Grief is a Rollercoaster

When I last posted, my father had experienced a massive stroke and was on life support. The next morning, October 11, the medical staff removed his breathing tube. They weren’t sure if he’d breathe for a while on his own, but he wasn’t able to take even one breath. Still–some of you will already know this, but I didn’t–his heart continued to beat for almost ten minutes before he passed.

My sisters, who both live fairly near where my dad lived, were able to be with him. They had to twist the nurse’s arm, because of COVID regulations, but I guess that for now the virus isn’t too bad in the local community, so she agreed they could both come in. She even gave my sister Debra a big hug because she couldn’t stop sobbing when my father died.

If you’d asked me a few months ago how I would feel if my father died, I would have said, well, kind of sad, but I have distanced myself from him quite a bit and, well, it won’t be such a big thing. Ha! Little did I know!

I’m currently describing grief as a rollercoaster because it’s a much wilder and crazier ride than I ever expected. Sometimes it is bringing me up, up, up, to a high point where I think I have a bit of perspective. Then it sends me plunging down, down, down, and flips me sideways and maybe even upside down before I realize what is happening.

Or perhaps it’s not the best metaphor. I actually like rollercoasters. Grief, hm, not so much.

The first few days I felt sad and sentimental. I went through photo albums, looking at old pictures and trying to remember the sound of my father’s laugh. He was a good-natured person and laughed a lot. One of his nicest traits was that he never took himself too seriously. Perhaps related to that, he never stayed mad more than about two minutes.

I also kept telling Alexa to play the music that he liked to listen to. Willy Nelson. Kenny Rogers. Dolly Parton. And more than that, classical music. He’d listen to Mozart and move his hand as though he were conducting the orchestra. And opera, he loved opera. When I was in college, he used to have season tickets to the opera in the big city near where we lived. Often he took one of his many (too many) girlfriends, but sometimes he took me. I remember seeing Marilyn Horne and Joan Sutherland in Norma, many years ago; it was brilliant. My sister Debra took him to see La Boheme with her in LA a few years back. She said he cried and wasn’t even embarrassed about it.

He studied piano for ten years when he was young, and even though he didn’t really keep it up, he could still sit down at a piano, and his fingers remembered how to play a number of pieces. He also had a good ear and could improvise well.

So I spent a lot of time reminiscing those first few days. Also more time sleeping than usual. Apparently grieving is tiring.

I did know to expect a range of different emotions–not so much from experience but because friend had told me it would be that way. I tried to prepare for that by imagining myself going inside my internal house (that funny house by the sea where all my parts and my inner child and my emotions live) and opening up all the windows.

“Okay, heads up everyone,” I told the residents of the house. “You are all welcome. Anyone who needs to express something, please step up.” I opened up the doors and managed to keep an air of acceptance as various emotions (sadness, regret, confusion, frustration) flew by. I think they used the opportunity to put on roller skates and go a little wild.

When I saw E for a therapy session a few days later, I was sad but calm. I told her stories about my dad. I told her about the open windows and doors in my internal house, and she approved of the idea. She reminded me that having a parent die is an enormous life transition, no matter our relationship to that parent.

My sisters were very busy with the logistics related to my father’s death–but not a funeral, of course. In these pandemic days, we can’t have a funeral, which just sucks. We can’t gather together and share stories and hug one another and hold one another up. So I decided, while they were busy with the assisted living home and the bank and the coroner’s office, that I would organize an online memorial.

Though my dad used to be a very social, out-going person, that changed over the years. And besides, I didn’t want a lot of people I didn’t know much on a Zoom call. I wanted something personal. So I set up a Zoom call for a week after he died, just the four of us siblings (three sisters and my brother, the youngest) and our immediate families. Because my dad had complicated relationships with some all of the family, I also told people there would be no pressure and no judgment if they didn’t want to attend. And you know what? That made it really nice, just a small gathering among those who wanted to come: my sisters, Debra and Cynthia, and my brother Rick, my husband and Cynthia’s, my two sons, my one son’s girlfriend, two of my nieces. One of my nieces has a three-year-old, so my dad’s great-grandson was even there part of the time–and wonderfully so, because he charmed all of us by saying, “Everyone on the computer is my friend!”

Right after the online memorial, I felt better than I had the whole week. The connection to family was rich and tender. My sister Cynthia, who had really had the most responsibility for helping my dad in recent years and who has been very burnt out, thanked the rest of us for reminding her of the things she had loved about my dad; before that, she was mostly just feeling relief and aggravation. I loved how no one judged her for saying she was relieved to be done with helping him, but only appreciated her for everything she had done for him.

I felt genuinely uplifted after the call. But by the next day, things turned really difficult. After spending a lot of time remembering the good things about my father, I started to regret that I had distanced myself so much from him in recent years. Why hadn’t I visited him more often? Or called more frequently? Why hadn’t I helped him more (though he lived far from me, I still could have helped out more). Why was I so distant to an aging, lonely man? A lot of the time I was lonely myself, why didn’t I connect more?

