Today marks 20 years since we lost my father. He died very suddenly, from a massive heart attack. Other than high cholesterol, he had no health problems. He was lean, fit, active, and vital. He died while exercising in a gym before work, the morning after the 4th of July holiday weekend. He was 62.
We had a special bond, my father and I. It’s really only since his death that I have come to understand the magnitude and power of our connection. I’m the middle child – I have an older and a younger sister. He and my mother had a difficult relationship, especially when we were kids. She would get angry and hurt and then she’d be critical, resentful. He withdrew and went quiet – with the occasional terrifying outbursts of rage, often at inanimate objects – a broken light bulb, a traffic jam. Mostly he was reserved, unemotional. And then, on occasion, he would be warm, sweet, and even affectionate. It was painful for all of us, that he had such a hard time showing love. He wasn’t deeply involved in our lives as kids. He commuted to New York City during the week. Weekends he would work in the garden or nap on the family-room sofa, watching ABC’s Wide World of Sports or a Jackie Chan movie. We knew to give him his space.
I can’t speak for my sisters, but from a very young age I felt a deep and intimate connection with. It was never articulated. I understood him, instinctively. I felt protective when the others got angry. It was as if I could see him in a way that no one else could. I saw his pain. I felt it. And there was a way that he looked at me, a particular smile, that let me know that my very existence gave him profound joy and pride. I was the one who followed in his academic footsteps. I took up sailing in college, which had been his passion most of his adult life. I adored him. I also resented that he wasn’t more present, that the moments of connection, however powerful, were rare and fleeting. I suppose it’s what psychologists would call insecure attachment. I performed in certain ways in an elusive effort to elicit that light in his eyes, directed at me. When it shone, I was whole. Then it would be gone.
But in the last few years of his life, he and I had had a reckoning. I had shared how painful it had been to be his daughter. He had very simply acknowledged and apologized. There was no defensiveness, rationalizing, explaining. It was a pure apology, a sharing of loss. He was also grieving the time he had lost with us, his children, the moments missed, the intimacy that never was. It brought us much closer.
In my adulthood, my dad was my person. (If you’ve never watched Grey’s Anatomy, where I picked up the term, your person is the one who is always there, who “gets” you, has your back, always listens, and calls you on your shit). I called my dad for advice – on everything from relationships to finances to legal issues -- and his answers were always simple and wise. He was generous with gifts, money. He sent reliably goofy birthday and Valentine’s Day cards. He was the cornerstone of my sense of safety in the world.
Then I was 35, with 2 babies, and he was gone. And since then, the 4th of July has been a time of grieving for me. We all – the whole world – have a lot to grieve right now. We don’t do grief very well in American culture. When we see it in another person, we get uncomfortable. We want to ease it and if we can’t, we want to get away from it. We ask “how are you doing,” and what we want to hear is “better.” We want grief to be time-limited (a grieving “period” after a major loss). We have weird rules about what you can and cannot legitimately grieve. Death, obviously. We (pre-COVID) gather in black, bring food, send flowers and cards, and hold sacred rituals. But we often fail to grieve losses of “lesser” magnitude. It’s as if death has a unique hold on grief, as a felt emotion, and few other losses merit feeling it.
But grief actually underlies a lot of the other emotions that we experience. We just don’t see it. We experience anger, fear, shame, and blame instead. Those are emotions of action, movement, aggression, stress. They have caused massive suffering all around the world and throughout time. We need to make grief more visible, common, acceptable, available, discussable. We need more time, space, and permission for grief. We need to learn to find grief behind it’s other masks before we lash out and do harm.
Grief is peaceful. When we are truly feeling grief, the energy in our bodies is still and quiet. It can be a relief. Unlike anger and fear – emotions that signal us to move, to act – grief stops us, collapses us, melts us down. Fear and anger create separation, which then enables violence. We hold on to fear and anger, we tell stories that keep them alive, we pass them down through the generations. The harm is perpetuated. And then there is shame – another of grief’s many disguises. Shame turns us against ourselves. It makes us our own torturers. It keeps us separate.
Grief calls us into community. It softens our hearts and elicits compassion – compassion for others, compassion for self. In grief we give and we receive. We see suffering without judgment or blame. We have access to love.
What could we possibly need more in this moment in history than community, compassion, and love? To get there we must see grief as the mark of our common humanity.
How can we get better at recognizing when grief is wearing a harmful mask?
There is a practice I use when I feel emotionally wound up and I suspect that grief is lurking underneath. It’s simple to do. What’s difficult is to recognize that it’s time to do it. We have to question the “first reaction” that we have to a negative experience, which is likely to be anger, frustration, fear, or blame.
