Growing With Grief

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Written By: Olivia W.


There are times when I thought my story had run its course. There were times when I was pretty sure I was past that story, the one that made me me, but that had happened so many years ago, to someone I feel is completely different from who I am now. There were times when I thought it had simply gotten old. That I had to leave it behind me.

I remember after graduating high school, I decided to sign up for a long, arduous and more importantly, very remote, outdoor experience in Patagonia. Mountaineering and sea kayaking for three months sounded like the perfect remedy for my current dilemma: I wanted to be as far away from home, as far away from everyone I knew and my own world as possible. That summer my mom found the first serious man she dated after losing my dad in his bed with another woman. She was devastated. I couldn’t handle her grief. It twisted and contorted my insides and filled me with resentment for anything, anyone, which then made me feel guilty. 

I needed to get out of there. 

Step 1: Cut off all my hair that my dad loved so much. You are no longer daddy’s little girl, I told myself.

Step 2: Ditch the family ring Mom had gotten for us to remember Dad. I don’t want to be the girl with the dead dad anymore. 

Step 3: Don’t bring any pictures of family or friends. Tell them that they will be unable to contact me in any way, even though the program I am doing informs me that I can receive letters. 

And, finally, leave.

I will not go into the nitty and gritty of my time in Patagonia. But, I will say this: I became perhaps the strongest I had ever been physically. Hiking with a 50lb pack for days in a row, sea kayaking 25 nautical miles a day. My body became dense and tough, it learned to endure, but my emotional self did not. It was stunted, unchanging. My body was strong, but my mind and heart were weak. My short hair became irksome. My fingers couldn’t stop twiddling around my ghost ring. I felt excluded when friends on my trip received countless letters from loved ones. Lonesome, misunderstood and longing were my most present feelings. When December 14th, 2014 rolled around--the end of my program-- I felt like I had learned nothing. Accomplished nothing. And, as it turns out, I was more than ready to be going home.

When I arrived home, I was simultaneously unsurprised, horrified and guilt-ridden to discover that my mom had suffered a near fatal bike accident not 12 days after I had left for my Patagonia trip. Unsurprised because after my dad died, I had grown accustomed to preparing myself for bad news at any moment; horrified that me and my four siblings had almost become orphans; and guilt-ridden because I had not been there to support my family, especially my 20 year-old brother and 7 year-old sister who were there for her accident, in a trying time. 

There were times when I thought I was done with my grief. I counseled friends who had also lost parents. I did multiple projects on my dad: running a marathon for a cause and raising $13,000 for the Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy Association, the organization that researches the heart disease my dad died of and that I am at risk of developing; performing a Moth-Up Story with my brother about the day my dad died; creating an audio piece on a conversation I had with my younger sister about death, memory, and growth. I thought doing all of this meant I was done with my grief, had moved past my story. 

The truth is, grief takes many forms. It grows with you, becomes a part of you, defines you in some ways and in other ways not at all. The grief I felt ten years ago when my dad died does not look like the grief I feel now, will not look like the grief I feel at forty. For so long, I had resented my grief, tried to put it beside me and leave it there to forget about. I am only just learning now that maybe we must grow towards our grief. Bring it with us as we continue to move forward in our lives. 

Overtime, my grief has turned from sorrow and isolation into curiosity, exploration and connection with others. Rather than putting it off to the side, I feel emboldened when I harness it, taking a curious eye at and diving deeper into my story, as well as how it informs who I am and who I will become. 

When I was 13, my dad and I were on a ski chairlift when he passed away suddenly. I held his limp body for 7.5 minutes as the chairlift climbed to the top of the mountain. He was pronounced dead an hour later, in a small clinic by the mountain’s baselodge. What does this experience mean for me now, as a 23 year-old? What will it mean for me tomorrow? This is what grief is all about.