Take a look at the man in the above image. Handsome, eh? A handful of people say he looked like George Clooney in The Men Who Stare at Goats and O Brother, Where Art Thou?. I suppose you can’t really tell in this picture, but they’re not far from the truth. There may be other images that capture this man better, but I love this one. The old-school aviator glasses, the plaid flannel and suspenders, the tent, the White Rain hairdo, the kinda ridiculous mustache, the sunshine and contemplative look. It’s a darn-good picture and it was taken many, many years ago. But not so many years ago, three years ago today to be precise, the man in this darn-good picture died of multiple myeloma, a devastating form of leukemia.
The man in this picture is my dad.
We all expect to bury our parents some day, but not at the vulnerable age of 18. As I was beginning college, what’s supposed to be an exciting time in a young woman’s life, I was in between two grieving processes. The first began six years ago today on July 31, 2011, when I first learned of his cancer and terminal prognosis. This process was complicated and confusing, as I was grieving a loss that had not yet occurred but I knew was inevitable. The second began the day he passed, July 31, 2014, exactly three years to-the-day after learning of his cancer in the first place. Uncanny, isn’t it?
The following is a letter I wrote to my past self of everything I needed to hear in that confusing period of grief.
You are going through a devastatingly uncontrollable situation, and as a control-freak, you are understandably beyond frazzled. You are familiar with the grieving process and expect to work through it very soon, but this in-between period is not something you know how to navigate. There are so many things you have learned through life that have long been preparing you for this, but I want to address those things for which you will not be prepared. I want to warn you about what will happen that you will not expect. I want to explain to you why the way you handle your impending circumstances is okay and why it will feel so normal and yet so strange. You are mostly type-A, prefer blunt language, and hyper-analyze every situation in which you find yourself, so I want to use these things to your advantage, to play on them so this letter can provide comfort when you need it. Keep these things in mind as you move forward and you’ll do just fine.
First, it is okay to feel cheated. First your time with Dad is stolen by estrangement, and now cancer? It’s unfair. Time has been stolen by things you couldn’t control, and you feel robbed. Well, you have been. Don’t chastise yourself for feeling cheated, and especially not for being angry about it. Those feelings both make perfect sense. Simply acknowledge them, let them be, and that simple action alone will make you feel loads better.
Second, as bad as this is going to sound, it is okay to be grateful for his cancer, and you do not need to feel so immensely guilty for it. You have had a lot of pain and doubt regarding whether or not your relationship would ever improve. You have spent years trying to talk to him about the issues, on top of dealing with the pain those issues caused. You have hoped for so long that he would humble himself and apologize for how he hurt you. And now he has. You have seen him cry, ask for forgiveness, apologize, and admit all the ways he hurt you wishing he could take it all back. And that’s great, but now you are confused by how to process it. From your perspective, this destructive disease coerced him to face his own mortality and make his wrongs right. You couldn’t be happier to finally hear him say how much he loves you and is sorry for hurting you. Dad has needed tremendous help from everyone, including Mom, so the family has spent so much time together lately. You have become close again. You realize it is an indirect result of the terminal prognosis, and so you think his cancer is one of the greatest things that has ever happened to your family. But you also feel so relentlessly guilty for being grateful for it.
I want to tell you to cut away that guilt. You have every right to want to hear those things from your dad and see your family reunited as a unit once more. It is not your fault that Dad had to face death for those things to happen. Consider it a silver lining, or a blessing in disguise. The very fact you are ashamed of and confused by this feeling shows you are not selfish and you wish it didn’t have to come to this. Don’t beat yourself up. We are all human, we all have pain, and you are just a child seeking love, affection, and healing. Dad understands that you are not actually grateful he is dying; you are simply grateful for the small amount of redemption and healing that has come out of such a terrible thing.
Third, throw away what you know about the grieving process. Yes, you will go through the typical five stages, and you will even be able to recognize them while you navigate each of them. However, you are going to be surprised and unnerved by them. Your grieving process will be much messier than the text books describe it.
