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Learning to Mourn My Father - Mary Elizabeth Grace

The day I grabbed my home office chair and threw it to the ground was the day I realized that I was not ok. I mean, of course, I knew before then that I was not ok, but I had kept telling myself to give it time. I kept telling myself this feeling, like anything else, would pass. The issue was however, that I had never experienced anything like mourning my father before, and it took me until that day, approximately eight months later, to learn that no, this wasn’t something that was going to pass. This was something that was going to stay with me for the rest of my life, and I was going to have to learn how to bear it.  

 

“You’re so strong.” Friends and relatives would say as they approached me, squeezing my arm. “You’re so brave, it’s amazing how well you’re holding up.”

 

The ironic thing to me was, I didn’t really feel like I had much of a choice. My father had died, slowly, painfully, and I had witnessed it. What was left for me to do? At the time, it felt like my only options were to be strong or to drop dead with him. There were days when I thought I just might.

 

We had found out 15 months prior to his death that my father had advanced gallbladder cancer. Most people have probably never even heard of that. I know I hadn’t, and, initially, it didn’t sound like something that would be particularly life-threatening if treated. The gallbladder is a small organ, right? And not one that we necessarily need. Well, what I learned over the course of those 15 months was that gallbladder cancer was actually very deadly. The survival rate is estimated to be around 19% and most cases are not discovered until the cancer has already advanced into later stages, like my father’s.

 

For a long time after his death, I felt like the cancer had consumed him. Every time I thought about him, which was all the time, was in relation to his illness. It took me the better part of a year to remember that the cancer was only a small fraction of his life. It was 15 months out of nearly 61 years and did not define him. My father was a very gentle spirit. He was always patient with me, even when I didn’t deserve it, and I could always count on him when I needed help. I would say my father’s parenting style was focused on what lessons he could teach me. I, like him, always liked to learn new things and excelled in school. Of course, being the daydreamer that I am, I was more interested in learning about literature and the creative process, whereas my father could recite for you practically every event, major or minor, that occurred in either World War. Even with our difference in passions, we still bonded over our love of learning, and he tried to teach me all he knew, whether it was sharing all his financial expertise from his 30 years in banking, showing me how to play guitar in our home den or encouraging me to travel the world and gain new experiences. He did everything for me, something I don’t think I fully understood until the end.

 

When he got sick, it was hard to believe it at first. That word, cancer, feels like a death sentence. I remained somewhat ignorant, which was partly self-inflicted, and partly due to my parents’ attempts to shelter me from what was happening. You never want to believe that someone you love is sick, let alone one of your parents. I tried to remain positive, someone has to be in the 19% of survivors, so why couldn’t it be him? After all, he had tried to make his last year of life not too dissimilar to his life before his diagnosis. He played golf during the summer, only nine holes of course, and made plans with family and friends. We even attended a wedding and hosted a New Year’s Eve party that year. Everything seemed mostly normal, aside from the weekly doctor’s appointments, and the many minor surgeries, and the fact that he was getting slightly thinner every time I looked at him.

 

The end happened very quickly, and I’m still not sure whether that was a blessing or a curse. I consider this the first lesson, the fragility of life. Of course, we all are born knowing that one day we’re going to die. But we don’t really know it. For most of my life, death felt like a foreign, far-off thing that I need not worry about. When my grandmother passed away a few years ago at the age of 88, it finally hit me. We are not here to stay. Death was creeping slowly closer, but still felt far enough away for me to shut out. The thing about my father’s death, however, was how out of order everything seemed. One month after my 26th birthday felt too young to be burying a parent, and soon that strangeness escalated. While writing his obituary and documenting his life, I couldn’t help but notice the words that were missing and those that stood out. Survived by his wife of (almost) 29 years, survived by his two (older) brothers, survived by his mother. It all seemed so wrong, so out of place. The fragility of life was something I truly did not understand, not everyone makes it to 88, and that truth was terrifying.

 

The second lesson I learned, was that the aftermath was not at all like I had expected it to be. I found myself numb for many weeks after his passing. My mom and I had lots of things to do with planning the funeral and sorting out all of our bills. I think some people like the distractions, but for me, I felt like I was in a haze. I learned many months later, after joining a grief group, that this was a pretty normal reaction. Our group leader referred to it as the initial “shock, numbness and denial.” She explained that when you lose someone who is incredibly important to you, your mind and body activates this response, where it almost feels like the death never really happened. Of course, logically, you know, it happened, but emotionally you feel like there must be some terrible mistake and what you think has happened has actually not happened. These feelings of “shock, numbness and denial” definitely stuck with me for many weeks after his death.

