After months of preparing for her father’s death due to a terminal illness, his actual passing set off a series of expected—and unexpected—emotions about what comes next.
I thought I would be more prepared. My dad’s passing was not a surprise—he had been diagnosed with the terminal illness three-and-a-half years prior, and the previous six months demonstrated his deterioration daily. His nurses told us time and time again that he had only months, weeks left. In fact, many of the big decisions—like where to hold his memorial and who to invite—had already been planned with his input. I felt as though I was grieving even while he was still here so when the time came, I assumed I would simply say, “I got this.” But I didn’t. As much as I thought I was ready, the actual absence of his life from my life was impossible to apprehend.
I did cry a bit, the night of—the night I got the news that he had passed. It occurred about an hour before I had planned to give him a call. Why hadn’t I called sooner, I thought. Why hadn’t I extended my most recent visit? No matter the reason or excuse, he had gone before I could talk to him just one more time. I let that thought, that guilt, linger in my heart for a while, and then I quickly shoved the emotion deep into my brain and dug into the details.
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There was work to be done—calls and emails to be sent, accounts to be closed, a funeral home to visit, details to be arranged. It was easy to get wound up in the process that occurs after one dies. For me, it provided a purpose, but it also provided a distraction. And I let it take over.
Denial is Real, and It Happened to Me
Three weeks later, I found that I still had not let myself really cry. Sure, that omniscient bubble in my throat formed when I heard a certain song, saw a picture, or read an old text, but I quickly swallowed it down. I did not want to “grieve.” When colleagues asked how I was doing, I said, “I’m OK. Managing just fine.” When a friend who knew me better than I knew myself asked, I simply said, “ I think I’m in denial.” If I did not focus on the fact that my father was no longer here, then maybe, it wasn’t really true. Maybe it didn’t really happen.
I found myself looking back at psychotherapist Edy Nathan’s book on grief and self-discovery, where she describes 11 phases of emotions that intermingle with one another after a loss or trauma occur. Everyone experiences grief differently, she had told me in an interview. The phases that one experiences bounce from one to the next, with no particular rhyme, reason, or order. Some people even get stuck in one phase for perhaps too long. Was I stuck in “denial”—a phase that Nathan folds into what she calls “emotional armor” and which also may include feelings of numbness, hysteria, protest, and shock?
In a follow-up conversation, Nathan told me I was still in the infancy of my loss. “Denial is one of those passages that keeps you from having to face what your soul is not yet ready to face, feel, or acknowledge,” she said. “Denial will also be one of those aspects of your loss that you may revisit time and time again. It represents a safe place for the pain to reside until you are ready to come out and dance with the moments of your grief, the memories associated with your loss, and the crushing reality of what has taken place.”
I knew she was right. I knew that if I kept resisting my body’s natural urge to break down, it would come out in other ways, such as screaming at my husband for something like not cleaning the sink, feeling anxious about a get-together where friends would inquire how I was doing, or even diving into a state of depression where ice cream and Netflix offered my only respite.
“When you ignore what is knocking at your internal being, what is ignored comes out sideways. This affects attention, concentration, desire, and purpose,” Nathan further explained. In a way, by controlling the impulse to let the tears roll, I was trying to make up for the helplessness I had been unable to control—that is, what happened to my dad.
Denial can be powerful, said Nathan, noting that, “in its potency, you can feel strong, and keep up an interior alliance with the part of your father who continues to be alive within your heart. So, you can speak to him and act like nothing has changed.”
I realized that staying in a state of denial felt safe, and it let me function. Nathan was helpful to point out that my “stuckness” was perhaps where I needed to be at this moment in time. When I was ready, I would likely move into another phase.*
Reality Bites: Enter the Tiny Box
Despite all my attempts to build a wall around my raw emotions, the days moved on, and it was hard to deny what had happened when I saw the box. My dad had been cremated and now resided in a small cherry wood box with his name and years of life engraved on the front. How could one whole life, I thought, fit into just a little box? Everything he did, said, and represented, were all right there, sitting on a table. Of course, I believed in the soul, the human spirit, and I hoped with all my might that he wasn’t really in that box, but rather soaring above and around all of us, feeling free and no longer burdened by the disease that thieved his last breaths. But I couldn’t help but feeling angry—enraged at the unfairness of it all—from the disease that showed up out of nowhere, carrying no cause and no cure, to the fact that this box was all that was left of my dad’s physical existence. Is this it, I thought? A life is simply “gone” and there is no retribution, no “just kidding,” no take-back?
