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A Complicated Grief

On January 26th, 2023, my father died.

I look at the calendar and can’t believe it’s been almost a month already. It feels as though it happened yesterday and years ago all at once, which is terribly confusing. Time seems to pass by a little differently now. It feels like walking through a dense fog with heavy boots, trying to find the present without light or the ability to move with any fluidity. Where my head is at these days is anybody's guess, but most of the time it’s far from me. It’s out of reach and it’s hard to remember what life even felt like before Death came knocking. She never considers timing when she breaks down the door, does she? Though I suppose there never is a “good” time for her to make the grand entrance she insists on making.

My relationship with my dad was complicated, to say the least. We were close when I was a child, but he was never really able to let me or my brother grow up. Through most of my life, he felt absent from me. An idea more than a man. I longed for the father-daughter relationships I read about in books or saw on the screen. I even wrote them down myself, trying to fill this void where my parent should have been. Creating characters that could make me feel as though I was someone’s daughter, even if they weren’t real.

My father talked about Death a lot. He saw her coming for years before she actually would, and spoke about this often. I always resented that he refused to live his life while he had it, instead keeping one foot in his memories and the other in a grave that was miles away from him. He was sick on and off for much of his later years, but he always survived, and I never understood why he couldn’t really see that.

One of the things that I remember most about him, unfortunately, are the years and years of alcoholism that kept him even further away from me than he already was. Glass in hand, he was always drowning his body and brain in liquor. The anger and emotional upheaval that this resulted in was hard to ignore, and made for a less-than-pleasant experience in my household. It played a huge and inescapable part in our interactions with each other, and in the end, I distanced myself almost completely to protect myself and my own wellbeing. This resulted in an overwhelming amount of guilt, both self-inflicted and from his own words and behavior. When I did speak with him once or twice a month (for less than five minutes at a time), it was never about making the most of our conversations, but rather about how we never spoke. He couldn’t enjoy the moments we had, instead making me regret picking up the phone in the first place.

In all honesty, I had never imagined that losing him would have any real impact on my life. He was such a tiny part of it already. But in the end, you can’t really prepare yourself for how you will feel when someone you love takes their last breath.

When I arrived at the hospital, having found out he was going to be in hospice while at work and sprinting for the earliest train, I was granted some time alone with him before they removed all of the tubing that was keeping him in this world. I was a wreck. I didn’t really know what to say, but I tried. I apologized to him for not calling more. I said that he was a great dad. I lied to give him peace, because at the end of the day, I was the most important person in his life. Despite all his faults, he loved me and was proud of me, so I couldn’t imagine letting him leave with a heaviness in his heart. I couldn’t let him go without him knowing that I understood that he only ever wanted me to be happy and healthy. I couldn’t let him die knowing the truth about how much damage he had done. He wasn’t a bad man. He wanted to do his best. But the truth is we're all just people. We make mistakes and wrong turns and hurt the people that we care about without meaning to. When it’s our time to go, I imagine we just want to know that we are forgiven, that we mattered, and that we will be remembered, for better or for worse.

At the funeral, I wasn’t allowed to give a eulogy, so I did a reading from my book instead. A funeral prayer I had written for a fictional father, that I adapted to be more acceptable in a Catholic setting. I didn’t think I would get emotional, but I broke down almost immediately, to the point where I tripped coming back down the steps. Where had that come from? I was so focused on being there for the other people who had lost him, I was not fully aware of my own feelings. I still can’t really name them yet. But I do know that I mourn what my father and I never had, and now, never will.

I am eternally grateful for my chosen family, who showed up without a second thought to take me into their arms and show me their support. I don’t know how I would have gotten through the day without them. I’m grateful to the countless people who reached out to me with their words of kindness. It made me remember that for all I lacked in a father, I have a world of love available to me. As isolating as all of this feels, I know I’m not alone.

Grief is a funny thing. He shocks us. He undoes us. He makes us look at things with a new understanding, laced with a bitter heartache that can cut us to the quick at a moment’s notice. He coils himself around us like a snake that will live around our shoulders until we, too, turn back into the earth. Nothing is ever going to be the same.

I will try to remember the little things, the good memories. The hours spent in bookstores, the family vacations, his applause when I took the stage. I will try to keep those with me. In everything, I will try. I’m not sure what else there is to do.

And I will live my life, unlike he did, looking forward.

Rest in Peace, Daddy. I’ll always be your little girl.

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