Lessons I have learned about Grief
As we start the month of May – also known as Mental Health Awareness month – I wanted to write a piece about grief and loss honoring my father. March 7 marks the 3 year anniversary of my dad’s passing and every year it is just as hard and painful as this date approaches. I can remember so clearly where I was when I received the news that my father was dead. Shock, denial, fear, sadness, loneliness, b
ut mostly numb was what I felt in the seconds after I heard the words, “dad didn’t make it” from my sister over the phone. What do you mean he didn’t make it… how would I live life without my father, my anchor, my rock, my cheerleader, my confidant? I sat frozen in my car for what seemed like hours until my brain reconnected to the sound of my sisters voice asking how soon can I get to Minnesota? My father was in Minnesota at the time of his death and I was in California. My mind clung onto the thought of “I have to get to Minnesota” as I went into autopilot. I started calling airlines and the last flight out to Minneapolis was 7pm that evening and it was 1:30pm. I had 4 and a half hours to get home, packed, take care of my fur baby, and to LAX (in LA traffic). I couldn’t allow myself to feel and for the next 5 hours as I was completed detached from my body. The moment my mind would think about my father being dead I was stuck. By the grace of God I made my flight and right when the flight took off, I broke down. Luckily I had the row to myself and for the next 4 hours cried in silence until I landed in Minnesota.
The following week was a whirlwind – planning his funeral, clearing out his home and trying to remember to breathe. For me, true grieving started when I
returned back to California and tried to resume my life. The days, weeks, months were some of the hardest, loneliest and saddest days of my life. The first holidays, birthdays, life events without my dad were excruciating and filled with pain and sorrow. As I was thinking about this post, I wanted to share 4 points I have learned about grief and loss.
1. Remember the “dash”
Our life is marked with bookends – the date we were born and the date we die. What about the “dash” the life we lived between our bookends. My dad lived his dash with courage, strength and resilience. My parents were both born in Africa and I am the 1st of my family to be born in America. My parents were married in 1974. At that time Uganda was under the rule of Idi Amin who was killing Africans who were educated and/or Christian. My father was a professor and was active in the Church. In 1976 my parents and my 1 year old sister were living in an apartment where nightly they would hear soldiers who were under Amin’s rule come and take away people to be killed. My father had been applying to Universities in America with plans to escape Africa. Finally the night came when my mom, dad and 1 year old sister fled Africa under the cover of the night. They couldn’t take their belongings because they did not want to draw attention to themselves. They were stopped at the border and questioned where they were going. My sister’s dirty diaper saved them because the guards were disgusted by the smell and waived them through. My father had been accepted into the Doctorate Program at University of Minnesota. He came to America, not knowing anyone, without a place to live and with very minimal items which consisted primarily of clothes. Within one day of him a
rriving to America, he secured housing for his young family and changed the course of his family lineage forever. Knowing what my father sacrificed has forever made me grateful of his “dash”. In the 41 years I was part of my father’s dash; time and time again he modeled and taught me to live a life of courage and strength. He taught me not to let fear hold me back, be proud of the life I live and never forget who I am and where I come from. My question to you is how are you living your “dash”…
2. There is no one way to grieve
Grief is a complicated emotion and there is no one way to grieve… It has been suggested that there are “7 Stages of Grief” – shock, denial, anger, bargaining, guilt, depression, acceptance and hope. The important thing to remember is that each stage is not reliant on the other stage. When we lose a loved one, grief becomes part of narrative and we are continually moving in between stages. Holidays, birthdays I find myself still in denial when I wake up on my birthday and my birthday message isn’t waiting on my voicemail. Guilt whenever his death anniversary approaches and remembering the last time he called me, the day before he died, I “declined” his call because I was at work and missed the last opportunity I had to talk to him. Depression when I think about how he won’t ever meet my future husband and walk me down the aisle on my wedding day (when that day comes), and a
ll the other life events he physically won’t be a part of. My encouragement to those who have lost a loved one(s) is to be gentle with your emotions and it is ok not to be ok, have a support system and don’t be afraid to reach out.
3. What does “you have my thoughts and prayers” mean…
When someone loses a loved one how often have you heard the following sentiments: “my thoughts and prayers are with you” or “they are in a better place” or maybe crickets. People who you thought would reach out, never do. Grief and loss is something that EVERYONE in this world is going to experience yet it is one of the most uncomfortable and triggering experiences for a lot of people. After the funeral is over, the days, weeks, months after are some of the darkest and hardest days. Returning back home from my father’s memorial, I was haunted with the silence as I entered my house. I had to mentally prepare myself to return to work. The food in my fridge had pretty much all gone bad and I had some groceries in the freezer I could heat up. Everything became a chore, memories of my father were everywhere in my house. I remember asking myself for the first time, how am I going to function in a world without my father? The next day, after restless sleep, I pulled into the parking lot at my work, my heart started racing. This was where I received the news that my father was dead and now whenever I went to
work, that memory would haunt me. Work offered a mental escape where I didn’t have to “feel my emotions”. Throughout the days/weeks that followed I would receive the “thinking of you, sorry for your loss, thoughts and prayers” messages. Although the gesture was nice, what I desperately needed were people to show up for me… show up by asking how can they support me, offer to bring meals, check on me – come over and sit with me in the messiness, fear, anger and sadness.
Show up in love and compassion. If you have a friend or a loved one who has experienced a loss, I encourage you to show up for them, reach out and ask what they need or show up with a hug, a meal or a listening ear.
4. Because you move forward with life it doesn’t mean you forget
Early in my life and throughout, my father would always say to me “never forget who you are and never forget where you come from”. As I continue to move forward in life, I know my father is cheering me on from heaven. There have been many experiences the past three years I needed my father for. The beautiful thing is that God has brought different father figures and friends into my life to stand in that gap. Even though I am living my life, it doesn’t mean the pain has gone away or that I have forgotten my father. My life is a reflection and testament to the man he was and the daughter he raised.
I love you papa and until the day we meet again xoxo