I kept longing for a sign to prove my thoughts wrong, like the ones that appear in a movie when someone passes from this world to the next. We’ve all seen it—a strong wind rattles a window open, a bird flies to the ledge, makes a sweet chirp, and then soars peacefully back into the sky. Or perhaps a candle flickers and a grieving spouse feels a warm, soothing touch to the hand. Where was my sign that he was OK? Did I have to call or yell for it? Did I have to force myself into a swollen-face, teary-eyed meltdown begging for some trace of the hereafter just to find some patch of resolution?
The truth is, I didn’t want a sign, because I didn’t want to move on. Not yet. I kept returning to lyrics from the recent A Star is Born soundtrack, and no, it’s not the song “Shallow.” At the end of film, the character Ally sings “I’ll Never Love Again,” and while the song was written about the loss of a partner, one line resonates: “I want to pretend that it’s not true… ‘Cause my world keeps turning, and turning, and turning… And I’m not moving on.’
Perhaps the idea of “moving on” is the hardest part of loss, I thought. Work, family, bills, traffic, school, stress—they don’t suddenly come to a halt so that you can take a moment and process your emotions. In fact, the world makes it very clear that your loss is minuscule in the larger scheme of things. Sure, friends, coworkers, and relatives are all there for support, but after the sympathy cards and flowers are delivered, they too must continue on with their lives. There’s really not much one person can do to help another who is grieving. If I have learned anything from Nathan and from my own process, it is that grief is deeply personal and that the bulk of it has to be done alone, in one’s own time, in one’s own way. There is no set number of days to grieve and then be “done” with it.
“Life does keep happening—that’s for sure,” Nathan told me. “To honor grief, is to learn to honor your self. In my book, I refer to a cry box. During the course of a day, when overwhelming feelings hit you and you cannot stop in that moment, make a mental note—or even write down that feeling of unrest—and put them in the box. Open it at the end of your day or when you have a true moment alone. Welcome its contents with courage and participate in the feelings that come.”
Nathan pointed out that if someone is still floating in denial (like me), it may be harder to see what’s in the box, but “by making time to visit it over and over again, it will become more real, and more available to you.”
Getting Ready for What’s Next
Some of the things I have started mentally storing are lyrics, like those noted above, and proverbs. There are so many words of wisdom that fall under this umbrella of life and death: Everything happens for a reason; Time heals all wounds; At least he is at peace now.
I hope all of these sentiments hold true. But I may never know. The truth is, my dad was afraid to die. He was scared about how it would happen, what it would feel like, and what might lie on the other side. I’m not sure whether he was actually ready or at peace when it happened. What I do know is that a few days before he passed, he gathered my family around his bedside to say his goodbyes. He knew death was knocking, and he wanted to be sure he told us he loved us. We were his lifelong purpose—and ensuring that we were going to be OK was the one thing he needed to take care of before letting go. (In the third installment of this series, “When Death Defies Dignity: The Choice to Give In ” the author wrote about making the decision to let her father go.)
So while I may never know how he felt in his final moments, and while I may never be able to say that one more “I love you” or one more “You were an amazing dad,” I did have the chance to tell him that I would indeed “be OK.” And now that I’m on the other side, my only choice is to move beyond these feelings of denial and make sure that I am.
As Nathan told me, “You are your greatest ally in this awakening process, yet, you must take tiny moments to pay attention to your body, your mind, your soul, your sense of smell, your taste buds, and so on. Be open to what grief wants to teach you. This is not about moving on, it is about moving with.”
By Angie Drakulich
Sarah Tronco, LCSW, author of Wildly Wise: Trusting the Nature Within provides online counseling in New Jersey and works to develop a strong therapeutic relationship with her clients, which helps to create a secure place where individuals can achieve meaningful change.
Sarah Tronco, LCSW, now also provides online counseling in Pennsylvania, contact her to learn more.