I thought I was prepared for grief. Truth be told, I thought I had already grieved. Dad was so sick for so long; there were so many times I said goodbye to him in Arkansas and headed back to Michigan convinced I would never see him again. And then he would rally, and I began to think he would always rally. Not consciously, but I’d grown up viewing him as Superman… Hercules… Rooster Cogburn… This was the man who carried me on one shoulder and my little brother on his other shoulder up the side of a freaking mountain, past seven waterfalls, and then carried us back down. It was hard to think of him as a mere mortal.
Until he died.
The grief overwhelmed me. I was not prepared for it. I had not experienced it. I had felt a combination of sorrow, frustration, fear, and a secret hope that he would beat his many maladies the way he overcame all the obstacles in his life.
I’d read about the “seven stages of grief,” and about “working your way through grief.” I’d been to many a “celebration of life” and sat through countless sermons that dwelt on the sweet by and by when we’re reunited with our loved ones. Nothing I’d read or heard prepared me for grief. None of it helped. Some of it was blatantly untrue, at least for me.
There were no well-defined stages. There is no working through it. There is just the sense of loss and the hole in my life that he used to fill. Life goes on, but it’s not the same as life before loss.
I’ve heard all the platitudes. “He would want you to be strong.” “He wouldn’t want you to grieve.” “He’s not suffering anymore.” “He’s in a better place now.” And every one of them makes me want to scream. I didn’t want him to be sick, or suffer, or die, or go away to that better place when he was still needed here. I didn’t get what I wanted. He’s not getting what everyone else seems to think he wanted. Life isn’t fair; neither is death.
Time eventually dulls the sharp edges of grief, but sometimes it pounces when I’m not thinking about it, not expecting it. It might be in quiet moments late at night, or the peace of a summer twilight, or the grogginess of waking to face a new day without him in it. And sometimes it hits when I am expecting it, and it still manages to pull the rug out from under me.
This is the time of year the loss is most keenly felt. I miss picking out the perfect Father’s Day card for him. I miss sending oatmeal cookies to him on his birthday. I relive that early morning phone call every June 25th and regret all over again my decision to wait until his birthday in early July to go back down to see him. I thought he would hold on for me. Sometimes I feel a little angry that he didn’t.
This is how I remember him; eyes twinkling and crinkled with laughter; radiating pride and love for a grandchild. I can almost smell his soap and aftershave, almost feel his hug.
A wise woman told me recently that it’s a good thing to have loved somebody so much that losing him is painful. That thought has brought me more comfort than any booklet or sermon or well-meaning platitude.
I had to learn the hard lesson that my dad wasn’t really Superman, but he was a super man, a super father, a super Papa and great-grandpa. I will always miss him and the grief will always be with me, sometimes buried deep and sometimes close to the surface. But I was so very lucky to have him while I did, to love him and to know beyond doubt, every moment he was alive, that I was loved by him.