It’s been a bit over four years since my dad died. Because my mother did not want to spend the money on a funeral - “It would only be for your friends,” she said to me – no funeral occurred aside from the pitiful affair in my parents’ living room, attended by my younger brother, our mother, the hospice chaplain and me. If there’s anything to be said in support of real funerals, it’s that regardless of one’s belief in an afterlife or heaven/hell, funerals provide a way to come together to honor the dead and support the living.
I didn’t get any of that. No honoring of my dad, no support for me. Or at least that’s how I felt at the time.
My dad meant the world to me, and when he died, my world fell apart. I coped by writing a tribute for Facebook, preparing his obituary and forcing my mother to pay extra for his photo to be included in the local paper. I celebrated his love of jazz by attending a David Sanborn performance with a friend. I doubled down on my resolve to write a book about his life and what he meant to me. I threw myself into my work.
Back then, those efforts did little to dull the ache in my heart. I felt abandoned. Neglected by everyone in my inner circle. So. Very. Alone.
When I conveyed this to my therapist, I also expressed astonishment that people I deemed my nearest and dearest could not muster the ability to check in. To send a card. To acknowledge my grief.
“People do what they are able to do,” she replied.
Right. But what did that have to do with me?
The second of Don Miguel Ruiz’s Four Agreements is: “Don’t Take Anything Personally.”
Why is this one so hard?
As someone who was programmed to be always attentive to the needs of others, I felt little tolerance for those who could not do the same for me. What is wrong with them? I would think. Never mind that I was unable to clearly communicate my needs, believing they should just know.
Oh my goodness…
I like to think in the ensuing years, I’ve obtained a four-year degree in death, grief, and The Four Agreements. It’s been a lot of work, including research on attachment theory, dysfunctional family structures, bolstered by a better-late-than-never curiosity about how others think and feel. Especially how we process grief.
Grief’s a hard one. It’s a universal, yet intensely personal experience. We don’t know what to say, so we say nothing, each of us caught up in the relentless tempo of our own lives. Not all of us grew up with a mother who insisted we put her emotional needs above our own, so we aren’t all programmed to provide that kind of support sua sponte. We didn’t all learn to always don our own oxygen masks first.
On top of that, change is especially difficult when it manifests itself as a significant loss. Even though I knew my dad was dying long before he took his last breath, I chose to focus on my identity as captain of the family Titanic, not realizing that everyone else had already bailed out, each on their own life boat, leaving me to crash into an iceberg purely of my own making.
I took it all so personally. How could I not? But little by little, I had to get out of that frame of mind. Grief forced me to trust that at least some people will have the capacity to support me, even if others, for whatever reason, can’t. If I focus on those that can’t, I will be miserable. I’ve also learned that I’ll get nothing if I don’t at least ask for something.
Change is challenging, but it’s also inevitable. I believe change is ultimately good, regardless of how it might feel in the moment. My dad is gone forever, but four years after his passing, just as day follows the night, a lightness has worked its way back into my soul. I’ve come to realize that he was one of those rare people who seldom took things personally and now I can channel that perspective every time I feel a relapse coming on.
It’s way easier than I ever could have imagined.
I am sorry for your loss and the word closure comes to mind because funerals allow those attending to celebrate the life of the person who has passed on. I think your coping mechanism is wonderful and I am sure your father is with you in spirit. I hope so.
I can't imagine what it would feel like to be neglected at such a high moment of need and emotion. What I do know is that I connected to you thoughts and feelings here, and I am sorry for your loss. I am sorry you didn't have the opportunity to grieve in a more meaningful way. Thank you for sharing.