It has been said that the grieving process is one of several steps, such as denial, anger, and acceptance. Although there is no prescribed time frame for each given step, this has always seemed far too neat and tidy. One can experience many of these emotions at once, and just because a person is considered to be over a given stage does not mean that feelings of anger or denial cannot come creeping back long after it was thought that such emotions had been conquered. Similarly, to accept the death of someone is not to be healed; it does not mean that the grieving process can be done away with. I had accepted that my father would die almost straight away. The prognosis was stark enough: four brain tumors, inoperable, incurable, and that terrible word: terminal. Though unfair that my father had to go through this after having battled both prostate and lung cancer, acceptance was quick in coming. The prognosis of two weeks left little choice. Acceptance, however, did not make things easier.
Rather than the step-by-step process that has come to be considered the “normal” way of grieving, it has been my experience that grief is like the tides. It comes and goes in waves, washing over you at the most unexpected of times. Mention of a specific movie can bring thoughts of my father flooding back, completely unexpected and overwhelming. It could be a song on the radio. It could be bumping into people at the supermarket. It can be finding a guitar pick in an old pair of jeans that were thought to be lost. These unexpected waves of grief can sometimes be too much, as though they were sucker punching you in the stomach, leaving you heaved over and gasping for breath. Inversely, these waves can be of a far sweeter nature: gentle, lapping at your feet and caught in a slight breeze, the salt water kissing your skin. Just as how the step by step process of grief fails in its promise of tidiness, similarly, the waves do not always become gentler with time. Although I can now sometimes think of my father with a smile on my face rather than with tears in my eyes, the waves still tend to knock me over at the most unexpected of times. The fact of the matter is that grief is not a process of saying goodbye. Saying goodbye to a loved one is like saying goodbye to the waves themselves; no matter how many times we turn our backs to the ocean, the waves will always be there, lapping up onto the shores of our lives. Rather, it is a process of coming to understand that someone you love can no longer be at your side.
While I expect that the future will bring far more waves of the sweeter variety than those caused by rough seas, I understand that grief is a never ending process. The hole that is now in my life because my father is gone will never go away. It will shrink with time, but will never fully heal. There will be plenty of rough seas ahead, as evidenced by the birth of my nephew, who will never know his paternal grandfather. The death of my father will render every joyous occasion bittersweet, as the heart can’t help but break a little bit each time something good happens and he isn’t there to share in our joy. When I graduate, my father won’t be there to clap as I get my diploma. When I get married, my father will not walk me down the aisle. He will never know my children. These moments, these waves, will crash into me with full force. Although there is so much joy that can be found in life, every happy moment will be filled with the thought, “I wish Dad were here to see this”.
And so, grief is not a process of saying goodbye. It is not something that can be worked through and filed away, left to grow dusty in a stack of old documents. The grieving process is learning to understand that a loved one is no longer in your life; that good and bad moments cannot be shared anymore; that jokes and jam sessions will never again be had. Overall, the waves of grief will abate. Such is life. We must move on. There will be storms, however, no matter how much time has elapsed between my father’s passing and the present. This is grief; it comes and goes like the tides.
Perhaps Anne Simpson says it best in her poem “Sea of Death”: “Gone. This is when it sinks in, when we get up and walk back into our lives, knowing the same thing will happen again. We learn the lesson the snake teaches: to shed our skins a thousand times in any given day”. Or, more concise, Stephen King’s take: “Grief is like a drunken houseguest who keeps coming back for one more goodbye hug”.