It was a beautiful, hot summer Friday in Miami. The sky was cheerfully blue. The white clouds were full and sunlit, and I walked out of the hospital dazed and emotionally broken. “Fuck you for being so joyful today,” I told the world. Moments before, my mom, brother and I stood at my dad’s bedside in the Critical Care Unit, granting a teary-eyed doctor permission to stop trying to resuscitate my dad. His already dead body flailing under CPR and cardioversion. He was 62 and he was healthy a month prior. Nothing will ever save me from that moment — guilt, responsibility and the onset of my deepest, most difficult heartbreak.
Within days of his passing, I woke up to nightmares of him coming back to me in the hospital, alive and telling jokes, as he would despite the circumstances. In my dream, I use the opportunity to rush in every word I want to tell him, sobbing, telling him how sorry I am that the doctors have gone as far as they have and that I love him. “I am sorry. I love you. I am so sorry. I love you so much,” on repeat. He responds to me as if I’m being silly and ridiculous, trying to relinquish me of my guilt and responsibility, “Look at me! I’m fine. I’m really okay. I love you too.” Then I wake up sobbing to a wet pillow, wet face and untame, gasping breaths. I try to sob quietly so I don’t wake up my family, but all I want is to go back into that dream so I can see him and hear him and hug him again.
The month he was in the ICU, I poured myself into the academics of his evolving condition — reading every medical journal and reputable research paper I could get my hands on, consulting my best friends who work in medicine, and then drilling his doctors with questions to help us make decisions. He was in a medically induced coma and intellectualizing his condition helped me feel like I had some semblance of control over his mortality. But really, I was scared. I barely slept or ate, and I frequently ran down the hallway to cry privately in the bathroom. I was terrified of what would happen to my mom, my brother and to me if my dad didn’t pull through.
And then, he didn’t pull through.
My dad died on Friday afternoon, August 3rd. A chaplain escorted us out of the CCU and hospital doors that day. He stood with me as I cried and stared at my dad in disbelief. He didn’t have an answer to the question: How could someone so young, strong and so full of life be gone? The chaplain was gentle, kind and supportive, but he did not provide me with the Handbook for Losing Your Dad at 31. I knew a few logistical things: approve autopsy request, contact friends/family, coordinate with funeral home, write and submit obituary to the Miami Herald, plan “celebration of life.” I hate the phrase “celebration of life.”
For anyone else experiencing the loss of a parent in your twenties or thirties, let me save you some time: there is no handbook or how-to guide on how to handle this. I went to the library and checked out 6 books, and I scoured the internet for answers. Like I said, I get academic.
Here is what I can begin to assemble as advice in the early days:
- Week one is overwhelming. Eat, drink, cry, and stick with your family as you try to navigate all the horrible logistics of losing a parent. You don’t picture yourself prematurely writing your dad’s obituary on a Saturday morning, and scheduling an appointment with a funeral director to arrange for death certificates, cremation, urns, social security, etc., but those are the only early necessary evils. You will also get inundated with calls, texts, Facebook messages, flowers, visitors, an outpouring of support. It is okay that you can’t read every text or answer every call or keep your shit together for zero of the visitors who come over. It is okay if you breakdown as soon as your dad’s best friend shows up at the front door and you have been wearing the same outfit for 3 days, flamingo slippers and a smelly, 40 year old college jacket. Do your best version of survival to get through the overwhelm.
- Surround yourself with people who love you. At all times. You don’t know when you might start sobbing in the middle of Home Depot, or when you’ll wake up in the middle of the night and think, “It’s only 11 pm in California, I’m calling my friend so she can listen to me cry.” You are going to need 24/7 support and you will be pleasantly surprised at how many people will step up and give you what you need, even when you didn’t know what you needed. Without asking, my college girlfriends sent me healthy groceries, chocolate and bubble bath supplies. Three of my friends flew in for what we will call my dad’s funeral party. I did not know how much I needed them, until they put me to bed and held me down as I convulsed and endured gigantic sobs in the fetal position.
- No one has the right words to say, and some people you love may even say things you don’t want to hear. Try not to resent the people who say stupid things like, “Yeah, I understand, we almost lost my grandmother last year and now she’s 101 years old.” Cool, my dad was half her age. Thank you very much for that useful comparison. Or my favorite one, “It will get better.” No, sir, it will not.
