This is a process of pain I never anticipated. I am still in the midst of it. But these are 10 things I’ve learned as I’ve navigated the grief process of losing my dad suddenly before old age.
1. It pulls the rug out from under you. It doesn’t matter if he was sick, or a risk taker or both. There is no way to truly understand what’s coming. My dad was a relapsed alcoholic with end-stage liver failure. For many years. I knew he was in poor health and I knew he could die at any time. But I didn’t know he would die that day. That’s the only way I know to explain it. No matter how much information you have, there’s no way to prepare yourself for the death of your father who is only 58 years old. There just isn’t. It’s a shock. I was smack in the midst of the grief still wondering how I got there.
2. It doesn’t matter what kind of father he was. You think it will, but it doesn’t. If he was present and involved, you will grieve his absence and his love. If he was absent and distant, you will grieve what could have been, or what you wish he was. If it was more complicated than that, your grief will be just as complicated. And you WILL grieve on some level. Don’t try to argue yourself out of it, just let it come.
3. It doesn’t matter if you have another father, too. I love my adopted dad. He has been a dad to me since I was 7 years old. He is a wonderful grandfather to my kids. He is/was way more present in my life than my biological dad ever was. I love him big and I am secure in his love for me. But that is separate from this pain. It doesn’t diminish the loss of my biological dad in any way, just like knowing and loving and grieving my biological dad doesn’t diminish my love for my adopted dad. The two are different relationships. Perhaps thought to be connected because they share a “title.” But not the same at all.
4. The grief is weird and nothing at all like losing a friend or a grandparent. And hard to explain. It feels like a little piece of me died. I look down at my hands that are shaped like my dad’s and feel weird to have them. I see him when I smile and it makes me sad and happy all at once. The knowledge that a little piece of him lives on in me brings me comfort, and then the finality of him being gone washes over me all over again. It’s hard to really wrap my mind around.
5. The grief lasts longer than you think it will. My dad died in January. This is June. I thought the sadness would be more occasional by now. Instead it feels like it has burrowed down deep into my soul and will never leave. I don’t cry every day anymore. But I feel heavy. Light and happy moments are rare and occasional. And lots of good things are happening in my life right now, but it’s hard to enjoy them.
6. People won’t truly understand. I have the best friends a girl can ask for. Really, I swear they are better than any friends I know. But none of them have yet lost a parent. Because we are not yet in that season where one EXPECTS to lose a parent. And they are fabulous listeners. And wonderful comforters. But they can’t really and truly GET it. Because they haven’t lived it. I never got it before. I would listen to others talk about losing a parent and think I could understand what they were feeling. But I didn’t. Because I swear I’ve never understood it before now.
7. Because people won’t truly understand, you’ll try to be alone. A lot. Being alone feels like the right thing most of the time. Because I feel alone even when I’m with people. And I WANT to be past the grief, so I don’t like me very much sometimes. I feel like I’m a walking bummer. And I assume you don’t want to hear about it anymore. And I’m actually tired of trying to explain it. But it’s on my mind a lot. So it becomes easier to just be alone. I force myself to be with people a few times a week because I know my personal warning signs for deep depression. But it is work to plan things. And if there is any resistance to the things I plan to get out and be with people, I surrender quickly and go back into my hole. Not because my friends and family aren’t worth it, but because this grief takes all my energy.
8. You’ll have a very low “emotions threshold.” Things that normally roll right off my back will send me into days of deep darkness or angry irritability or exhausted sadness. It’s not you, it’s me. I’m walking the razor’s edge of emotions at all times. My emotional cup overfloweth. . all the time. . about all the things. So I may need some time to collect myself over things that seem really minor to everyone else. Be patient with me. I’m not quite myself right now, and not sure when myself will come back or what she will look like when she does.
9. Your siblings will become your go-to people. I didn’t know my sister (my dad’s other daughter) very well before he died. We live 4 hours apart. We didn’t grow up together. We have an 11 year age gap. She has a different mother. We don’t have a lot in common. And none of that matters. We clung to each other during the week after my dad’s death when we were together. And we have stayed in close contact since. Why? She gets it. I get it. Our individual relationships with Daddy were completely different. She was a daddy’s girl growing up. I met him when I was 24 and only spent time with him for 3 years. None of that matters either. We both knew him. We both were made from him. When I don’t have the words to explain my heaviness, I call or text her. Because I don’t have to explain. She is living it with me. And something about sharing that unspoken pain has bonded us. And I’m grateful to have her in a way I never saw coming.
10. If you were estranged when he died, another wave of grief is coming. This one plowed me over like a locomotive. Why? I’ve thought about it a lot and decided that the simplest explanation is because the risk is gone. He can’t hurt me anymore. We hadn’t been close in over 10 years. And the rift that happened back then created a hole in me. I had forgiven him. I understood addiction as much as I could. I knew he still loved me but just couldn’t beat his personal demons back far enough to continue to pursue a relationship with me. My own hurt was also a factor in the distance between us. But now that he’s gone? I think more about the good times. I had filed those memories in a vault labeled “hurts too much to think about because of where he’s at right now” with a subtitle of “stay away or you’ll get hurt even more.” But now that he’s gone, he can’t hurt me anymore. And so that guard comes down and the good times are all still vividly there in my memories. And they are wonderful and terrible to think about. Because they’re over. Forever. And they were some of the best times of my life. I’m not sorry I have them. I wouldn’t go back and change them in any way. But allowing myself to immerse myself in those memories is a kind of pain I can’t explain. It is sooooo bittersweet. And so personal to me.
And that’s really the gist of it. I’ve learned these things about this specific grieving process, but even if your story looks a lot like mine? Your grief is still your own. It still can’t be completely simplified and distilled into a list like this one. And I’d love to hear from others who have learned things in their process of mourning. Please leave a comment if you’re one of them.