Friday marked the sixth anniversary of my dad’s death. In many ways, I’ve defined the past six years by his absence. While he would have hated the term “daddy’s girl,” I was definitely that. I’m the youngest child (by a lot), and I spent a lot of time with Dad. We had similar interests; he is the one who taught me to love reading. He taught me to work hard and never to accept anything less than 100% from myself. And, he was the one I could talk to most freely about my mental illness. He didn’t understand every nuance of my depression, anxiety, or eating disorder, but he listened and oftentimes didn’t give advice. He just let me talk so that I put words to the pain and sometimes work things out on my own. When I was fighting the idea of having to take medication for my mental health, he was the first to use the metaphor: “If you had diabetes, you would take insulin every day and wouldn’t be ashamed of it, would you? This is the same thing, just for your brain.”
So, I loved my dad deeply. I know that I’ve built him up to a hero’s status in my mind, but that is who he is to me. He was not perfect and never claimed to be. I didn’t always agree with him, we had plenty of arguments, and my teenage self was embarrassed by him often; things that I think are all normal in a father-daughter relationship.
Anyway. I woke up this Friday morning early, thinking about how six years ago I was awakened by my phone ringing with my brother on the other end of the line to tell me that Dad had passed away. I hugged my husband and went upstairs in my parents’ house to tell Mom, in the dusky darkness of a February morning, that he was gone.
It wasn’t unexpected. Dad had his first stroke years before and had rallied, beaten prostrate cancer, and then experienced multiple transient ischaemic attacks (TIAs or mini-strokes). Within the last six months of his life, he’d fallen and could no longer live at home without 24-hour support. I desperately didn’t want to let him go, but I didn’t want to see him suffer anymore. None of us did. When I got home that Monday night before his death, I immediately went to his care facility and stayed up all night with him. I just wanted more time. I hadn’t lived in the same state as Mom and Dad for 10 years. We saw each other three to four times a year, depending on everyone’s schedule and when we could gather all the kids.
But, he wasn’t the same Dad I knew anymore, this husk of a man in a hospital bed. He would have been raging at us all in frustration because of how much he’d declined. He would have been furious with himself. Still, it was so hard.
How My Grief Has Changed
One of the trite statements people tell you after you lose someone is that grief gets easier the longer someone is gone. I appreciate their support and their desire to comfort, but I disagree. Grief doesn’t get easier. It changes. For me, my grief of losing Dad was a huge, raw wound I carried on my body for at least a year. Slowly, that wound started to scab over, but it was still there. But I don’t believe that it has dissipated or lessened. I think it’s morphed into a part of my being. It’s like that patch of skin on my elbow that I don’t think about every day, but I know it’s there, and when it itches, I’m keenly aware of that small part of myself. Sometimes all it takes is a simple brush of the hand against my skin to calm the itch, like when I share a memory of Dad and blink away tears. But other times, the itch is rampant, and I scratch it until it bleeds. The only thing that helps is balm and bandages, and the only thing that helps with my grief is wrapping myself in a blanket and lying there with my memories and my tears.
I’d planned on doing many things on Friday to honor Dad, to change the narrative of it being a day of itch-scratching and solitude. But, my body had different plans, with a painful migraine and interrupted sleep all night. Still, I did take a long walk to move my body — something Dad firmly believed in — and I hugged my loved ones. And, I know that it’s not just about memorializing February 17, 2017; I know it’s about living a life that he wanted for me: one that is physically and mentally healthy, full of love for my family, and with a strong work ethic to achieve goals.