math.
Last advice: when the opportunity arises, don’t be afraid to be happy. You’re not betraying anyone. Some day in the third month, you’ll have a really nice day. You feel lighter, and you laugh like an idiot about something. Somebody asks you how you’re doing, and you want to tell them you feel fantastic, but you’re embarrassed, because maybe they’ll think your dad didn’t mean anything to you. So instead, explain that you’re living closer to your skin. That the darks are darker, the lights are brighter, that everything smells more intense. Because it does. You’re happy not because your relationship was shallow, you’re happy because happiness is a biological inevitability, and some part of your unconscious has decided to give you a well-deserved break. Take it and be glad. Because there’ll be more work to do tomorrow.