To cope with the huge loss, you will, for a very brief period, try to fill the hole death caused with material objects. That is okay, and it kinda makes sense. Don’t go overboard, but let yourself grieve however you need to do so. When you buy things, you will feel embarrassed and shallow, but this is not true. You are simply grasping for straws in the face of a detrimental loss and those straws just so happen to be material items. For this brief period, that’s okay.
You will want to tell the whole world what has happened. You will want everyone you know to feel a noticeable, visceral absence in the world, like they’re being sucked out of an airplane mid air, the same way you feel. You will want everyone to stop and recognize that a good man who was loved by many is no longer here, and that your world has completely turned upside down because of it. That is normal. Don’t worry about annoying people. They will mostly likely not respond the way you want, but it is still okay to share your experience and grief with others. If you need to shout it from the rooftop, do so unashamedly.
You will be taken off guard by how real the denial stage can be. You know to expect it, but you do not yet know how difficult it is to fight denial in the moment you are experiencing it. When you see Dad’s body, every few seconds you will think you see his chest rising as if he is breathing. You will see his fingertips twitching as his nervous system dies, and think he’s alive, but you will also know this isn’t true. The hardest part about denial is after you move on from it. Once denial is over, you can no longer comfort yourself with false hope, and that can be just as crushing as the initial loss itself. When you feel that rush of sadness as reality overtakes this stage of your grief, turn to someone for comfort. Cry. Look at old pictures. Hug Mom and Aubrey. Talk your boyfriend’s ear off.
You will also experience for most likely the rest of your life something I don’t wish on anybody. There will be moments when, out of nowhere and without any warning, the reality that Dad is dead will suddenly hit you as if it is entirely new information. It will feel like glass shattering. Your heart will flutter and you will feel like you’ve been kicked in the stomach. You will be confused because there will have been no trigger, nothing that prompted this thought. You will especially not understand why it affects you so strongly when you have already found peace from his death. I have no answers to give you for why this will happen, but when it does, take an account of what is true and real in that moment. Notice what you are feeling, sure, but also notice what you see and smell, what you hear, what you were doing when it happened and where you were. This will help you refocus without the same sharp feeling. Also, talk to somebody who can relate. Knowing someone else has experienced the same phenomenon will be a comfort to you.
Most importantly, however, know this: you will get through it. You are strong and have survived other traumas. You made it out on the other side those times and you will do the same when he passes. You have friends who will take care of you, family who will comfort and relate to you, and your own previous experiences to guide you. Remember who you are, where you come from, and how you got here. Remember how you process information and what things are a comfort to you. Don’t get bogged down trying to handle this the way everyone says you should. This will help you grieve healthily. It will be difficult and painful, but you will come out on the other side with more compassion and patience for others, more gratitude for life in general, and more wisdom than you have right now. So, as painful as it will be, embrace the grieving process.
Fourth, as I mentioned above, people will not react the way you need them to most of the time. You will feel let down by those to whom you reach out for comfort. You will hear countless times, “I know how you feel,” and you won’t believe it for a second. You will fight the urge to let the anger boiling inside you overflow every time you hear those words. That’s completely understandable, but don’t hold it against them. They are simply trying to comfort you, but are, unfortunately, just as poorly-equipped to handle the loss as you are right now. When people fail to comfort you in a validating way, and they certainly will quite often, instead of being resentful or bitter, learn from it. Use this experience to become more empathetic yourself. Use it to become more understanding of others’ pain and suffering, more patient with their needs when they grieve their own losses. Learn from this and become a better friend because of it.
Fifth, you are going to have a lot of questions regarding death. At this point, you have not dealt with such an up-close-and-personal death as that of your own dad. And even then, his death will not be like what you imagined. Thunder will not sound. The world will not stop. There will be no embalmed body to preserve a false sense of vitality in his face, to preserve a more pleasing image. His already emaciated body will appear tremendously more wasted. There will be no sterile hospital room to help you compartmentalize his death away from the rest of your life. He will die in your room, in your bed, and you and your brother will take his clothes out of your own closet to be dressed for cremation. You will always picture him in this context. Death will feel way too real to you. You will be very uncomfortable realizing how much you didn’t understand its magnitude, so you will tirelessly analyze biology articles, psychology articles, and scriptures in a feeble attempt to gain this understanding.
