Ask Polly: My Dad Died Unexpectedly And I Can't Get Over It
Last year my father, who was 56, died suddenly of a heart aneurysm. He took me out for my 24th birthday dinner, and then two days later he was dead. I feel like the past months have been a mess of every emotion possible. I’m a great big ball of pain, and it seems as though grief is the one thing no one will talk about with me. My dad was the parent who showed up for me, who supported me as a writer. We shared so many similarities: a tendency to overthink and undersleep, a need for long intellectual conversations, a deep and sometimes painful sensitivity, and a love of words. My mother has said she can’t understand why I’m so sad and depressed over my dad’s death. It’s a message I’ve gotten before, as though I’m overreacting in my grief. That I need to toughen up and get over it. I’m in therapy, but I worry about how I will ever deal with this. Can you give me any advice?
The Daughter Left Behind
Your mother can’t tolerate seeing you unhappy. That’s all. She’s unsettled by it, and worries that you’ll never snap out of it. As a mother I can relate to that very well, and I’m sympathetic to her. She only wants you to be happy.
But — BUT! — there’s a certain kind of childhood to be had, in the company of someone who only wants you to be happy. Think about what that means, the flatness, the scentlessness, sterility of that: I. Only. Want. You. To. Be. Happy.
Here’s what I DON’T want you to be:
Your mother doesn’t want you to struggle, or overthink things. She doesn’t want you to be sensitive, or complicated. She doesn’t want you to honor exactly who you are. She wants you to GET OVER IT so she can feel at peace again. She’s probably a little bit controlling. Just a guess. She’s probably a little bit anxious.
And again, I understand that, and I have empathy for it, as a sometimes-anxious woman with kids. But you have to find a way to set all of her expectations and desires for you aside. You can love her and still do that. You have to find a way to get a little space for yourself, to get a little distance, so you can look back over that distance and say, “This person, my mother, is conflicted and sad in ways that she won’t admit. She wants us to lie together. She will react negatively to ANYTHING that I do that doesn’t feel absolutely safe and controlled and happy and that’s not a direct reflection of what she wants for me.”
Your mother doesn’t want you to be an artist, a writer, an intellect. But that’s what you are, right? That’s what you want and what you believe in. You want the truth — you want to feel what you feel. You want to feel completely, painfully alive, and you know, instinctively, that this includes diving straight into your grief and not coming up to the surface until you feel like you’re ready.
My father also died when he was 56 years old, completely out of the blue, from his first heart attack. He was in great shape, and extremely youthful. He ran or swam every day. He was a professor of economics, prone to bizarre digressions about human nature and spirituality and also prone to aggressive, off-color jokes. He was ruled by his emotions. I don’t want to imply that he and I had the same sort of relationship that you had with your father; my dad could be very difficult, and I was treated more like a sidekick than an equal. But he loved me and he showed it, and when he died, I felt like the center of my life would never return. He and I were both very needy, very raw, and the rest of my family was much more controlled, more skeptical, more reserved, far less prone to starting a fight or leaping into the fray or showing their asses. When he died, I mourned for about four months straight, and then something shifted. I turned something off. I didn’t want to play my role as joker. I was the last remaining emotional wild card in my family, and I felt ashamed of that suddenly, and for the first time, I withdrew. I was 25 years old, and after several years of drifting and drinking too much I got a boyfriend, got a great job, got in shape, and shut all the emotional neediness and messiness out for a while.
Maybe I made a decision to BE HAPPY. I wrote cartoons and that was part of it, too — I stopped drawing attention to myself as much and drew attention to my work instead. I pushed that clown onto the page, and became much more flat and controlled in real life. I dated a child-like artist, somebody who lived like an Unfrozen Caveman, who needed my help. I was strong. But I wasn’t happy, not exactly.
Then I went into therapy and I realized that, two years later, I hadn’t grieved my father’s death nearly enough. Two years of grieving, even if you’re not trying to turn it off most of the time, is NOTHING, when it comes to a parent or a spouse or anyone you’ve lived with for a big part of your life. When it’s someone like your dad, who formed your identity? Of course you feel lost without him. You want him back. That’s a gigantic loss. And it feels like you’re losing part of your childhood, too, when someone important from your childhood disappears. It doesn’t help that your mother doesn’t understand or doesn’t accept what a huge sea change you’re still grappling with.
So: You need to get some distance from your mother and just handle her a little more, probably. Forgive her, talk about her in therapy, try to lean on her, but accept that she’ll probably never get it, or she’ll be too invested in your “getting over” this to get it. (Was she married to your dad when he died? It doesn’t sound like it, but if she was: WHOA.) She isn’t the right person to relate the full force of your emotion to. You know, mothers often can’t fill this role, sadly. Many of us are just too invested in our kids’ survival, and anything we perceive as threatening to that gets the heave-ho, even at the cost of their TRUEST, FULLEST HAPPINESS.
