Grief is a Journey

The wind squeezing between the gaps in my window sounds like the crying and wailing of a tormented heart.  Spring is difficult this year because somehow, resurrections, new beginnings, and the proliferation of green and burgeoning life just don’t mesh with my latest wave of grief and sense of loss.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you know my father died this past October (2013).  April 27th would have been his 79th birthday.

It’s hard to celebrate someone’s birthday after you put a death date on their headstone.

We always hear that life is a journey. Well, grief is a journey too.  Few of us make it though our lives without being touched by grief–if not crippled by it (at least for a time).

Despite what so many sociologists say, grief doesn’t follow a pattern.  It’s so individualized, as are so many things that others have tried to put into a box with a big, bright label.

Often, my grief feels so intense that I need to share it to survive it.  So I’m sharing.

I don’t want to forget what it’s like to grieve my father.  Because at the root of grief is love and I sure as hell don’t want to forget that.

My father and I often butted heads, but despite all of our trials and disagreements, I never once doubted that he loved me.  There is no one else in this world who loved me the way my father did.

Taking photographs gives me some distance from what I see in the frame.  It puts the camera between me and what I’m experiencing and sometimes it allows me the time to review, reassess, and reevaluate. Sometimes to survive a creative life you need to create through pain to gain perspective.

A lot of people who have seen the iPhone photos I’m posting ask me why I would want to photograph something like that.  I often wonder why they wouldn’t, but then I’ve always thought a little differently…

Grief doesn’t always start with a death.  I started grieving for my father long before his physical life was gone.  What becomes of the strong man when his strength leaves him?  What happens when your identity is focused on one thing (beauty, intelligence, creativity, strength…) and due to age or circumstance, you lose that identifying factor?  You grieve.  Some find a way to overcome that loss and discover a new thing with which to identify, and some never do.

My father was always the strong man who took care of everyone in his life.  When he lost his strength, he lost his sense of self and he never recovered it.  I really started grieving him then because I knew that was the beginning of his end.  This was my first wave of grief.

imageThis was his second admission to the hospital in the space of a week for what they were calling a bowel obstruction. He wouldn’t leave the hospital again until he decided to end a life-sustaining treatment and die.

imageMy mother and I spent a lot of time camped out next to my father on the built-in couches in his hospital rooms.  Neither of us slept much for months so we’d grab a few zzzzs whenever we could. The butterfly scarf that I used shield my legs from the hospital chill seems almost poetic looking back. What were we waiting for? Transformation. Metamorphosis. From physical being to one of spirit.  From a place of pain to a place of peace.

We didn’t know it at the time and we hoped against hope that what was ailing my father was fixable and we’d have a few more years to share sideways glances over his cantankerous behavior.

imageThis was when, after nearly six weeks in the hospital, we finally knew what was wrong and that the outcome would probably be bleak.

imageI sat behind my father as he slept in this chair the night after his surgery and couldn’t stop crying.  No matter what I did, I couldn’t stop the tears.  A nurse asked my mother if her granddaughter was going to be okay.  My entire life strangers have thought my parents were my grandparents.  This was my second wave of grief.

imageDad came home from the hospital for 5 days.  He was so happy to be home, considering…  My mother had the hospital bed set up in the family room facing out a big sliding glass door onto their beautiful back yard.  When my parents bought the place, my mother fell in love with the house, but my father fell in love with the property.

For 4 of those 5 days he slept a lot, but was lucid and had the time to tell us he loved us and ask us to continue a few traditions after his death–the most important being that my mother and I keep going out to dinner once a week to make sure we didn’t lose touch with each others lives.  He loved going out to eat–all of us together.  Mom and I tended to get sick of eating at the same place every week, but Dad was a creature of habit.

Driving home the 4th night, I hit the third wave of grief.


On the 5th day we had to move him to hospice.  Mom couldn’t keep him in the bed and he was too big for her to handle should he get out and fall.

Once the dying lose their ability to speak and can no longer open their eyes, the only thing you can really do is hold their hand.  Dad’s hands were always hot and often sweaty in life. They were the same in his dying.  I don’t want to forget what his hand felt like as I held it for hours and talked to him about the happy things we did together throughout his life.  He had enormous hands (size 14/15 ring fingers) and when I was little I could wrap my entire hand around his thumb.  It always made me feel small.

imageIn the beginning Dad could acknowledge you with a squeeze, but as time went on the squeezes got weaker and then ended all together.  But his hand stayed very warm.

imageWhat made his death finally feel real for me was putting my hand over his in his casket.  For the first time in my entire life, his hands were cold.

imageMy father loved coins, especially silver dollars.  I found a lot of them sifting through his treasure drawer about a month later.  When I came across the one pictured above, I knew exactly what it was.  The 1922 peace silver dollar is so worn that the detail is lost in Lady Liberty’s hair and the wings of the eagle on the back are completely smooth.  My father carried this coin in a little plastic bag in his wallet for the better part of 60 years.  It happened to be in his pocket the day his first wife left him and took his entire coin collection.  This was the only coin that remained because he had it with him that day.

Clothing manufacturers don’t always put pockets in women’s clothing so I bought a surround for it and wear it often on a silver chain–sometimes with his wedding ring.

imageThe fourth wave of grief hit me at a holiday party that happened to take place in Dad’s old elementary school (it has been re-purposed as an art center now).  It was the only part of his difficult childhood that he talked fondly about and I could feel the child in him still living inside those walls.  I had to leave and couldn’t stop the tears until I made it to his grave.  (You tend to get very strange looks on the bus when you can’t stop crying while you’re wearing a fabulously flamboyant tiny hat.  People want to look at you because of the hat, but then they don’t want to look because of the tears.  People are so afraid of raw emotion.)

The fifth wave of grief is still in progress as of this post and it has lasted the longest of all of the waves.  It started as the weather warmed and April dawned crisp and clear after a long winter.  I keep waiting for this wave to crest and subside, but it hasn’t yet.  It just keeps building and building and I thought for sure it would break after his birthday passed.  I was wrong.

I’ve had a lot of people tell me that it gets better, but so far for me, it has gotten worse.  I finally had a friend tell me that she feels the same way–that it gets worse, but that you just go on.  You pretend to be a real person with a real life until in the pretending, you find your way again.

It has been 208 days since my father died.  That seems like such a long time.  It’s not.

There aren’t many things in this world that I’m sure of, but this I know.

Life has a purpose and love never dies.

Love you Dad.  Always…


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