Here’s what you need to know: you will never fully gain understanding, but you will find peace. You will eventually be content with not understanding and simply experiencing instead. But in the meantime, don’t forget to come up for air every once in a while. I know there is nothing I can say to keep you from analyzing, so instead I request that you not lose sight. Don’t lose sight of your college courses, your friends and their needs, your family and their mutual need for comfort, or your other needs as well. Just, take care of yourself, okay?
Sixth, you will feel, essentially, lacking a home. Dad’s farm is sold, so it will no longer feel like home. Listen to your brother when he tells you never go back to visit; you will feel nothing but depressed by how bleak the once-beautiful land has become since the new owners let it die. The chicken coop you all built will be overcome by weeds that will rot the walls. The beautiful gardens that spanned throughout the entire property will dwindle and become ugly. Just don’t go back. Preserve the memories you have. Mom’s house also will no longer feel like home. Right now Dad is living in Mom’s house because he needs constant care. He is staying in your bedroom because you are away at college. When he passes, it will not feel like your room anymore. When you come home to visit, you will not want to sleep in your own bed because it is the same bed on which he took his last breath. When you open your closet, you will find all his old plaid flannels and warm wool sweaters, and you will not want to put your own clothes on the hangers. The room will exude his smell for a long time after he is gone. It will actually be quite a comfort to you that there is so much evidence of him in your personal space, and you will try so desperately to preserve this evidence. Eventually, you will find peace and move on, and as that evidence dwindles, you will be just fine.
But you still will not know what place to call home, because there will be no place that feels like home. In these moments, when you feel lost and unattached, seek relationships, be present, and find ways to make your apartment a home. Most importantly, remember that you have a significant place in this world regardless of whether or not you can point to that place on a map.
Seventh, take joy in the little things. You are going to feel so much joy when you visit Mom and see how beautiful the gardens look after Dad spent so much time working in them. You will be absolutely elated when Craig and Rachel, who only knew Dad for one day while you were in the hospital, tell you he seemed like such a cool guy. You will be overwhelmed with happiness when your boyfriend tells you he could see as plain as day how much Dad loved you. You will be grateful when you recognize some of Dad’s qualities in Aubrey. Don’t brush these things off. They are little, but they are important, and they will get you through any grief.
Eighth, take comfort in knowing you will use this horrible thing for good. Dealing with this impending loss will at times require selfishness. However, once that passes, you will get even greater healing and comfort from helping others with their own pain and loss. You will encounter many people going through similar trials, and you will be able to truly empathize and provide for them what they need to process their own grief, even if all they need is your presence. Don’t get so bogged down in your own loss that you forget to care for the people around you. Use this experience for the good of others. Use your pain to recognize pain in others. Use your healing to facilitate healing in others. That gratitude for life in general I told you about? Use it to encourage others. Ultimately, as a Christian, you have been called to love others. Dad’s death will be painful, confusing, and heart-breaking, but it will help you love others in a way that you are not able to just yet. Dad was most certainly not a perfect man, but one thing he always was, was generous. He gave away his organic produce by the bushel for free to anyone who asked for it. Often times he gave it to people who didn’t ask for it, and you have a handful of funny memories of their gratitude and shock. He never had the big red barn, the field full of steers, or the few goats he wanted, but he used what he did have to bless others. You will not only become a better person, you will also feel closer to Dad, if you go and do likewise. Let this unfortunate story be something that brings good to the world. Cancer sucks, but life doesn’t have to. Be generous to others with your love, patience, and kindness. But most importantly, be generous with your time. As you will soon learn, there is never enough of it.
And lastly, as Dad used to say, you’ll always be his baby girl.
Chloe, 3 years wiser, 2 years at peace, but still missing him everyday
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