I didn’t connect more because I judged him. I judged him harshly for the mistakes in his life that I knew he made. I judged him harshly for things I felt he MIGHT have done to me, even though I don’t have proof and lack clear memories. Who am I anyway to have been so judgmental of him? It’s not as though I haven’t made mistakes myself? Why haven’t I been more compassionate?

This line of thinking sent me into a tailspin. I felt so angry and disgusted with myself. This in turn led me to kind of collapse inward on myself again. I spent a lot of time in bed. I had nightmares. I didn’t feel like doing anything. I couldn’t concentrate. Literally the only thing I did for days on end was paper crafting. It felt undemanding and flexible and didn’t mind if I lost my place in the middle of a project.

By the time I saw E again, a week after the last visit, I was in a very low place. I think she was surprised. She’d seen me coping so much better a week before.

“Think about your internal house. What about Grace and Forgiveness? They must live there too? Surely Grace and Forgiveness will suggest that you don’t need to be so hard on yourself?”

“Ah you know, ” I told her, “when you open all the doors and windows, you never know what will happen. First, Grace and Forgiveness went outside for a walk by the ocean and got carried off by a sneaker wave. And then, with all the windows open, the whole house filled up with fire ants.”

E laughed, as she often does when I tell her what happens in my house. But she was warm and encouraging and supportive, which is really what I needed the most.

And what I needed second most, I guess, was information. She lent me two books on grief. I am reading them both, a few pages a day. I find it comforting to learn that whatever crazy thing I am experiencing is, in fact, pretty normal. And what I am really appreciating are the many suggestions for ways of processing grief. I am just beginning to experiment with them, and I suppose that’s what I’ll be writing about in the coming days.

Meanwhile, I’m still hanging on–I haven’t yet fallen out of the rollercoaster, and I don’t intend to.

CREDIT: Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

23 comments

  1. I’m sorry for your loss, Q. Thanks for telling us a little bit about him, and about what his loss is feeling like. My parents spent most of my childhood and youth caring for my old, dying, traumatized grandparents and I relate well to your sister’s description of relief and aggravation, and I’m glad you all go to gather to remember him and enjoy the goodness of your dad, despite the other stuff. My mother in law died suddenly about 5.5 years ago, and yeah, that roller coaster metaphor feels really rife. It lasts a while though eventually the highs and lows are closer together and you can sort of see them coming. I’m glad E is being the Therapist you need right now. Love to you, and peace along the journey to your dad. ❤

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    • Ah, I so appreciate this comment; it’s clear you can really relate. I definitely understand my sister’s relief and don’t blame her at all. But for her own sake, I hope she can find other emotions as well.

      I think dying suddenly is probably a good thing, for the person who died. Certainly he didn’t have to suffer a long illness or a lot of pain or fear. But the shock is definitely hard on those left behind! I’m not surprised, I guess, but glad to hear that it becomes more predictable later on. (So I’ll know when those fire ants are coming!)

      It’s interesting about E… I have been frustrated with her recently. I experienced her as very distant and hard to connect with. I was asking myself if perhaps we were done, if I had wrung everything out of the poor woman that I could possibly get! But then last Wednesday I found her to be just the right mix of warmth and practicality. Of course it’s still true that I probably have had about enough therapy (for this stage of my life), but I will probably hang on a bit longer for support through this grieving process.

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    • Hi Ellen. Thanks for recognizing how complicated it can feel.

      I think I decided the roller coaster metaphor is okay after all. It’s true that I like to ride them. But I like to ride them when 1) it was my choice to get on and 2) they are over in 2-3 minutes. It’s different when life sweeps you up, sits you down in one, and it just takes off. Days later, weeks later, you are asking, “wait, doesn’t this ride ever stop?!?”

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I am fairly new to reading blogs (and to my own trauma therapy journey) but I have been reading your blog a little while now and wanted to send my thoughts and condolences on losing your dad. I can’t say I know what you are going through as our experiences are different, I lost my dad when I was 19 (it will be 20 years next year). Take gentle care.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Claire, thank you for reading and commenting; I appreciate it. I imagine it is very different to lose your dad at 19. I know at that age, I still idolized my dad a lot more and hadn’t balanced out the good with the problematic. I’m not sure if that makes it easier or harder though. I am grateful that my sons got to know him, even though they weren’t as close to him as I was to my grandparents.

      It’s been a strange experience, and last week in particular was hard, but I think I’m more stable now. Maybe the roller coaster has stopped? Or maybe we are just on a straight stretch and soon I’ll get turned upside down again, hard to say!

      I hope you’ll keep reading and commenting. Are you going to write a blog yourself? I have found it extremely helpful in my trauma healing work, and i know many others have as well.

