My dad died three and a half months ago. On the 15th of March, three days after I received the phone call telling me he had crashed his van and they thought it might be something to do with his heart, we made the decision that matched his wishes to end his time being kept alive by machines. He was 57 years old. I am still having trouble remembering he is gone. Grief during this time has been… an experience.
We didn’t get to have a proper funeral. The restrictions due to the pandemic meant that we were advised to restrict the numbers of people, so the choice was made to have a private family wake, and then make the journey to Dublin to have him cremated, just a few of us. There were no gatherings of friends, no big hugs (outside of certain family members who shoved aside any fear of infectious disease), no proper send off. It was the first step of the grieving process and it wasn’t done properly, not in a way that would feel normal. Not that any of this feels normal, I don’t know if it ever will.
We don’t have a place to go yet to commemorate him, as we haven’t been able to gather together to scatter his ashes. We are suspended in limbo in this small way, but dependent on the day, it feels like a huge wall that I keep hitting.
“Tell me what part of your body you feel it in”.
I started therapy last week with a new therapist, realising that my patterns of shoving it down and letting it bubble up at inopportune times was potentially not the healthiest method of coping with the last few months. She seems to be big into the body holding the key to what is going on, and she asked me where in my body the grief was held. It’s all over. It’s my tight chest; the one that made me wonder initially through lockdown if I had a single symptom dose of Coronavirus, until relaxant medication eased it and made me realise the extent of my anxiety. It’s the drop in the pit of my stomach when I’m pulling out of my drive and I go to ring my Dad for a chat, and it hits me again. It’s manifesting in inflammation and knots in the back of my neck and in my shoulders, funnily the exact same place he held his stress and pain for as long as I can remember. There is no fix for this, no long term solve, no amount of meditating or medicating can bring him back.
I’ve said that we’re lucky he went when he did, many times. As lucky as one can be to die, I guess, just before the country comes to a crashing halt. It’s interesting how people say that when you have a great loss it feels like the world comes to a stop – in our case, it didn’t stop but it certainly slowed down a whole lot. I don’t feel lucky that at 28 I can no longer call my Dad, listen to him going on about some neighbour that I’ve never heard about (“but sure you know them, they live over the road”), have him have my back, talk about police procedurals. I feel lucky that we got to be there, by his side, as he took his final breath, to be able to say goodbye. Many people haven’t had that chance in the last six months.
But like with many things, just because it could have been worse, doesn’t mean that we’ve had it good. I’m still allowed to be angry and sad and feel like the world has shit on me and fallen apart. But I haven’t been, because it’s hard to grieve and teach Jolly Phonics at the same time, especially when you’re already proving to be a pathetic teacher who doesn’t understand why the phonics system is used when most of the words seem to be exceptions rather than the rule.
I’m not lucky to have had to say goodbye to two of the most important men in my life within two months of each other at the start of this year, and then to be separated from most of my family for the following four months. My father never got to see my engagement ring, the last time I saw him in person was the week before we got engaged at my graduation. My grandfather didn’t get to see me graduate, which makes me so sad, because he had lovingly nagged me for years to go back and continue my education, always supporting me and knowing I had the capacity for so much more. Neither will see me walk down the aisle. The excitement of becoming engaged feels more hollow knowing that there will be two empty chairs, empty presences.
My dad was not a perfect man, and we didn’t have a perfect relationship. Perhaps that is more of the grief process; managing the anger and disappointment that I didn’t when he was here, and the feeling of bitterness that he is gone and I am left with unanswered questions. But I cannot allow myself to be caught up in those feelings, because I need to survive, I need to get up in the mornings and go out for walks and not be sobbing behind the wheel. I have a six year old who needs me to ration his screen time and serve forty million snacks a day and I can’t do that if I fall into the pit of grief that feels like it’s coming.
I shoved everything down fully until that therapy session, leaving me with what could only be described as the therapy hangover from hell the following day. Yes, I am allowed to be sad, but christ, it is a raw type of sadness that weighs on my body and overtakes everything if I let it. Lockdown has not allowed me to find a healthy medium. It feels like an unnecessary cruelty, to combine the two things, being trapped at home having to play the role of a Mammy who hasn’t lost her mind and feeling like my world has fallen apart.
Outside of my brain, life is starting to get back to normal, slightly too quickly for my liking, but it is. For me, there’s not really a normal, just a different. I don’t know if there will ever be a “normal” again. The quote from Grey’s Anatomy where Cristina talks to George about the Dead Dad’s Club really has stuck with me: “I don’t know how to exist in a world where my Dad doesn’t.” I am slowly learning how to do that ,one foot in front of the other.