Ah, here we are, the final stage: Acceptance. This stage can come across as a giant sigh of relief, but the truth of the matter is, acceptance does not equal joy or mean that life goes back to the way it was.
Instead, it simply means that we are accepting life without our person; and we’re figuring out a way to create a new normal. This may mean that different people fill different roles, or that a daily routine looks a little different.
As I mentioned yesterday, my dad wasn’t a part of my daily life so not much changes in that regard. But I certainly feel different.
When I went to Tennessee for his memorial, a majority of my family was there, and it certainly felt so weird without my dad there. He was always keeping in touch with everyone and it would be strange to have all of us in a room without him. When my friend drove me back to Indiana the next day, things just felt a little colder, a little more empty.
I am still trying to learn a lot about my dad and the life he lived. Of the things I’ve heard, I’m starting to realize just how full of a life he did have, and how many obstacles he overcame in such a short time and did so without hesitation.
My dad wasn’t a man looking for fame or fortune – ultimately, I think he was just trying to find a little bit of happiness, perhaps even a touch of adventure in each day. He loved stories, loved meeting people, and even in the confines of what appears to be a reclusive last few years, he found joy in hobbies: fixing fountain pens, attending garage sales, reading, and playing chess competitively.
I am never going to be okay with my dad being gone. But I know my dad would be okay knowing that we are all going to try and find a way to go on without him here, physically. I hope this brings my family together – they’re pretty cool – and I know he’d like seeing us lean on each other.
My dad was cremated, and I flew my portion (1/7th) of his ashes from Indiana to Texas. Right now, they sit on my bookshelf while I wait to decide what I actually want to do with them. I know I’m scattering some of them, and am lightly planning that now. I know my other family members have their own ideas for how to honor my dad, too.
I have no idea how long a journey like this lasts. In college, a close friend unexpectedly passed away and I felt like my heart was ripped to shreds. I remember pulling over and calling my dad when I got the news.
That was almost 10 years ago, and sometimes I still get choked up about that loss. But I am someone who believes in spirits and signs, and I have a connection to radio waves (I know, it’s super weird but I hear meaningful songs nearly everywhere I go), and I’ve already seen a few signs from my dad.
Even just last night, I went to a dance class and we danced to Demi Lovato and DJ Khalid’s “I Believe”, and the lyrics almost brought me to tears: “Tough times don’t last, but tough people do, As long as you’ve got hope, you’ll find your way.”
I know we’re all going to come out of this on the other side, and I have always believed that we aren’t given anything we can’t handle.
Don’t look back at this time as a time of heartbreak and distress, remember me.
…I don’t want you to cry and weep, I want you to go on, living your life.
-Hanson, “With You In Your Dreams”
Thank you so much for reading my grief series – I know it was not a cheerful read. There will be more on this, I’m sure, as I continue on.
If you knew my dad, and have anything you’d like to share with me, please do not hesitate to email me at: Holly@thebitterlemon.com – I would love to hear from you.
Stage four isn’t that shocking – it’s depression. Why wouldn’t someone going through grief suffer from depression? I have been slogging through the darkness of depression and sadness since my dad’s surgery in late September.
Although depression can come in many forms for different people, for me, there was one telltale sign: things that normally made me happy, no longer did. That is why my blogging fell to the side, my Etsy shop (I stopped making jewelry), I stopped cooking and relied on meal delivery, and my sleep suffered.
Things are slowly getting better – and I know that it’s okay if I have a bad day – now is the time to go easy on myself.
Expectations when it comes to grief are really weird. I got cards in the mail from so many people, which was great, and I’m so thankful – I hung them all in my living room. But on the other hand, some people just expect me to go on and be normal, like nothing ever happened… And well, that’s just not how it’s going to be.
People respond differently to people who are grieving. They reach out. But depression is so very isolating. It’s hard to explain to anyone who has never been depressed how isolating it is. Grief comes and goes, but depression is unremitting.
-Key Redfield Johnson
Some days DO feel normal. After all, I didn’t talk to my dad on a regular basis. Before his surgery, I hadn’t talked to him in almost four years. But nothing can explain the finite feeling that is death. He is gone, and I can’t talk to him like I did before, no matter what I do.
Other days, I feel like I keep freaking seeing CANCER… BRAIN CANCER, everywhere. It’s in the books I read, it’s on TV, it’s online… and I just never want to see it again.
Right now, there are two 50-pound boxes of his things in my closet. I have dug out a few of the items – a wooden chess board and pieces that I’ve set up on my dresser, an antique fountain pen that’s on my home desk, a glass paperweight that’s on my desk at work, an LSU sweatshirt, an Atlanta baseball hat, and a half-used journal.
Some days, I wear the hat or sweatshirt – the last few nights, I’ve slept with the journal at the foot of my bed. Other days, I don’t want to even think about opening up the boxes to see what else is in there. I’m just not ready.
I’ve found that reading is a good escape – I’ve read three books in the last week. I’ve even cooked a few meals and am starting to gather materials to make a few pieces of jewelry for my Etsy shop.
I am someone who likes to DO things; I like to be productive. But even with the greatest intentions, sometimes I still end up laying in bed for long chunks of time. It is a slow process. Writing about my feelings – even at a surface level – has helped me this week. Planning for the future also helps, and gets me excited about things coming up this year.
I’m taking it day by day, as cliche as it sounds.
Tomorrow, I’ll be talking about the fifth and final stage of grief: Acceptance.
Stage three of grief is an interesting one. Bargaining refers to promises that may have been made before the person passed away. For example, praying and asking God to please spare your loved one; or perhaps making a promise that you’ll never do anything bad again if only this person can live longer.
