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Just when you think you’ve got life figured out, when you can set your actions to autopilot and live like a pro, when you can map out short term plans and are finally old enough to make them happen. Just when you’ve outgrown the rebellious stage of purposely resisting your parent’s advice to show them you can do things your own way. Then having become a parent yourself, find that you see your own mother and father for more than the dictators of your life you thought they were as a teen. Just when you can now see that they did their very best to love and protect you, as you are now attempting to do with your own small child. Just then, it takes a most unexpected turn.
That’s how I felt four years ago when my father passed away without warning. He was young, healthy, and strong with a good 40 years of life ahead of him. I don’t know, maybe even more. He was just beginning to settle into the role of a grandfather with my then three year old son, and I had never known he could blossom into such a nurturing and affectionate being, someone wanting to right all of the wrongs from his role as a father with the love and patience only a grandparent can possess. My father was the last person I worried about who always seemed to be invincible, and anyways, he was usually the one worrying about me. Then, one early Saturday morning in May, while I slept in peaceful ignorance next to my toddler son, the life of my dad ended abruptly.
That Saturday back in 2013 spurred me to later write a blog post about my feelings surrounding my loss which were still as fresh and raw as any open wound. I attempted to type in black and white the powerfully swirling cacophony of memories mixed with future fears. My mind bounced relentlessly back and forth from the past, where it tried desperately to retain any fragment of memory and experience I had with my father, then all the way to the distant future where I would have lived my life and raised my children without my father alive to witness it.
Looking back I experienced every classical stage of grief. It wasn’t possible to absorb the volume of my loss all at once or even during those first subsequent months. Even now after four years and 4 months and however many days until this is published, the loss continues to unfold in new ways as I experience personal milestones or watch the achievements of my children, as the world keeps spinning and humankind keeps moving forward one step at a time, knowing he should be here with us all the while. He is not though, he is not here to participate in any of them.
Not only do I miss the role he played as supportive father in my life but I miss his personality, his unique view of the world, his brash sarcasm, his ripening as a person over the course of time. Often I wonder what he would be doing now if he had never left us, what hobbies he would be into, what movies would he’d be excited to see, his opinion about the current political climate, and his even his graying hair.
I’ve had four years to process and try to understand my loss. There was a time when I would overthink the normally automatic behaviors of life. My brain was so exhausted from running laps around the thoughts of grief, that deciding what to eat or leaving the house put me into an emotional tailspin. During this time of barely functioning it felt that there was no end in sight. “Is this my new reality”, I would ask myself. “Will I ever be normal again?” and “What is normal now anyways?” I can’t tell you exactly how I got from that place to where I am now able to talk about my father in the past tense without crying every time. Able to tell my kids funny stories about him without feeling full of sorrow and overcome with emotion. Even to look at a photo of him and just smile, remembering only the good he left behind. There’s no way I would have thought something positive could come from something so painful, only bad and void and sadness could possibly result from losing someone that so greatly comprised my inner circle. Fortunately I was wrong.
Losing my father has changed me, that’s one thing I know for certain. I’ve never returned to the normal I once knew when I had a father, but I also no longer attempt to mimic the life I had when my father was alive. A new normal has had to be created over time. Like a graft in a tree, the old branch is not replaced but rather a new, different one diverges from the wound.
Now that grief has become more manageable I’ve been able to see the good which has come from losing my father. Spending time on those things that add value to my life is one of the biggest changes that has come in the last few years. This sounds like a no brainer but many things throughout the day are competing for our attention and it truly takes effort to edit out the nonessentials that add meaningless static to our lives. The things that keep us busy but not necessarily productive. I try often to focus on what matters most like spending time with my growing kids, working on tasks and jobs I’m passionate about, not overcommitting myself, and setting aside time for activities that simply give me joy. Doing more of what I love helps me to feel that the time I have is being spent in a way I won’t regret later. This often means saying “no” to people or offers that could deter me from the goal of creating a life with meaning and purpose.
Learning to say “no” to people, to overindulgence or to extra commitments that take up too much of my time is a practice. But each time I flex this muscle and turn something down that I know is not adding value to my life, the next time this needs to happen becomes a little easier. How effortlessly we get sucked into hours and hours on social media, or into another show we didn’t really need to watch, or even eating that extra cookie when you know eating just one was sufficient. These are the things I try to avoid now because they add up quickly and I don’t want to spend what time I have tied to things that aren’t truly important to me.
Something else I’ve learned in the wake of losing my dad is how important self care is. I hate to admit it but before I used to avoid visiting the doctor whenever possible. Scheduling an appointment or finding time to spend the afternoon in the doctor’s office were obligatory things I avoided if I could. Now I don’t hesitate as much, I ask a lot of questions, and I do a little of my own research to prevent a visit. I also try to eat as many whole foods as possible and work out a few times a week. Sometimes it’s as simple as buying a new candle or picking up a book I had intended to read weeks ago that makes me feel that I’m not totally neglected. Not fitness guru here, but before I might have procrastinated with these little self care basics. Now I make time for them knowing that being physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy for my children and family are one of the most paramount of priorities.
Loss has also propelled me to set higher goals for myself and for the future. Before my dad passed away I was in my late 20’s and still felt that I had all the time in the world. Considering the future was not a regular habit and my choices were mostly influenced by the present circumstances, what resources I had at the moment, and what I wanted in that moment. I’m not so much older now, but I feel I’ve become much better at long term planning and sticking to my goals.
Part of having that long term mindset is planning for the future. With a family of my own I have to think about staying physically and emotionally healthy for my kids but also about practical things like finances. I think much more about the long term effects of my financial choices and spend more time planning for future expenses than before. Not only do I keep these goals at the forefront of my mind but I aim a little higher, take a little more risk, and try new things. As someone who works freelance and who has irregular payment terms with each client, I’ve learned how imperative it is to be putting a portion of that away to save. Saving is probably my biggest financial goal each month, and we have several accounts so we can save separately for individual goals. One account can be for trips and travel while another may be for the kids’ activities. With a daughter in ballet and a son learning the piano there will be many costs associated with their lessons to be prepared for. Being a mom has also taught me to be prepared for the unexpected, which can also include unexpected expenses so really saving is also a necessity. Thinking big picture is about continuing to grow and set new goals for yourself as an individual, as a family, and not allowing a defeated mentality even in pain.
Losing my father is the saddest event I’ve ever experienced and happiness can seem like an emotion out of reach. However fleeting happiness may seem I truly believe we have a choice to be happy to a great degree. If someone is suffering or has recently experienced a loss I would not dare to tell them they have simply not chosen to be happy. For those of us who have a roof over our heads, food in our bellies, healthy friends and family, a safe place to call home, we have a choice. I work on this every day and sometimes each minute takes some effort. Before loss I felt a little more of a victim to my emotions. Now I know reframing my thinking, taking a deep breath, and looking for a new perspective on a tense situation can go a long way to helping me have more moments of happiness. It’s a conscientious choice I have to make. When I choose to make happiness a priority, when I choose a positive attitude in place of a negative one, everyone around me benefits.
I will forever be grateful to my father for the things he taught me in his life and also in his death. If he were still alive I don’t know if I would have spent as much effort as I have in remembering times with him, understanding who he was, and recalling what he taught me. Don’t misunderstand me though, I would bring him back in an instant if that was a real possibility, however I understand that he is gone. The pain is still there but simultaneously the joy of our memories and the life lessons I have learned from his absence since then have added to my life in ways he would have smiled proudly to hear about.