To go back to my dad’s death…. I was angry at so many things in the wake of his death – most of them directed at my mother. Her grief was so all-consuming that I felt there was no room for mine, no place for me to go for comfort. There was a huge financial mess after he died that impacted us all. I was angry at him for the things he’d failed to plan for. And, I blamed my mother for not “handling it right."
Within the year, she sold our family house at a time that was terribly difficult for me and my sisters. We all had babies (and I was pregnant) so we could not come to help her clean out the house. Instead of compassion for her, all I could access was resentment at her timing. As for my sisters, I felt like they weren’t sad enough about Dad, not grieving as I was. I believed they were still too injured, angry at him for having been distant and cold. I felt alone.
There were stories to go with my anger and blame. The emotions and the stories became evil twins, egging each other on and feeding each other’s intensity. It works like that, with feelings and thoughts. I acted out, I may have hurt others. I certainly beat up on myself. Over time I realized that all that anger and blame were just grief that had no other way to move through my system. But they created painful separation at the time. I have never felt lonelier. My mother did not deserve any of that anger. She’d been blindsided, was terrified, and was doing the best she could. In hindsight, she was heroic. Heroic and utterly alone. My sisters were grieving in the way that was right for them. They had their process, I had mine.
When I came to see that it was all grief all along, and let myself fully sink into it, it was a huge relief. I softened. I was able to re-establish connection. I developed a practice to help me recognize grief in the future, when it would inevitable show up as some other emotion or story.
Here is the practice. I don’t recommend trying this yourself with a situation or feeling that is very powerful or traumatic. Seek the help of a coach or therapist. To start with, choose an experience whose intensity registers around a 5 (or less) on a scale of 1 to 10.
It helps to be alone, comfortable and in a safe space. I often do this in the bathtub – that’s my place where I can cry. The practice starts with recognizing a negative emotion. Sometimes its strong – fear, rage, or shame. Sometimes it’s more subtle – irritability, a “bad mood.”
Get quiet. Acknowledge the story that goes with the feeling (stories such as “I’m wrong,” or “he or she or they are wrong”). Then let the story go. Imagine balling it up in a wad of paper, tying it to a helium balloon, and releasing it to the sky. Identify and name the emotion. Then see if you can find the emotion in your body. This takes practice, and if you are not used to doing it, find someone to help you. Is it tightness? Physical pain? Pulling? Is it nausea? Where is it? Touch the spot with your hand, gently. Offer it comfort, compassion.
Ask yourself if is tolerable. If it is intolerable – if it triggers trauma or panic or any other reaction that is too strong to bear – stop, and change your focus to something concrete, something that gives you comfort. Get help if you need it.
If you can stay with the felt sensation, observe how it changes. If its energy is tense in your body, see if you can release the tension. Ask it what it needs, what it might say if it could “speak.” Use a journal if that is helpful. So often there is grief underneath, which we can only see once we investigate in this way. See if the fight/flight energy gives way to soft stillness, sadness, tears. Hold yourself with compassion as you would soothe a crying child or an injured animal. Allow the grief. Befriend it. Sink into it like a feather bed. Don’t worry – it will pass. It is energy. It will move through once you set it free, once you shine a light on it.
Twenty years later I can still feel the pain and shock of my dad’s loss as if it were happening now. It has become my great teacher, my road map to grief. He is with me as I understand the grief of the world today – illness, oppression, aggression, injustice. He is with me as I navigate personal grief -- the transition of my children to adulthood in the midst of all of this. I am afraid for them, afraid for myself.
We all hold fear for our loved ones. No one can say how or when they will be taken from us – regardless of external circumstances. Acknowledge the fear – it is real. But also know that fear is the anticipation of grief. It will harden in your system, make you tense, stressed. It will wear you down. If you can let the fear go, for now, the grief will be there if and when it is called for.
You cannot reduce the grief of loss by fearing it in advance. You cannot prepare yourself for tomorrow’s pain with today’s worry. All that does is cause suffering now -- now -- when nothing is actually wrong. Put your energy into loving, cherishing your people now rather than fearfully anticipating the day when they will be gone.
Instead of allowing fear and anger to create separation, we must explore whether grief can bring us together. Let us join hearts in common grief as well as common joy. Because we need each other right now. We need all of us to show up as our best selves, our softest, kindest, and wisest selves. Our grieving human selves. We are all in this together.
Rest in Peace, dad. You did good.