Lessons in Grief
When I replay the memory of the moment I found out Dad had died, it’s like a film, sped-up, where I’m the lead character and the audience all at once. Once it starts, I can’t fast-forward or pause. I can’t skip through the parts that still don’t make sense or the sections of dialogue that jar. Worst of all, no matter how often I replay the memory, it never reveals a different ending.
I was standing in a hostel corridor in Guatemala, back from an overnight volcano hike that had only reaffirmed my hatred of hiking and camping and left me with dirt in places there definitely shouldn’t have been any. With a dead phone, and no urgency to charge it, my main concern was hiding the fact my big toenail was falling off from my boyfriend, washing every inch of my body and finding a pizza that I could eat in the sagging hostel bed. But then almost every one of the people I was travelling with had messages from my siblings.
Get Daisy to call home ASAP.
I still can’t remember what I said after my mum told me, her voice worn and tired on the other end of the phone. But I remember those words, “Dad died”, cracking through me. It was like the feeling of standing in the ocean, the water splashing around you and seeing a wave so immense, and realising with childlike dread that you have to do something. My first instinct was to ask her, “Are you sure? Couldn’t someone double-check”? Like when you realise the sunglasses you thought you’d lost have been on top of your head the whole time, I was convinced someone would tell me there’d been some mistake.
That was 12 months ago, when my long, shitty relationship with grief began. Under the umbrella of grief comes all kinds of rage and desperation. My once sunny house is now filled with four different, sometimes incompatible, griefs. Mine, Mum’s, my sister’s and my brother’s. They clatter around the house, some whirring angrily, every now and then banging into each other with force. They howl and scream and shout at different volumes.
What a shit, inexpressive word sad is when it is lumped together with grief. I wasn’t sad. I was wracked with despair. Furious at how untrustworthy my life had become. Terrified of the precariousness I now felt all the time. Grief wasn’t crying alone in your bedroom, stroking a photo of whoever you’d lost (although I do cry alone in my bedroom a fucking lot). Grief was breaking a bin as you tried to force a Father’s Day catalogue (full of gifts you would never buy) inside its mouth; it was silently mocking your friend as she complained about how awful her assignment-filled week had been. But did you lose an immediate family member? my brain shrieked with scorn. Grief was glaring at a Facebook photo of a girl and her dad on holiday together, their frozen smiles gleeful as the picture amassed likes. It was drunkenly sobbing in the bathroom of a karaoke bar because some guy had the audacity to sing a song my dad used to love.
In the month after Dad’s death, I couldn’t bear that my then-boyfriend could fall asleep so easily. He dreamed peacefully next to me while I struggled to turn off my brain and not hear Dad’s fading laugh. Seething with indignation that he seemed so oblivious to my struggle, my solution was to not let him sleep either. One night, as he lay next to me, I hatched a plan. I hovered a magazine near his ear and flicked through the pages violently. I tapped away on my phone screen with ridiculous force, turned my flashlight on and off, and sighed theatrically every few minutes. I threw myself into the effort of creating a noisiness he’d be unable to ignore. I guess I hoped he’d wake up and comfort me, soothe me into sleep. But instead he shot me a cold look of frustration, left the room and didn’t come back for hours. I cried alone in the empty bed and Googled different variations of ‘Does grief make you crazy?’ The answer, it turns out, is 110% yes.
On our birthdays we all had minor breakdowns, the joylessness of each celebration amplified by the silence at the end of the table where Dad should’ve been. My sister bit her lip and cried mutely as she opened her presents. On his, my brother drank too much, willing the alcohol to make the night fun and instead got into a lengthy argument with his girlfriend. On mine, my friend changed our post-dinner plan so that we were headed to a different club. I made bitchy comments and glaring looks in her direction even though I didn’t really care. When I saw her hurt and confusion I burst into noisy tears. “We’ll go the club you want,” everyone exclaimed, bemused by my ridiculousness. Only one reached across the table, crying along with me in my despair.
Death is an uncomfortable subject. People hover awkwardly around it, nervous rugby players unprepared to make the tackle. They tell you over and over again how sorry they are, how brave you must be (I have never once felt brave), but when they see your eyes prickle, or the swell of a sob in your throat, they look panickedly around for someone else to make conversation with. My family and I, made petty by our grief, divided the world up into people who did the right thing after his death and people who didn’t. The people who sent us messages of condolences, flowers and casseroles and those who remained resolutely silent.
I ran into a girl I knew in the sweaty, local pub. “I’m so sorry to hear about your dad,” she said, “but remember – everything happens for a reason.”
Disclaimer: still trying to figure out why my particular destiny appears to be dadless.
When I did speak about losing my dad, people offered up their own stories of loss. Of grandmas and aunties and old friends. But grief makes you cruel. Mine is worse I always thought. When his friends spoke of how much they missed him, I choked back my disdain. You miss him fleetingly, I thought. You miss him when you see an old photo, or when you spot someone striding through the street in a colourful shirt and mistakenly think it’s him. Whereas me, I live with the emptiness of his absence every second of every day.
Selfishly, I expected others should be thinking all the time about how I was grieving and act accordingly. So when they made joking comments about their own dads or said things like I almost had a heart attack, I grew cold with fury. How fucking insensitive everyone is.
But they’re not. You learn quickly that life doesn’t come with trigger warnings. It refuses to censor itself for your benefit. On that plane ride home from Guatemala (undoubtedly the shittest flight of my life), I decided to watch Trainwreck because I thought it might be filled with some distracting lols. Then halfway through the movie, Amy Schumer’s dad dies and she has to do his eulogy, with all the characters dressed in black for the funeral. It felt like a cruel joke. So I switched to Modern Family and cried into my tasteless aeroplane meal because Phil Dunphy’s lame jokes reminded me of my own Papa G.
After that phone call in the hostel, my boyfriend came up the stairs and leant against the wall. I remember the worried confusion on his face (like my dog’s when he sees the vacuum cleaner) as he watched my friends and I crumpled at the top, their cries louder than my own. I kept waiting for someone to explain to him what had happened so I wouldn’t have to say the words myself. But no one did and then the silence got too much.
“My dad died,” I said.
“Fuck,” he said, like he realised he’d forgotten to get milk at the supermarket.
I always looked back on that moment and let it sting me. No matter what people say, everyone’s words seem crude and pale and weak. Not because people are unkind or uncaring but because there is nothing anyone can ever say that will adequately resonate with your blistering, crippling pain.
A year on, and I wish my pain was softer, blurred at the edges, but it is still as sharp and as ragged as ever. What I have learned though, is that if you check beneath you as you flail in the murky waters of grief, there are people there propping you up and stopping you from sinking. Don’t kick them away. Don’t let grief let you forget they are there.
Cover by Ornella Binni