Death and grief. I am no stranger to them, unfortunately. By high school, I had lost count of the number of funerals I had attended. Most were distant relatives, some were friends of my parents, but a few hit closer to home. When I was eleven, my maternal grandmother died, followed by my grandfather nine years later. In the tenth grade, my best friend was in a terrible car accident and spent her last days in a coma. On the evening of my dad’s birthday, she took her last breath. One year later (to the day), a boy that lived down the street from me died from leukemia. In the twelfth grade, a boy who was a year younger than me died of suicide.
Barely on my own, in my early twenties, I lost my paternal grandmother, my nonna. She lived thousands of miles away in Europe. Despite only visiting her four times and not speaking the same language, she and I had a strong connection and an unbreakable bond.
But losing a parent is different. It is utterly soul-crushing. It leaves a massive, vacant hole right in the middle of your being. Someone who half of your genes and DNA came from is there one day and then just gone the next. Even when their death is not unexpected, nothing you do can ever prepare you for this kind of loss.
After experiencing so much loss, it was a strange feeling to realize I didn’t actually know how to grieve. Perhaps being exposed to death from such a young age, I learned to bury those feelings deep down into the depths of my soul? Or, maybe it is because we are so conditioned to not see death and made to feel guilt for acknowledging our feelings?
I went about grieving for my dad in the same way as I had always done before. Over the first couple of days, I felt sad, I cried, I thought all of those things we’ve been taught we’re supposed to think: At least he’s not suffering anymore! He lived a good life! He was a great man and is always here with us in our hearts.
I convinced myself I was OK and that I had fully moved on.
But it was bullshit. I hate that I said those things to myself. I wish I had let myself scream all the things I felt in my heart instead of mindlessly repeating the things we’re taught that we are supposed to say.
So, why do we do this? Why do we try to move on as quickly as we can? And why do we tell ourselves these things? Is it so we can feel better? Or is it simply a way to appease everyone else around us? To make sure no one else is uncomfortable? To make them think we’re OK even if it has only been a week, a month, or a year? Our avoidance of death only makes us bury our sadness and grief even deeper down inside rather than actually confronting it and feeling through it. Why is it OK to let those suffering a loss struggle with their pain alone just to ensure no one else feels uncomfortable?
It seems as though, instead of dealing with the death of someone important and letting ourselves feel and grieve, we are conditioned to just push it all down. We focus on moving on instead of sitting in the uncomfortableness and honouring our feelings.
Many cultures have rituals and ceremonies to heal from loss. They allow time and space to grieve and often commemorate and celebrate the life that was lost. But it feels like in our modern western society, we are expected to just bounce back and move on as quickly as possible without more than a few days worth of thought. And if we don’t bounce back right away? Well, then we should keep our grief to ourselves and only let it out when we are all alone.
So when and why did it change? Does it come from our lack of connection with the environment we live in? Or from our lack of compassion for other animals, both human and non-human? Like all beings with a brain, nervous system, and soul, we are made to feel. But so many of us are conditioned to not let ourselves actually see and feel what is around us.
Eighteen months after my dad died, I noticed my seven-year-old son was having difficulty processing his feelings. He was constantly on edge and very reactive. When I tried to talk to him about how he was feeling, he would shut down completely. And I was worried. He was learning from me how to avoid and bury his feelings instead of acknowledging and honouring them. Having never learned how to confront and deal with my own emotions, I knew I was not the best to help him. Seeing how he was being affected, I sought the help of a grief counsellor. Sitting in the first meeting with them, she gently asked about my dad. As I struggled to stop the tears brimming on the edges of my eyelashes from spilling over and cascading down my cheeks, I felt my lip quiver and heard my voice shake. With a compassionate look in her eyes, her voice barely louder than a whisper, the counsellor said, “I think it might be time for you to get some help too.”
The realization hit me like a tidal wave – I had been struggling to get through day after day, balancing perilously on what felt like the sharp blade of a knife. Instead of living, I was barely hanging on. That afternoon, I made the call for help.
Here I am, eight months later, trying to work through my grief, but I still find myself falling back into old habits. I am trying to release the stranglehold I have on my emotions and allow myself to actually feel them, but easier said than done. I want to give myself the grace to sit in the uncomfortableness of my grief and to reconnect to my creative side. As a teenager, I wrote poetry to make sense of my emotions, as an outlet to release my pent-up emotions. But somewhere along the way, the connection was disrupted. Every once in a while, I get a glimpse of it, but it is usually fleeting.
I am trying to plug back in through writing. Writing is healing. It is my process, my therapy, my life. When I feel that nervous electricity surging in my chest, I know it is time to sit down and write. Writing is my towline to the surface, a way to break free and emerge from the undertow that has been pulling me down.
This is the work I am meant to do, but it is HARD. Though there is still so much to be done, I am starting to feel like I can breathe a little. No longer fighting to hold the floodgates closed and merely letting go of the grief one drop at a time, the pressure is slowly being released.
By repairing the disrupted connection, I can start to rescue the girl who has been buried under a pile of emotions and negative feelings for far too long. She is not there yet, but maybe one day I can finally set her free.