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      • I will definitely keep reading and commenting, but in terms of my own blog… Eeek…. I would not know where to start in setting one up (the ones I read look so professional and all I have is a smartphone… ). I do journal so the content wouldn’t be an issue… I think it would be a benefit too… Just got some fear going on.

        I’m glad the roller-coaster has stopped, even if it’s only for a quick breather.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Hugs Q. I’m really sorry for your loss and all the complicated, confusing emotions that sweep you up and down. I’m glad to read that you are hanging on, and that E is back to feeling like “E”. Grief is one of those BIG overwhelming all consuming complex feelings— I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone say they are feeling a little bit of grief or that it’s a simple case of grief. This is hard stuff, made even harder by the pandemic. I’m really glad your family was able to gather (even if it was over zoom) and share authentically and support and love one another. It sounds like that was a healing balm for everyone. Be kind to yourself right now, and know that it’s okay to do whatever you need to do to stay safe and sit with and work through all the feelings. Keep hanging on, my friend. 💗

    Liked by 1 person

    • Such a kind an understanding message Alice, thank you! I guess you are right, there is no “little bit of grief.” It’s a big, messy thing. Probably it’s not even an emotion. It’s more like it’s an experience with a lot of emotions wrapped up inside.

      I’m grateful to be feeling better these past few days but I also know that I will miss my dad the rest of my life. Even on the days I feel mad about shit he did, I will love him. This has become very clear to me since he died. I wish it had been clearer beforehand!

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      • I agree, grief is an experience with lots of emotions wrapped up inside. It’s definitely more than “just a feeling”!

        I don’t know how it feels to wish things had been clearer before someone died. I’m just really sorry for all the feelings you are going through. Someone sent me this quote this year, maybe it will resonate with you. “Grief is an act of love. Grief for a loved one is an emotion felt only because of the presence of love and the loss of a person we love. Grief expresses our love for those we have lost.” I don’t know why, but it just really resonates with the melancholy I feel over missing my Grandpa.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Ha, that comment made me smile. The right way to grieve is to hang on tight and just ride that roller coaster, huh? I agree. It hurts more than denial, in the short run, but I’m confident it’s a better choice in the long run.

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      • Yep, I give you an A+ 🙂
        It is probably a better choice, but sometimes denial has a purpose and can use some space too (maybe thats just wishful thinking on my part since its my go to strategy).

        Liked by 1 person

  4. My heart feels so heavy reading this, Q. I am so sorry for your loss and for this awful ride of grief you are now experiencing.
    I have been swimming in a mess of complicated feelings around my mom’s recent cancer diagnosis so I really related to your words about turning inward and critical of yourself for pulling away from your Dad. It makes my heart hurt for you and the tangled mess of emotions you are experiencing.
    Your connection and inclusion of your house of internal parts is such a kind way to take care of yourself right now. My heart is with you. 💕

    Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I have a very complicated relationship with my mom. I love her and yet I have such deep attachment wounds combined with abuse that have made my relationship with her very difficult. I have really pulled away from her the last 6 or 7 years. Now her diagnosis has filled me with such a mess of worry and concern, combined with the already tangled mess of guilt, anger, hurt, and shame that has always been there.

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      • You’re in a hard position! Do you have a therapist or trusted group of friends you can talk this through with? It seems like if she is very sick, you’ll want to think about whether there are things you feel you need to ask her or say to her while you have time and opportunity. E did ask me about that back in February when my father had his heart valve replacement. At the time, I said I had nothing to ask him and nothing I needed to say to him. And I still stand by that. What I wish is different is just that I had been a little softer and a little warmer during his final months of life. But please know, I am not suggesting that’s what you should do. It depends so much on whether it is harmful for you to be in contact with your mom. If she is toxic and brings you down, then you need to protect yourself. If you have a painful past but she’s not hurting you now, then I don’t know, maybe you can get something meaningful from spending time together. It is really different in different cases, which is why I think it could be very helpful for you to talk to someone who knows you and maybe something about the history of your relationship with her.

        Whatever you decide to do, it’s okay. It’s true that the bond between parent and child is unique and important, but if a parent has caused deep harm, it is not your responsibility to be there for the parent no matter what. It’s crucial you attend to your own well-being; that’s the only way you can be there for others in your life that you love.

        I hope you’ll be kind to yourself. And let me know how it goes with your mom. Also, feel free to email me, if you’d like. laquemadasola@gmail.com

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      • Unfortunately I just started with a new therapist. So while I do have support that I am very grateful for, she is not familiar with my history and family dynamics. I am trying to tread carefully and pay attention to my needs right now, which is very difficult while feeling flooded by a tsunami of emotions. Just trying to take one day at a time. I truly appreciate your thoughts and insight.
        I am so glad you have the support of a caring and trusted therapist to help and guide you as you grieve your loss. How has this week been for you and your rollercoaster ride?

        Like

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