No one else will talk about grief with you? See, this is the bullshit thing about suffering a big loss when you’re so young. I went through this, too. Very few of my friends — and I had lots of friends — were capable of even discussing my dad’s death with me. It made them uncomfortable. That’s how young we were. They were sure they’d say the wrong thing. We were all so self-conscious and inflexible and unaccepting of the immense gulf between different peoples’ experiences. Some people stay that way, too. They try to downplay death, or act like the death of a third cousin and the death of a parent should be tackled with the same blasé toughness. It happens, you get over it. And if you talk about someone else’s death, about how it affected or affects you? That’s self-involved and pathetic.
Not only is this attitude bizarre, insensitive, and pathologically self-protective, but it shuts out the possibility that maybe, just maybe, you don’t know that much about death yet because you’ve never had a close friend or family member die. When you lose someone very close to you, someone who makes up this essential part of your history and your future, your worldview shifts dramatically. You have a palpable feeling that everything and anything good can disappear at any time. I missed my dad a lot. I also felt like everyone I knew was going to start dying. I also hated that my dad wasn’t able to go on living. I wanted him to be alive; I wanted him to feel rain on his face, to eat a great meal, to read something funny, for HIS sake.
After my dad’s death, I felt more anguished AND I felt more alive than I’d ever felt in my life. I felt more grateful than ever. I only wanted honest people in my life, people who could talk about heaviness and melancholy and really savor it instead of feeling uncomfortable. I don’t think I stuck to that. I think I couldn’t handle staying in that space for very long, because it made me feel too raw. So I retreated.
Don’t retreat. You need to find people who will talk about this. Figure out who they are. You’re in therapy now. If your therapist isn’t helping you deal with this that well, then get a new therapist. Or find a grief counselor, too. Or find a therapy group for people mourning a big loss. Look hard at your friends and figure out which ones you can lean on a little more. Someone out there can handle it, I’m sure of that. You just have to figure out who it is.
And you need to write things down. Every day. It’ll help you to understand what shape your pain takes, so it doesn’t take you by surprise, so you can talk yourself out of feeling paralyzed by it.
You also need to exercise every day. Mourning and exercise go very well together. You’re already in a lot of pain. What’s a little more? Fatigue can feel pretty redemptive when you’re sad.
Because mourning is about being alive. That’s something you have to remind yourself of, and maybe you should even take a shot at trying to explain this to your mother. Leaning into your sadness is not REFUSING TO BE HAPPY. Leaning into your sadness, every day, inviting it into your life, getting up and putting on some running shoes and running and walking and running for an hour or two, and crying while you run or walk — that’s reaffirming that you want to keep living. That’s celebrating how much your father meant to you and how he will never disappear from your life, ever. That’s knowing that you will survive this and you’ll carry it with you and it’ll be a big piece of who you are.
Because you don’t ONLY want to be happy. You are not a two-dimensional cartoon cut-out who keeps all pain at bay, at the expense of your very soul. You are not someone who will tell other people to take their own complex, difficult, colorful experiences, experiences that you don’t know anything about, and push them down, store them away, bury them, because it MAKES YOU UNCOMFORTABLE. You are going to feel this crushing loss for as long as you need to feel it, you’re going to feel the full force of it, so that you can also feel:
You ARE going to feel grateful. This is the paradox of mourning. Incredible sadness carries with it an ability to touch the purest strain of joy, to experience an almost ecstatic release, to see an almost blinding, undiluted beauty in everything. Your dad will always be a part of your life. I hated it when people said that kind of thing before my dad died; I thought it was a sad lie told by needy liars. But it’s true.
Two days after my dad died, I called his insurance agent, to cancel his car insurance. The guy had a thick Southern accent. He didn’t get all stiff and weird on the phone, like most people did. He said, “My god. He was just in here the other day. He looked so healthy and young.” It was a very honest response. Then he said, “My dad died when I was 25 years old. That was 25 years ago. I still remember him perfectly, like I just saw him yesterday. I still have dreams about him.” At the time, I thought that sounded incredibly heartbreaking and depressing.
But here it is, almost 20 years later, and I get it. I remember my dad perfectly–his big laugh, his voice singing “Danny Boy” with showy bravado, his teasing tones, his little Muhammad Ali dance. If I turn my back on how important he is, I block my path to joy. I block my ability to bring joy to other people. He is a vital part of my life. And even the sadness I feel about losing him is vital. It makes every color brighter, it makes every single moment of happiness–or longing, or satisfaction, or grace, or melancholy–more real, more palpable, more complete.
Don’t wonder how you will deal with this. You ARE dealing with it. Don’t wonder how you will get over it. You will NEVER get over it. I know that seems heartbreaking and depressing and wrong. Trust me that it’s also gratifying and miraculous and astonishing and endlessly inspiring and important and helpful. Letting this pain in and growing from it will give you strength and resilience that you can pass on to other people in ways you can’t possibly understand now. It’s NOT all about you, not remotely. You are not stuck. You are not wallowing. This is a beautiful, terrible time in your life that you’ll always remember. Don’t turn away from it. Don’t shut it down. Don’t get over it.
Are stoical motherfuckers always tell you that you’re overreacting? Write to Polly and overreact away!
Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl’s existential advice columnist. She’s also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses. Photo by Brian Smithson.