 

 I found that the reality of his death really started to dawn on me when things started to go back to their “normal” routine. When my mom and I went back to work and the sympathy cards in the mail came to a halt. I felt like it was wrong for things to go back to normal without him there, because without him here how could anything ever be normal? There were times when I would catch myself smile or laugh and feel an instant jolt of guilt. How could I smile in a world where he doesn’t exist? How could I allow myself to be happy when he is not here to be happy too? As hard as it was, there were times when I wanted to live in those first few weeks after his passing forever, because the more time that passed, the farther away he felt. I found myself counting the minutes and hours, he was just here, an hour ago, he was just here, yesterday, he was just here, last week, he was just here, last month, he was just here… I sometimes felt like I wanted to remain miserable, misery in some twisted sense, felt like the only appropriate condition.

 

None of the lessons he taught me ever prepared me for losing him. Grief is a very strange thing, and everyone reacts to it differently.  There are symptoms of grief that you expect, crying on and off, feeling more depressed, less hopeful. There are also symptoms of grief that you don’t expect, and these can burden you the most. I didn’t know that he would come back to me in my dreams, eyes bright, cheeks still flushed, only to wake up in the morning, and remind myself of the dreadful truth all over again. I didn’t know about the sleepless nights, the paranoia that SOMETHINGBADISGOINGTOHAPPEN. One night, while driving to a friend’s house, I found myself lost. I became so anxious that I had to pull over, my breathing was so shallow my stomach felt like a rock, and my heart was beating faster than if I had been running a marathon. A few minutes later I was screaming and crying on the phone with my friend, convinced I was about to drop dead right there in my car, for no other reason than the fact that I was SCARED and ALONE. No, this I did not expect. I did not expect the stomach aches, the exhaustion, even if I did get a good night’s sleep, and the Anger.

 

The Anger is like nothing I have experienced ever before. Many say that they feel like something within them dies after burying a parent, I feel like something within me was born. The Anger, is a burning, writhing entity in my chest that bubbles up and bursts when I least expect it. It is mean and resentful, and I am afraid of when and where it is going to lash out. I am so Angry at the world for what it did to me, for what it did to us, for what it did to him. Life isn’t fair, but cancer takes that notion to a whole new level. Cancer is abominable! I have so much aggression towards this thing I cannot confront, and it is frustrating! No, none of his lessons ever prepared me for this, and though I have always been a good learner, I’m struggling to understand this test life has given me. There are days when I want to break, give up, spend the rest of my days locked up in this now slightly too big house, live in a memory of a family that once was. A family that will no longer be.

 

The final lesson my father’s death taught me, and I know it sounds cliché, but sometimes cliches are true, was to not take anything for granted. There are certain things about our lives, certain people in them, that we just assume are always going to be there. In many ways I feel like my father’s death was a rude awakening, it forced me to recognize that everything can and will eventually change. Nothing is permanent, and temporariness is the foundation of life. Of course, we all go through changes throughout our lives. We experience graduations, dates, breakups, and job changes, always in a hurry to get to the next phase. I’ve been fortunate enough to have grown up in a stable family. Whatever life threw at me, my parents were always there to support. I had made the mistake of thinking that they would always be there, that our little family did not have an expiration date.

 

I am still learning to mourn my father. Learning to carry this weight that I have now been burdened with. Learning who this new version of myself is now that this has happened. The former version, the younger, more innocent version, died in that room with him, and the person who re-emerged from it, clutching a suitcase full of his things, is someone new. I am still getting to know her, like this new world in which he is not a part of. I’ve also learned that it is not just the death that will haunt you, but all the things surrounding the death. It’s all the things you wish you did or didn’t do. All the things you wanted to say, but never got the chance, all the things you did say, but aren’t sure if you got the words right. I’m still learning how to navigate all of this, but if there is one thing I have learned in the months since he passed, is that I need to give myself time. Grief is a type of pain that takes a lifetime to work through, and it never truly goes away. I must now learn how to live life with grief as a part of it. I am often forced to remind myself of this and, I just hope that, one day, I’ll feel as strong as people tell me I am.

 

Mary Elizabeth Grace is a writer from New Jersey. She has loved writing since childhood and recalls early days of drafting picture books on her father's computer. More recently, she received a B.A. in Literature with a concentration in Creative Writing from Ramapo College of New Jersey. She enjoys writing personal essays, short stories, and is working on a novel. Her work has appeared in NRHC’s Illuminate. Twitter (X): @marylizgrace

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Noreen G
Noreen G
Jul 15

This is so relatable and beautifully written.

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