I grew up knowing that death is a natural part of life. After all, my maternal grandparents’ main business was making and selling caskets, and renting out funeral cars from their grand home in the province which was on an island of its own.
Me and my cousins would vacation every summer (at least that’s what I thought) at their place and scare each other to death of dead people rising from the caskets and coming at us before going to sleep. That’s because the room where they keep the caskets that wouldn’t fit in their showroom downstairs was right beside where we slept upstairs.
I don’t know about you but that was pretty scary to my young self.
Every time one of their funeral cars would be used, we knew there’s been a death on the island. It would happen every couple of days and I would hear the adults mention that the driver they employed was driving too fast again for the funeral procession.
My maternal grandmother herself died when I was about 10 or 11. And because we have very big families on both my parents’ sides (we’re talking between 6-8 siblings for every branch), I would hear of the death of a grand uncle or a distant older cousin every couple of years. We would usually head outside of the city to attend the funeral, be introduced to family we’ve never met, and join the service.
Yes, I would feel the sadness. If it were someone a lot closer, like when a young first cousin died, or my surviving grandparents took turns leaving the human plane, I would find myself crying as they were being buried.
I thought that was grief.
I thought grief is the emotion you feel when someone dies.
I guess I didn’t know what true grieving meant.
Until my father died…
He had been been dealing with Parkinson’s disease for a couple of years. It all started with a weakening of his nerves on his back and arms. Then it became a weakening of his legs that he started having a hard time walking.
Then he couldn’t walk anymore. Then we couldn’t understand what he was saying anymore. Then he had a hard time drinking and swallowing.
Until eventually, important parts of his body just gave up.
By the time he died, you’d hardly recognise him if you looked at his photos before he had the disease.
So, for a number of years, I wrestled internally with all the changes that the disease brought him… how this man didn’t seem at all to be the Dad I knew. Yet, it was all still him.
I also felt unsettled during the times I visited. The suffering he was experiencing made me confront firsthand how fragile the body is and how reliant we are to it for our experience of life.
Not having any means to communicate what he was going through and experiencing lots of discomfort and pain with a body that was deteriorating everyday, he was literally trapped in his own body.
My brothers and I would try now and again to rile him up. We would see his eyes light up and he’d make some sounds as if he was laughing with us. During those times, we knew he was still in there.
I was home during the last New Year he had with us. We were at my second brother’s house for New Year’s Eve. It was a warm and humid night so most of us were hanging outside.
Dad had what my family called a “tantrum” and the night was not turning out well for him or my mum or his caretaker. Well, until he made movements with his wheelchair to go out and hang with his kids, i.e. us.
For the whole night, he was just out there with us while we were chatting and drinking. He even reached out for a party hat to put on and one of the paper trumpets. In short, he was content.
I knew that at some point, because of the nature of his disease, he would eventually leave us. Being the person that I am (the one who willingly faces these tough emotions), I didn’t ignore that truth. I knew I started grieving since the last time I saw him.
But I also knew that I was only grieving the change in the relationship between father and daughter and the change in who I knew him to be.
I told myself I’d be okay when he would finally leave. After all, I’ve done a lot of personal and spiritual work in the previous years to bring internal healing to the relationship I had with my Dad.
I had come to full acceptance of who he is. I had made my peace with his soul even before he died.
So I egotistically knew I’m ready for when it would actually happen… strong woman that I know I am.
But I was sorely mistaken at what I thought grief was. Like a slap in the face, I was brought down from my high horse.
No one thinks their way through grief.
Its a massive tumultuous wave of feeling that hit me with all its might, and will keep hitting me until I don’t know when.
Its a loss that I can never get back, buy back or find a replacement for.
Life doesn’t make sense because there has never been a time until now when my father wasn’t alive.
I once wrote about grief to describe those big changes in my life that totally shook me up, whether it be my identity or the circumstances of my life.
I realise now that wasn’t really grief. It was more about adapting to change I’ve never envisaged.
In grief, I feel a void. Its a bottomless pit of pain. Its very ironic because there’s nothing in the void.
When I was walking my dog a day after Dad died, I found myself enjoying the prospect of getting lost in my neighbourhood. Because that’s what my entire experience has so far felt like.
Lost. Feeling like an orphan. Trying to make sense of the world.
But even when I tried, my brain wouldn’t let me.
Or during the times when I pretend I’m not grieving, my brain would give me 10 to 20 minutes tops, and then things won’t work out and I’m reminded I can’t go back to “normal” yet.
So here I am, riding the wave. It comes and goes. I shed a tear every now and then. I go on with my day and then I don’t.
I don’t know what will come of it. There’s no silver lining yet.
What I do know is that as shitty and painful as it is, grief is a reminder that I can feel, that I had something good with my Dad, and as what I read from Susan David once…
“Life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility.”
Thanks for everything, Dad. Bye for now.