I spent about 6 years after my Dad passed thinking that grief, grieving, was something that wore itself out. As in, it comes up, hovers right up in my face until enough time passes (or life distracts it), and then it’s dull, dormant grief until I evenutally would reach a point of having moved on…then grief would be gone for good. Similar to a virus, in control of me rather than me of it, with time as the antibiotic.
No one taught me this. I didn’t read it anywhere. It’s just what I assumed, what I defaulted to. That one day, and then for every day after that, I’d be cured of grief. I wouldn’t feel the loss of my Dad. It would be behind me rather than something that dances in and out of my lived experience. I think I tried for 6 years to live myself out of my grief.
It wasn’t until the last 10 months or so that I cracked in on what a total falsehood that thinking is. Loving and loosing my Dad is part of my lived experience in this life. What was causing a repeated suffering was my own patterning. Much like how I wasn’t taught my ill assumptions about grief, I wasn’t taught how to respond to deep loss. Which, I don’t know if you can ever, really, be taught or shown such a thing.
I was 17 when he died, and I am the oldest of 3. What I instinctively thought most noble, best, needed, in the face of death was to pull the reins in, be a solace, and move forward. Not in a stoic way – what I did know even then is that life is so much more than death. I really truly was opened to the interconnectedness of everything. I saw God move. And figured, let’s focus on light, rather than anything grim or dark – because there was so much of that. My spirit was too big to let death define it. I went on choosing to be all light – even to myself. The dark spots of what I experienced not just from my Dad’s death but in his nine months of diagnosis leading up, just stayed put without me ever really seeing and dealing with them. It was certainly a kind of forced ignorance, likely a mechanism to protect myself. My excuse to myself mostly, was that I was working out the fact of his dying in my life – by living.
It’s taken a lot of getting to know myself to understand why I chose the things I chose and how I responded to my Dad’s death and dying. My 17 year old self – she just wanted to be okay. The unraveling of 7 years has taught me so far, that I am really good at grinning and bearing, pushing through, even pushing past. Really in every area of my life. It was my default – now it’s a deeply ingrained pattern that’s being retrained.
I remember my first cracking point in realizing my auto-response to loss. I made a trip home at the end of last summer and my Gram out of nowhere mentioned that my Uncle, who was with my Dad the night he died, played him Johnny Cash (not because my Dad like Johnny Cash, but because my Uncle did.) This was a beautiful something I never knew and it made me feel like my Dad was well taken care of as he prepared himself to go. He was held. And the sweetness of my Uncle to think to do something like play his favorite music for my Dad.
Driving back from my Grandmom’s, I turned on the radio, and there was Johnny Cash. I lost it. For the first time in a really long time, I balled my eyes out and I knew that there was so much to excavate… and so much I hadn’t looked at… and a Katie who really deep down there, packed underneath all the cool life adventures that she was in pursuit of, just really needed a big, big hug. From herself.
So that’s what I’ve been doing the better part of the last year. Getting to know grief in a new way. I’ve cried a lot. I’ve laughed a lot. I write more. I dream more. I’ve gone deeper by way of clearing out. I’m choosing myself first over anything else. It a process that goes like: really seeing the old bit that rises up, looking at it, holding it, and putting in the effort to make peace with it. Whatever it is – a memory (there are a lot of these), a desire, a sense of lack. It doesn’t mean it goes away. It may come back. But the value lies in giving the bit whatever I can muster at any given moment. The effort really, to let the grief wash through when it does, letting it visit for as long as it needs to uproot itself, and then letting it go – not getting stuck in identifying with it.
As I’m learning about my body and my breath in my yoga practice, I’ve been able to watch what my breath does when grief does rise up, the bit that there is to look at rises, and I don’t want to see it. Or I need to cry, need to release, and I don’t want to – there’s holding. A few months ago, I caught this for this first time – my breath does just what I did for so long in life – it squelches the emotion. It holds it down. It grins and bears. And that’s still my default, but now, when that happens, I let my breath loose on purpose so that the tears, the sadness, the emotion, the memory can come out and run its course. And it does. I feel lighter and maybe this contributes some to the lightness. Processing in real time, as much as possible, so as not to store up and work through later.
