A few weeks ago my hubby and I went to watch the movie Wind River. I was struck by every aspect of this movie, but one scene has been replaying in my mind since. The parents of the missing girl have just learned of her horrible death. The main character, Cory, who is a family friend, is standing on the porch with Martin, the girl’s father, and he says:
“I’d like to tell you it gets easier, but it doesn’t. If there’s a comfort — you get used to the pain if you let yourself … I went to a grief seminar in Casper. Don’t know why, just … It hurt so much, I was searching for anything that could make it go away …
That’s what I wanted this seminar to do — make it go away. The instructor come up to me after the seminar was over, sat beside me and said, “I got good news and bad news. Bad news is you’ll never be the same. You’ll never be whole. Ever. What was taken from you can’t be replaced. You’re daughter’s gone. … Now the good news — as soon as you accept that, as soon as you let yourself suffer, allow yourself to grieve … You’ll be able to visit her in your mind, and remember all the joy she gave you. All the love she knew. Right now, you don’t even have that, do you? that’s what not accepting this will rob from you. If you shy from the pain of it, then you rob yourself of every memory of her, my friend. Every one. From her first step to her last smile. You’ll kill ’em all. Take the pain … Take the pain, Martin. It’s the only way to keep her with you”.
My dad died on December last year, so this struck home. It was like my whole life I had shared a garden with him, a place we cultivated together. Some corners I loved, some I would have burnt down if I could — but it was ours. I went there every day, sometimes as a passing thought, sometimes in deep conversation. It was there, it was open, it was sacred. Until it wasn’t.
I remember that day perfectly. I saw the caller ID from my mom, though it was a little strange since we had just talked but we talk so often every day that I picked up the phone excitedly… “Andrea, your dad is dying. call your brothers. Tell Santiago (my older brother) to make it to the hospital so he can say goodbye”. That was it. That was all it took. Like I had stepped into my garden to find it trashed to pieces, burnt, overturned, desecrated.
Shock. I think that is the first stage of grief. Shock. The frenzy of making calls, the impotence of being so far away, a whole country away. Waiting. Waiting for more news, waiting for what I already knew in my heart. Humoring those around me who insisted I wait for confirmation. But I knew. I already knew.
Then the madness hits. On the night plane going home. Fits of crying, of coughing, crying again. I still had energy enough to pity the woman sitting next to me. Madness. What did it matter what she thought of me? Madness.
Then I was home. I was sitting in my garden once more. Where a live plant once bloomed a broken stem lay. So started the work of rebuilding the garden. All I could speak then, all I could remember was how great my dad was. How he stood by me. His brilliance, for he WAS brilliant. I sat down in my garden to restore my beloved corners first. Reliving the memories. Against all odds, adding new ones, but still, it felt incomplete.
It was what Cory said, I had shied from the pain. I could stand to pick up a bit of it. Enough to praise my dad, enough to show him proudly to the world. But I was robbing myself. Disorganization, that’s the second stage. Deluding myself to think that my dad’s presence would always be as tangible as that first day after the funeral. Sensing my dad in the speaker, the books, the vase that I took back with me. Greeting him, dialoguing with him. Intermingling all this with crazy fits of anguish, hot tears and a conviction to get through the day. I was still working in my garden, still fixing those corners, but ignoring the berserk mess behind me.
Then it shifted. Life showed me that death is not merely changing someone’s physical presence for a spiritual one. My dad’s presence felt distant, his voice below a whisper. The speaker and books became empty objects laden with guilt. Things I don’t value yet can’t bear to throw away. Anger stepped in and it forced me to face the rest of the destruction. All the questions I will never get to ask, the stories I will create that my dad will miss. The void. The vastness of the void. The ridiculousness of how swiftly the world carries on without those we loved. His favorite table at this favorite restaurant lay empty. But not empty for him, not waiting, just empty. Meaningless. That day when we realize we don’t just have to face a world without our loved ones. We have to face a world that doesn’t remember them.
I received countless energy healings, read books on grief, attended support groups, spent hours crying, writing, praying, talking, trusting, stitching my soul back. Then I understood. That’s why we must remember them. We are the only ones that will. This is turning around and embracing every damn corner of that garden. Even the ones we hated. It means to rebuild them just as they were because they were good enough, they were true, and that is good enough. It means remembering the fights, the broken promises, the disappointment, even the tiredness that dealing with the illness brought. Because that was him. That was us. I would not be me without my dad and THAT, ALL of that was who my dad was.
“If you shy from the pain of it, then you rob yourself of every memory of her, my friend. Every one. From her first step to her last smile. You’ll kill ’em all. Take the pain … Take the pain, Martin. It’s the only way to keep her with you”.
That was when I embraced the pain. The pain of the loss yes, but also the pain of things being what they were, that I would never get to rewrite those stories. That a part of me wouldn’t even want to, that it doesn’t matter now. Transcendence, the third stage. Where I realize that I don’t get to live a life under my father’s wing, that although I feel his spirit with me I still lost him… and that that’s ok. That’s the paradox, it will never be okay and, that, is okay. I can live with that. I must.
Transcendence is the realization that the void does strange things to those who carry it. It whispers that life is precious, that now is the best time to do something, that perfect is stupid, perfect is whatever happens. The void made me kinder, it made me conscious, it re-wrote my dreams. It gave me back my father. The enigma of who he is, the person I am still trying to understand, the person I will always love and strive to love. It brought my garden back to life. You can still see the burnt, and some areas will never regrow, but it is once more, a place I visit every day.
The journey through the landscape of grief is ongoing. I cannot claim to be out of its shadows but I’ve left it’s coldest, harshest corners behind. If you are a fellow traveler, my heart goes out to you. What follows is a list of the things that helped me heal, may they share some light with you as well:
- Energy Healings: During the first year I’ve gifted myself a monthly visit to an energy healing. This has helped me create a space for my grief and heal the gnarled emotions that accompany it.
- Family Constellations: Although I will always miss my father, something that helped me be at peace with his absence was a beautiful Family Constellation that took place a month before his passing and another one 6 months after his death. Both were a testament to the love that was present and helped me embrace the other aspects of my father as well.
- Bodywork: Emotions are stored in the body. Hence, enlisting a gifted RMT can keep you grounded as your heart regrows itself.
- Grief support group: I felt intuitively called to be part of a grief group rather than seeking an individual counseling approach. This was such an enriching and validating experience. If you are a fellow Vancouverite, I whole-heartedly recommend the services of the Vancouver Hospice Society.
- Books and Journals: Trusted companions to converse with, at your own pace. The ones that came closer to my heart were:
- The Orphaned Adult — Understanding and Coping With Grief and Change After the Death of Our Parent
- Transcending Loss — Understanding the Lifelong Impact of Grief and How to Make It Meaningful
- A Grief Observed — CS Lewis
- Healing After Loss: A Daily Journal for Working Through Grief