How do I feel?
How do I really feel?
In the hours, days and weeks since my father passed, I’ve found that—perhaps for the first time in my life—I don’t really have the precise words to describe what I’m feeling.
I thought I might know what is transpiring in my heart and mind—at least before an older friend of mine—a professional counselor, but not mine—encouraged me not to “rush” my feelings.
“Navigating grief can take up to five years,” he said. “You have to go through all of the stages.”
Following my father’s death, I was surprisingly functional. I put together and delivered a lecture for an international marketing conference. I guided my mother through all of the funerary paperwork. I cooked meals and cleaned my house. I went right back to work, no questions asked. I wrote letters to my friends, exercised for two hours each day, met with my writing group, read books, and even began writing one.
I took stock of the various storylines unfolding in my life prior to my father’s passage and made some hard-but-necessary decisions. I was resolute. I made the determinations based on my values. I was prudent—a favorite virtue of mine lately—tamping down my more impulsive nature in favor of discipline, which has become a refuge.
I thought, with clarity, that I would maybe learn this time not to put my heart in the wrong places. I would not dance on the edge of harm to see if I could survive being hurt. I would buy flowers every couple of days to place in my beautiful dining room, would buy sensible clothes, would grow up, and would face this moment with the dignity I always thought I had until I really found it.
I began to think about the future not as this blank canvas, but as a series of decisions and outcomes with likelihoods that depended in part on my context, and in part on decisions I would need to make each day.
I cried periodically, but never slid into histrionics. I never melted into a puddle of grief. I thought it might be helpful if I did, but I couldn’t. I never slipped into despair. Anxiety and sadness stopped feeling like all-encompassing experiences; they were instead little sparks in the greater vessel of my being. I could observe them—if not really touch them—at a distance. They were a part of me, but not the motive power of the whole.
I reached out to a friend that I didn’t expect to hear back from—never expect to hear back from—and while in the past I typically did that out of some strange sense of hope that maybe this time there would be a sense of mutuality and equilibrium to our relationship, this time it wasn’t for that reason. This time I did it as a rote matter. I took refuge in the politeness, thought to myself, “Let me be sincere for my own sake, and let me be good in the face of inevitable disappointment. Let me try this one more time so that I can be sure that these feelings I had must come to an end. Let me write this letter and find closure by making their disinterest—their absence from my emotional life—tangible and not speculative. Let me make this inequity real enough to hurt in the real world, not just in my mind. Let me put skin in the game and lose just enough to be done with it.”
Let me banish the possibility of denial by putting the cold facts before me. Let me throw myself into the bracing frost of reality and manage the cards as they’re dealt. Let me decide from a place of knowledge, not desire. Let me rip off the proverbial band-aid. Let me face the facts.
I wrote more letters. Bought more flowers. Attended an acceptance and commitment training workshop. Took on new projects. Began networking—more than I have in a career in which I should have been doing that the whole time. I attended a fashion show. I asked my sister how she was doing and she told me that she’d always been depressed, but that now was different, because she was motivated to live. I helped babysit my cousin’s children and guided them through their tasks, and thought for the first time that I might actually love them and want to take care of them in the best way that I knew how—gently, but pointedly urging them through the important tasks and disciplines of their lives and thanking them for taking care of themselves when they complied, because I wanted them to know that what I asked of them was ultimately for their enrichment.
I told my mother that I thought one of my cousins needed just a little more care and attention. He needed a little more time. I told her I disagreed with the notion he was particularly troubled or ill-behaved. I thought that what he really needed was to be heard and talked to as he was, not dictated to as people might like him to be—which is precisely what the world does to all children, because we rely largely on heuristics to relate to one another. It is not a moral failing, but one of the methods by which we cope with too much information.
I bizarrely wished that he was my “problem”, and arrogantly, wantonly suspected that though he would be more than fine in his present life because he is loved and care for deeply by his parents, if I could just be there for him more, I could teach him something, too. He might have a better chance at finding balance and a modest, sustainable happiness at an earlier time in life than I did. I have never thought something so absurd in all my adult life.
Who was I to think something like that? I know nothing about raising children. I’ve had an aversion to them all my life because I don’t know what to offer them beyond structure, a sense of discipline, and encouragement. I am not known for being particularly affectionate. I tell people I love them in a million ways by doing what must be done, and making sure that they have the tools they need to do that, too.
I wore a fine suit to an outdoor picnic and laughed. I took some beautiful photographs and wrote about joy as a practice, and what people might do to cultivate—not chase—happiness in their own lives.
I paid bills. I took a class. I went to bed early, had several nightmares. I called lawyers, administrators, what-have-you. I cleaned the dishes and planned my clothes. I scheduled my car for its periodic maintenance.
I edited somebody’s resumé. I unfollowed people I really liked because I would never really know them, nor they me, and I wanted to give the both of us our mental space back.
Two different fathers of different families told me that they’d like for me to be a part of their children’s lives. Why? Who would I be to them?
I said to myself that my wild days were over, that there was no time for me to recover from what harm they would do to me—that they’d always done to me when everyone thought I was having fun (and I did, too).
I took refuge in duty, found happiness in it even. I realized that these things might never be understood as acts of love and grieving. The only kinds I’ve ever really known, or could understand as legible. I concluded that this was what I had, and that would have to be enough.