I’m still remembering my Dad, don’t get me wrong, but I feel like I’m not carrying him around as much as I did several years ago. Doing this work over and over and over these past months, I’ve come to discover that my Dad’s 7th anniversary this weekend is really more about me than it is about him. I used to put the focus so much on how he’s not here, and being sorry for the second half of his life he will never get to live (which is really putting the focus on me, but without naming it.) I told my mom as I packed up to come to the mountains for the weekend how much, now, this anniversary bit – it’s really about me.
I put aside time this weekend to just let whatever rise to the surface that needed to come up – and to honor his life, of course, but to deeply honor my own journey. How far I’ve come into my own becoming. And that was the point of me retreating for this weekend – a celebration in part, but really the mountains get it. The mountains know that there’s just so much life going on. And for me to see the mountains all big & up close and real, walk through their trails, touch their trees, gaze at their waterfalls and wonder at their creatures – it is a tangible experience of “yes, there’s so much – and it’s okay.” A lived experience that something bigger than myself exists. You can have a truly beautiful deep spiritual life, and a full, full tank of that goodness, but in my humanness, I want to go play in it. I need to. It’s medicine for the unsolvable, solace for the deep inner work, and great comfort that nature grieves too, on purpose and in right season.
This is not to say that my biggest wish this weekend, and most days, is that I could sit down and just have a beer with my dad. If anything, that’s the constant and most frequent longing. For now, I’ve made good peace with the life bits – graduations, holidays, mile markers. But that wish of a normal moment – still there. And if there is anyone reading this that has lost a parent, my biggest, best advice is to ask God for a Megan. Meg and I met at JFK airport enroute to 2 months in West Africa, and our seats happened to be right next to each other on the plane. Before we even took off into the sky, Meg and I had already confessed that we were both without our Dads. It happened only because we both knew the code we were speaking in… talking just about our moms. She had lost her father some 9 years before, and I was into year 3 without mine.
The thing about losing your parent is that no one gets it. No one really understands what it’s like to experience that kind of loss. As much self-reflection and self-work you can commit to doing alone or even with a therapist, it’s likely that not even your partner, your spouse, your already in place best friend will enrich your life and help your healing like someone that’s also been in the same trench. Your loved ones will love you, yes, and let them love you. My siblings are two of my favorite people on earth and my mom too – all three of them are supportive and caring and hugely aware even in their own respective losses. But the gift of someone that can really know you, see you, and stands with you, truly, in light of their loss and outside of the context of yours… Megan helps me to see and work through my shadow parts, and her journey lights mine. She knows when I’m being irrational or emotional or when I’ve dipped back into ignorance and she doesn’t try to bring me back any other way than just reminding me who I am and by telling it how it is. Because she knows how it is. Megan has fiercely, loyally, and lovingly brought me back to myself time and time again. Ask your angels for a Megan.
Lastly, something that has really blown my mind and given me something to think about and treasure — briefly, in learning about breath from a fundamental yogic perspective, the inhale comes from above (like think from the space above the crown of your head) and moves into the body to a middle point, and the exhale rises from below (beneath), moving into the body to meet in the same middle point. The inhale corresponds to our receiving nature, to our moment of birth. Taking in life, breathing it in. On purpose. The exhale corresponds to our efforting nature, our strength, rising up and out. The exhale – our moment of death. Our last breath out, rising up and out. On purpose.
The “on purpose” part is what I find fascinating. What gives me chills. Because then, our first and our last breaths aren’t the only ones with purpose. It’s all the breaths in-between, too that make sense of that very first inhale, that keep taking in life, and that prepare for the last exhale, the letting life go completely. And that last exhale determines what’s next for our soul. As if all of the in-between breaths of this life are “on purpose” practice for that last one, and of great, purposeful tribute to the first.
So if anything, I’ve given myself permission to grieve on purpose, and I’m moving into a life where I’m doing, or not doing, everything on purpose. It makes it less that my life has purpose, and more that I am bringing purpose to my life. It becomes how I am living, not what I am living. How am I breathing not what I am breathing. What a beautiful thing to learn from grief – like a flower that grows out of mud. And as we know – No mud, no flower.