"I Didn't Think I'd Make It This Far"
Written by: Morgan E.
In July of 2018 I lost the first man that loved me and showed me how to love: my Dad. The following is my account of thoughts and actions taken from then until the present day. I didn't think I'd make it this far, but here I am 8 months out to share my grief journey this far in hopes that it will support others through the early stages of grief.
My grandpa succumbed to dementia about five years before he passed. And my mom’s dad had that old school, tough guy mentality where he would’ve rather passed than been taken care of. Visiting him was like attending an ongoing funeral that mourned the perpetual decline of his mind. I had a chance to come to peace with his pending death; in retrospect, I’m grateful for this timeline. And on the day of his passing, it was a beautiful day. The kind of day that Minnesotans dream of all winter long. A May day where the sun was shining, casting a magnificent shimmering effect on to the lake water. Our family came together - though some have grievances between one another or have not visited in years - and nothing interfered with celebrating the man that united us all.
For those of you that have lost someone or gone through a separate grievance, this may seem like a desirable situation in the face of loss: a proper, or even extended, duration of mourning and the resulting emancipation of dread that sat in my gut every time I headed North to visit him.
The inexplicable and monumental grief set in two months later when my dad dropped dead without explanation or feasible cause. It was just another day at work, then it wasn’t. There was a text, out of nowhere, from a cousin expressing how sorry she was. There was a call from my fiance telling me that a friend was on her way to my office. A nauseating feeling enveloped me, and a fleeing sensation drove me out of the office in attempt to simply breathe. But you can’t escape a reality like that. A sliver of hope stuck with me through the commotion, and I was convinced that my dad would call me the next minute to endearingly greet me as his “pum’kin.”
But that call didn’t come. After a morning of questioning the unknown and receiving mixed signals from others, my mom finally called and revealed the despondent truth.
It was all a blur up until one specific moment of clarity. Tears were constantly clouding my vision - when packing my bags, walking through the airport, and silently driving with my mom, uncle, and fiance to the house. But everything slowed down and became very clear when I entered the funeral home. Hesitation and resistance consumed me when the time came to see him. I was convinced it would scar me forever, seeing his body without a spirit and soul. And things didn’t become more clear because the tears dried up, but because the realness of the situation was starkly present. Watching my mom instantly become a widow, pick an urn, plan a funeral. And once again I desperately needed to flee, the funeral home was too much. Upon walking outside, a huge gust of wind and a loud storm presented itself on an otherwise still day; this force of nature felt like my dad expressing an intense rage, to match my own, at his untimely demise.
Only a couple months before, I witnessed the most genuine symbol of love I’d ever seen: the way my dad held my mom at her father’s funeral. I could not wrap my head around the suddenness of the situation - here before, gone moments later. So much doubt began to set in.
Why didn’t I call more? Why did I let the minor annoyances of my dad ever bother me? Why was my engagement 18 months when my dad could have walked me down the aisle months ago?
There are so many assumptions we walk through our everyday life with. For me, it was having dad at my wedding and seeing the joyful smiles he would elicit from my future children. The foundation of family that brought stability to my childhood and adult years was violently shaking under me, bringing me to my knees. An essential piece of my life’s framework was ripped away, replaced with unfathomable pain and a confounding emptiness.
Every morning I’d wake up and realize my bad dream was a reality. He was not coming back, and all I could do was repeatedly watch a video of him being goofy while dancing to a Jimmy Buffet song on a sunny day at the new home. At least he was smiling, but it hurt to watch. I was determined to overcome the extent of physical separation between my dad and I when he passed. After four months without him, we picked up and moved cross country to live with my mom in Idaho. It wasn’t an easy decision, leaving behind the friend group that had supported me through this situation down in Atlanta. There was so much stability there and having to begin the next phase of my life in the house where my dad died seemed overwhelming. But facing the situation head on and taking action felt intuitively right, and it was in my control. Picking up more work in an attempt to ignore the pain just wasn’t sustainable. Crying was a new normal, but the crying reached peak intensity as we drove from Atlanta to Nashville.
My mom and I both didn’t really know how to act around each other at first. Do we tiptoe around the subject? How do we converse about such a tragic situation? There were spontaneous breakdowns and shouting matches (dad would’ve known to refrigerate the crab for Crab Cakes Benedict on Christmas Day!). I was attempting to find out more about my mom, myself, and our relationship after living apart for months in the aftermath of this life-altering situation. We showed each other our best and worst sides. And being an only child had never felt more lonely. It seemed that we only had each other, and I isolated myself from my fiance at times because this grief was so unlike anything he’d been through. I was convinced no one could ever understand.
Mostly I wanted to be sure that my dad was not in a permanent state of suffering. I was even scared of simply forgetting him. That haunted me. Going to bed at night, my thoughts would take a turn for the worst: regretting missed opportunities and recalling only the bad times. Anxiety attacks would set in where the only image of him I could summon was from the funeral home. The exact cause of death will always be uncertain, and I won’t know if he went through a tremendous amount of pain or if everything immediately turned black.
What is certain is the trauma my mom experienced. A typical morning turned tragic when she noticed how quiet it was downstairs. After completing 20 minutes of CPR, she retreated to the corner to Hail Mary when the paramedics arrived. Remington, our family dog, gave my dad one last kiss before fearfully returning to my mom’s side while the paramedics continued their attempt to reverse the irreversible. Later that night when I arrived at the house, the exact data from his final walk on the treadmill ominously glowed on the screen for us all to see. He had celebrated a legendary 60th birthday in Park City just weeks before on top of being newly employed after an extended work hiatus. My parents knew no one but each other because of their recent move, and he worked diligently to make a brand new home comfortable for my mom. His excitement was boundless at the prospect of exploring his new home state and the marvels of the Mountain West. The night before his passing, my parents initiated exotic retirement plans and he recommitted to a fitness regimen that had been lacking due to their displacement. There is no way to be ready for a loss like that.
Existential questions were swirling through my mind about life on earth and transitions to the afterlife. These questions were even more confusing because religious or spiritual foundations were not part of my upbringing. I wanted concrete answers typical to the “Age of Information” that presently commands our culture, but had to settle with ambiguity. I wanted to know that he was still looking over me and hadn’t forgotten about me. But when I was expecting his presence, I wasn’t getting it. Besides the storm outside the funeral home and the TV spookily tuning itself to ESPN when we were gone for a hike, there was no proof of his existence in any universe.
But with the one-year mark approaching, and my wedding preceding that by a couple months, I feel really lucky to report that things are honestly okay. More stable than I ever thought they could be after that. I lived with my mom for two months through the holidays and then moved to a larger city that’s easy to travel between when we can spend weekends together. We have productive conversations on a weekly basis and she found a therapist that is inspiring her to think about her future. It was an unbelievable blessing to be introduced to Georgia Mae and learn about other tragic situations that were in the same vein as what I experienced. The virtual support network I encountered brought out the best in social media - it was genuinely delightful. I found the courage to share my story and so many others matched my transparency.
So march toward what scares you. Stay present in your struggle and don’t hide from the pain it evokes. Time does heal, but you have to actively commit time to healing. Stay hopeful, stay optimistic, and lean on the people around you. Don’t give in to the circumstances out of your control. And, finally, reflect on your individual ambitions so that you act intentionally and honestly towards them.