I’m emerging from the Place of Perpetual Grief, a strange state of being in which I constantly question every tear, every smile, every lump in my throat. Is it real? Is it feigned? Am I sad because I’m supposed to be sad, or because my dad has left me? Or both. Then my writer-sister-friend Gale Massey sent me an article in which the psychotherapist Francis Weller is interviewed. Weller maintains that modern American culture discourages us from “grieving rituals” common to other cultures, and thus denies us the full expression of our emotions. We are expected to work through grief quickly, and in ways other people expect. But that’s not what happens, and the result is a survivor increasingly crippled by loss and a community baffled by how to respond.
“The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them,” says Weller. “How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible.” Wow. So then I felt better about being happy one minute and choking back sobs the next, and I’ve given myself permission to be that way for a while. What I really want, and Weller would probably encourage this, is to check into a hotel room for three or four days and read and cry and gnash my teeth and think and write, and emerge raw and fragile but newly purposed, like a butterfly from a cocoon. But the kids don’t like this idea. Kids are so selfish.
So instead, I drive Dad’s old 2001 Yukon XL and am oddly moved and grateful when I touch things he once touched. Last week I found a stack of his business cards in the glove compartment, and handling them seemed like concrete evidence of his ongoing presence. It made me smile. I felt gratitude. A few days later, I was digging through the kids’ Halloween candy looking for Butterfingers, and I found an evangelical Christian flyer evidently distributed along with candy. I scanned over the text – it was all Jesus died and I rejoice over you and You were made in my image. But get this: the two-page missive was signed Love, Your Dad. And my head nearly exploded, because, okay, I know it’s traditional to refer to God as Almighty Father and Our Father and such, but as Dad? No, no, no. The Almighty Father wants you to praise his name and seek him with all your heart. But my dad taught me to ride a bike, and helped me catch my first fish, and took me shopping every Christmas Eve. Utter grief followed.
This new normal, and my own unique form of grieving, has forced me to reconcile Before Dad Died with After Dad Died, and consequently I’ve re-centered myself, my needs, and my priorities. Before Dad Died was a time filled with worry, fear, and procrastination; After Dad Died feels urgent and uncharted. I’m the same and I’m different. I’m still me – mom, writer, friend – and yet I’m also a child who has lost a parent, which makes me feel more adult than ever. Has it really taken me 51 years to grow up? Perhaps this was Dad’s final gift to me – an unwanted push toward being my best self, and the painful, sorrowful task of spreading my grown-up butterfly wings to fly.
I’m not sure any of this even matters to you. But you were all so generous and lovely with your thoughts and condolences – you made me teary, my dear generous peeps – so I wanted to make sure you know that I’m fine now. I’m different, and fine, and I’m back with renewed purpose and determination. To that end, I have important news to share, but I’m not going to divulge it until tomorrow, because I’m still a little bit of an asshole.