Ham had passed away on 30 September 1980. Bessi had forgotten the date but Georgia never had. It was not an anniversary, because anniversaries were for weddings. It was a noticing. The ones who had lost and who remembered closed their eyes and looked inwards for a time, and then they carried on.
(26a, Diana Evans)
Earlier this month, we Noticed the first year after dad got diagnosed with cancer, today we’ll be Noticing his first birthday without him here, and in a week and a half we’ll be Noticing the first full year of him being dead.
On this blog, we talk about progress and doing/being/getting better, etc. In Knowledge Management, a subset of Information Studies (my field of study), we have a million buzzwords like “knowledge continuity” (passing on what you know to your replacement), “tacit/explicit knowledge” (what you don’t know you know and what you know you know), and “lessons learned” (learning from mistakes). Here are some lessons learned from the first year following the death of my father, a compilation of feelings and suggestions, in hopes that we all handle the second year of his death and all deaths to come with greater sensitivity, empathy, and awareness.
Note: I write “you guys”, but I mean this as a general “people who don’t share our specific loss”, rather than “everybody that I personally know and have interacted with”. These notes are a compilation from what my family and I have experienced, as well as what I’ve learned from people in my bereavement group; don’t feel so offended and wary that you’ve done everything wrong.
1) We should talk to each other more. By “we” I mean my mother, my siblings, and I. For people that know my family and I, this seems silly because we’re openly obsessed with each other and talk every day, but I mean that it took a while for us to admit when we weren’t doing well in regards to grieving. It would be a week or two of wallowing alone before talking to each other and saying, “It turns out I have some weird triggers, like hearing this song or seeing something he would have loved” and then all of us chiming in and saying we had similar experiences. When it comes to bad mental health days, Yvonne and I have always been open about being particularly down or anxious, but for some reason, when it came to being sad about dad, the three of us seemed to want too hard to be careful with each other, even though we were in the same position.
2) We want to talk about it… but also we don’t [and don’t know how]. We almost definitely won’t talk about it unless asked directly. (You’ll never hear me say, “I’m really sad about my dad being dead” when you ask, “How are you?”)
The reality is that things like emotionally crippling events and situations become elephants in the room and we feel guilty addressing them. Here are potential outcomes of talking about sad feelings:
- Nobody knows what to say but it’s somehow okay
- Nobody knows what to say and it gets awkward and sad
- You guys get too sad and we have to console you
- You guys say something inappropriate that you think is super helpful and we decide to never talk to you about this ever again
People in my support group have said that when they wanted to talk about their feelings, their friends (shitty, shitty friends…) would turn it around and say they knew how the person was feeling because their grandma had died and it was a similar situation. First of all, that isn’t the same at all, and please don’t ever try to compare situations. Second, this isn’t really a case where past experiences (unless you’ve had a very similar loss) can shed light. Listening, some hugs, non-intrusive words, junk food, wine and other alcohol; if you could limit your contribution to that, that would be great.
3) Overall, your suggestions are unnecessary and inappropriate. Again, try not to take too much offense, but we don’t really need advice from people who haven’t been in our situation. The only person I take advice from is my cousin Andrea, a professional grief counsellor who has gone through her own stuff. Otherwise, I don’t need someone telling me that I should go to therapy (I’ll come to that conclusion on my own, thanks) or that I should decide to have a good day (F those “inspirational” quotes, depression is harder than you’d think). It’s up to me to write about my experience, to read books about grief, to talk to people, and how much I want to share. I know instinct is to help your loved ones with advice, but really… don’t.
4) Similarly yet oppositely to the first point, we all grieve differently. There was solace in talking to each other and finding the ways that we were similar, but talking also brought up the differences, and especially in a time where you really need each other, these little differences cause surprisingly large rifts but, largely, internally. For instance, I dream several times a night and every night, so it isn’t a surprise to me that I dream about my dad potentially once a week. I do not, however, cry, and have not for a temptingly worrying long time. My other family members are heavier criers and lighter dreamers, and it’s in these differences that we worry that we aren’t grieving correctly or that there’s something wrong with our capacities to connect or feel, while, in reality, we’re simply just different people.
5) If this is the only thing you take to heart, that’s fine: talk to your loved ones – and get it as set up as you can – about their/your deaths. Especially with talking to other people in our bereavement groups, we’ve come to understand how much less horrible handling the death was simply because my parents had talked about and laid out what to do in the events of their deaths. I get that most people don’t have family cemeteries (seven of my family members are buried in one cemetery) and haven’t handled as many funerals as we have, but get on it if you can. Be explicit if you want to be buried or cremated, what sort of casket, what sort of grave, what sort of ceremony, and set funds aside, if not buy your plots of land soon. I understand that you may think, “I’ve got more pressing things to take care of and pay for right now!” but you also don’t understand the grief of having to make huge decisions in a time of heart break while also worrying about honouring the wishes of your loved one AND the chance of not being able to respect them in this final act only due to money. This sort of nitty gritty and legal stuff is the last thing you want to do after someone has died, but it’s unfortunately the first.
Other brief notes/helpful hints:
- Grief isn’t linear. This loss has changed us and our lives forever. There is no timeline; we “shouldn’t” be “better” within a year or some designated duration. We will be reminded of this loss at significant dates and milestones and unexpected events and further deaths and heartbreak. Maybe we’ll go through the “stages of grief” but we aren’t only going to go through them once in our life.
- Rituals are important. I don’t mean summoning the dead with candles and Ouija boards, but little ways to remember your person. Today is our dad’s birthday, so yesterday/today we’re all eating smoked salmon sandwiches to remember him (and probably sing “yummy yummy yummy” to ourselves absentmindedly)
- The second year will be harder than the first. That’s what we’ve heard. At least one year ago today, my dad was still alive; I won’t be able to have that thought be true next year. Good luck listening to our possibly intensifying grieving this coming up year.
- Take more videos. It’s terrifying to think that you’ll forget somebody’s voice. All we have are three home videos from when we were kids, but that’s good enough because my dad was the (unskilled) videographer and narrator, so it’s such a good resource to have his voice, see the world through his eyes, and (when he isn’t behind the camera) see him moving. Everybody has their own particular movements and even if you can’t have the actual person with you, it’s an okay placeholder.
I feel like I’m just talking about a really difficult mandatory course I had to take in school or something, to say, “It was really hard, but I learned a lot; I wouldn’t do it again though”. Everybody is going to go through some version of this and death is a part of life and it’s natural and you have to learn to deal with it and blah blah blah. Ultimately, what it comes down to is the usual: everything sucks, but stick together and if you remember that everybody is different, it’ll suck a tiny bit less.