- Friends and peers who have lost their parent in recent years are your best resource and grief gurus. These friends are unfortunately positioned to know how to survive grief and what you’ll need in the coming days, weeks and years. The timing of your loss is unique: it is premature and you feel robbed. My college friend called the first day and kicked it off with, “Unfortunately, let me be the first to welcome you to the club. It is horrible. And don’t let anyone tell you that it gets better. They’re full of shit.” This is the kind of honesty you need. You may decide to go shopping for an outfit to wear to your dad’s funeral, and these friends have shared your terror and pain. When I broke into a violent sob at the sight of myself in the dressing room mirror, scaring a neighboring teenager shopping for homecoming, my friend hugged me quietly and said, “I know, this sucks.”
- Learn how to ask for specific help. People want to know what they can do to help, and they will ask you several times. Be prepared with specific ideas and answers. A few I threw out there: bring over more tissues. Instead of sandwiches, can you come over with a few salads? Can you bring dinner for my mom after she goes back to work? Can we plan a visit after this initial wave, when reality starts to hit?
A few thoughts on the grief process:
- It looks different for everyone in your family. Encourage them to express it. Don’t press them or expect them to experience it in any certain way, or to experience it your way.
- Don’t hide your grief from your mom. She’s tougher than you think.
- Be gentle with yourself. I personally suck at this, so I’m grateful my loved ones keep reminding me. I am highly ambitious and held the false belief that diving back into work would help me, but as soon as I tried and failed at it, it exacerbated all my other feelings, particularly of stress, doubt, exhaustion and helplessness. Surround yourself with support, and accept that you will not operate at your previously normal pace.
- You are not responsible for others grief. Many people reached out to me to express their condolences, and launched into their own grief. I had to give myself permission to not carry it for them, so that I could survive.
The entire experience of losing my dad has been predominantly terrible, but also transformative. The upside to this tragedy seems to be threefold:
- Clarity. I have distinct clarity on my values, priorities, friendships, relationships, who shall remain in my life, who shall not, what my career should look like, how I should spend my time. Time and energy are precious commodities, and the clarity I gained on how to use those resources wisely is pure gold intuition.
- Trivialities. My list of trivialities expanded, as did my ability to let things go. Previously, I could be rattled by meetings rescheduled, an ex boyfriend contacting me, spending too much money on a night out with friends, feeling anxious about my career. My increased dexterity in letting things go is a direct result of heartbreak’s clarity.
- DGAF. Embracing this newfound feeling that “thou doth not giveth any more fucks” is a useful antidote to grief and getting through the coming minutes, hours and days in increments. It is also a powerful ally to clarity, identifying and ignoring trivialities, and moving forward in life. This is not an endorsement for not caring, it is an endorsement for knowing what to care about, how to care about it, and how to express it productively. For instance, I do not care to hear my friends complain about their job, but I do care to hear how they feel about reaching their career goals. I DGAF about eating 4 servings of pistachio gelato, but I do care about my overall well-being. I DGAF about my mom’s porch screening issue, but I do care about her happiness and enjoyment now that she lives alone, without my dad. Heartbreak, loss and grief gifted me the opportunity to compartmentalize what and who I care about it, and to spend my mental and physical energy accordingly.
Despite the depths of grief and sadness, there are silver linings. You may have read my prior article on ambition and anxiety, and how much work it takes to build up your psychological toolbox to combat stress. Thank goodness for all the work I put in previously, because I am able to recognize and appreciate the small, beautiful moments that arrived in the darkness. Leading up to my dad’s passing, I invested in friendships and cultivated a deeper relationship with my family. These people held me when I fell apart, they listened to me cry on the bathroom floor, they sent me groceries when I could hardly eat. Their support is priceless, and the bond we now share moving forward is a silver lining. The consequential transformation of this experience is a silver lining. The beauty in having had a year to share quality moments and create memories with my dad is a silver lining. Deep grief is a result of deep love, and I am so lucky to have had that. My ability to acknowledge silver linings, despite the darkness, is a silver lining.
If you lost a parent recently, I am so truly sorry. I apologize there is no handbook or how-to guide for us. I am sorry if you experience unpredictable crying attacks. I am sorry if you freeze when you see “Papadukes” on your iPhone’s favorites, and you hit call anyway, just to see if they have AT&T in heaven. Be in your grief, be with your friends and family, and be okay with not being okay. Your loss is your own.