Eight weeks ago, I lost my dad. It feels like it was just yesterday—I can replay the days leading up to his death by memory. I can close my eyes and see his last smiles, laughs, tears, and breaths.
Having been so involved in my dad’s whole “cancer journey”, I was maybe the most prepared in my family for the day we had to say goodbye to him. And since he passed away, a part of me has been in an awkward waiting pattern expecting a massive wave of grief to hit me. I must have some emotional breakdown coming. They say it will hit me eventually. They say it can happen at any time. They have a lot to say.
Who is they? Well, simply put, they is you. they is me. They is all of us.
In the midst of all the emotion and chaos surrounding the first few weeks of Dad’s death, I had one of the funniest conversations with my mom. And believe me, it was hard to find reasons to laugh at that time. We talked about the things people said to us upon hearing the news of Dad’s passing or when paying their respects at his service—things, mind you, that were entirely intended to be encouraging or comforting.
But we were so emotionally drained that it was hard to feel anything other than grief. Words would come out of people’s mouths and just bounce off some invisible and impenetrable force field. We would hear you, but we’d just file it away for mental processing at a later time. Unfortunately, by the time we had energy to think about those kind words and warm thoughts, they were anything but that.
For example, if I had a nickel for every time someone told me to “be strong”, Dad would have been in a much fancier coffin at his viewing. Of course I knew that these comments came with good intentions, but the truth of the matter is that I really wanted to scream:
“Do you know the amount of strength it requires for me to be standing here, under these circumstances, wearing a dress, high heels, and makeup after not being able to sleep or eat for the last 10 days? Meanwhile having to hug and interact with nearly 300 people standing behind you in a single file line repeating the same things over and over to me?”
By telling me to be strong, there was implication that I was at the bottom—that they thought they were already looking at the crumbled version of me. And they had no idea.
But that wasn’t the most bothersome thing I heard over and over again. For me, the worst “kind words” were the ones that evolved into stories of other people’s grief.
“I know exactly what you’re going through.”
Don’t get me wrong. We’ve all said it at some point in our lives. And with just as much thoughtfulness and love as the people who have repeated it to us in the last few weeks. But in all honesty, it is such a selfish sentiment. It does two things in such a short time: 1) it takes the moment away from the person grieving and makes it about the person speaking, even if they don’t tell you “the story” of the time in their life that they felt exactly what you’re going through. and 2) it devalues many of the emotions the griever is struggling with.
I felt like my dad and I had the greatest father-daughter relationship in the world. I felt like he was the strongest and most amazing cancer patient ever. I felt like he tied our family together in no way any other family could understand.
But hundreds of people were confident that they knew exactly what I was going through. And they took little pieces of those emotions away from me. Like there was nothing special about my loss—it was just like everyone else’s. Some people even joked that there were “clubs” for people like my mom and I: widows and kids who lost their parents to cancer.
The point is that I’ve learned about grief in the last eight weeks. Real grief. And I know now that it’s a very sensitive time in a person’s life. There really isn’t anything you can say that will make people “feel better” during a time like that, so sometimes it is better not to say anything at all.
If someone you know is grieving, try and really remember a time in your life when you went through a similar experience and dig deep to recall all the unique emotions you went through—all the emotions none of us could possibly begin to understand. Remember how people’s words swam aimlessly around you when spoken. And just remember that sometimes the best thing you can do to express your love and support is through action. There was one family I clearly remember who came to my dad’s service that I hadn’t seen in over 10 years. And I knew they had recently lost their husband/dad, too. They immediately made their way to the reception room and relieved my extended family from refreshment duties and stayed there the entire night entertaining, serving, and cleaning up after our guests. They understood, and it was one of the most loving gestures I remember during the last eight weeks.
If you are grieving, know that the people around you love you. In spite of what they say and/or how the things they say make you feel. They mean well. We mean well. Know that no one can ever understand exactly how you feel in this moment—this is yours. Don’t let any of us take it away from you.