These types of promises, or bargaining, may also occur after the person has passed, only now, they are imaginary. We may start to think back and wonder what if I’d done this, would the person have lived longer?
I’ll be honest, this really has not been a part of my grieving process, at least not yet. I know that there’s nothing I could have done to change the course of my dad’s life. I think many of us are probably in a position to think, well if we only took charge of our health or if we only exercised more, etc… but the truth is, our death is already planned. And it may not have anything to do with health or food or exercise.
I also know that my dad was given the best care possible once he entered Erlanger hospital, and I know he was grateful for all of his surgeons, doctors, and nurses along the way.
The thing is… guilt is also a part of stage three. And I cannot say I’ll walk away from this without feeling guilt. I wanted so badly to repair the relationship I had with my dad so that we could enjoy his final days, months, years laughing as we once did.
It’s a hard thing to imagine how somebody copes with grief and at the same time has to build a new life.
But despite everything I did, there was still a barrier. And the truth is, I will die not knowing what really happened there. There is one thing I did that I feel wrecked with guilt for, and I obviously can’t take it back.
Because of the nature of my dad’s death, I was blessed to have the opportunity to say goodbye. He was not capable of responding to me, but he was breathing, and I said – albeit through hysterical tears – everything I could think to say. And I apologized.
And that’s all I could do; and I just have to know that he heard me, and that he died knowing I was sorry, and that we were at peace with our past.
At this point, and as I continue coping, I know that I’m going to have to forgive myself, and the only real thing I can change, is how I act in the future.
Tomorrow, I’ll discuss Stage Four: Depression.
Already, anger has played a pretty big part in my grieving process. Actually, anger has had a role in the relationship I’ve had with my dad for many years.
As described by the experts, this stage of grief can be met with general feelings of anger, along with structured feelings of being angry at a specific person – maybe a doctor, or someone who wasn’t there during the time of loss.
I have had moments of being angry at a specific person, but I also do not want those feelings of anger over that person to overshadow my general sadness over my loss, if that makes any sense. I do not want my dad’s memory to be tarnished by one person is the best way I can put it.
I have also had incredible anger at the situation surrounding my dad, anger at work, and anger at the world for just not being an easy place for me right now. I’ve even gotten angry at Blanche!
At my dad’s memorial service, my great uncle said that memory is not something death can take from us. And for that I am so grateful. But, when it came time to share stories about my dad, many of the stories I have are of him being mad at me.
Of course, many of them are moments I can laugh about now; moments where he was just raising me, being tough on me, but they aren’t necessarily moments that describe him as a person. Or are they? My dad had a short fuse, and we butted heads countless times.
May love be what you remember most.
My feelings of anger are countered by my faith in destiny. I believe there are moments in our life that are planned – such as when and how we will die – but I also believe we choose our destinies. And my dad made choices that resulted in a situation that angered our family.
His death does not change those choices, and he was an adult, actively making those choices. To be completely angry is to deny that he made those choices.
My anger is also countered by the support I feel from my family and my friends – I have heard from so many of you, received so many hugs, and have shared tears with you. For that I am so grateful.
But yes, anger is still going to be there. Studies show that as a culture, we’re taught to suppress anger, even though it’s a very necessary, common feeling. Although I don’t consider myself an angry person, I’ve found anger to be a powerful part of this grief.
My anger has forced me to acknowledge a lot of things in my life that have otherwise floated by, and it’s given me the confidence to confront the people that are pissing me off! In a way it’s good, but of course, no one likes to get yelled at.
As I’ll continue to say, I’m coping. And it’s not really a pretty thing, but I’m just rolling with it.
Tomorrow, I’ll talk about stage three: bargaining.
My dad was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer in October of 2017. I know that typically, the five stages of grief are part of the healing process after loss; after death. But I have been coping with symptoms of grief since I heard the news about a mass in his brain.
I quickly learned that this blog was not a place for me to air my grievances – it was only adding to my stress as I received horrible messages from outsiders. No matter how many supportive messages I got, it only takes one dig to stick with us.
So, I quit.
I barely made an appearance here – a place I thought was mine. But that is sometimes what happens when you put yourself out there, in any form. There are always going to be haters.
For the most part, I have stuck to my journal and have let most of my other creative outlets fall to the side – including my Etsy shop (I am slowly starting to get back to it). But in general, I have been merely just trying to get by; just trying to get out of bed, look half-decent to get to work on time; do my tasks; and get some sleep at night.
At that, is stage one: Denial.
My dad passed away on February 3. It was not a surprise, and at first, I took a giant sigh of relief when I heard the news. And then I apologized for feeling relief. But I wanted so badly for my dad to be at peace, and to know that he would no longer be in pain.
After that sigh, I’ve felt a multitude of things, and each day – hell, each moment – feels different. So, I’m using this week to explore the healing process as I’ve come to know it. I’m still working on a larger project that will further detail my dad’s life and our relationship; so parts of this may be vague, as I’m still not ready to open those parts of my memory just yet.
Before starting this blog series, I thought that denial was literally denying that a person was sick or had died. And I certainly have never felt that way. I took my dad’s condition very seriously.
In 1969, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and her co-author, a grief expert, David Kessler, identified the five stages of grief that we’ve come to understand as a necessary part of the healing process.
Instead, denial is us just trying to get through each day. We may question why we should go on or HOW we should go on, and I have been feeling this SO hard. During this stage, life may seem meaningless, or things that once seemed like a big deal just don’t matter as much.
The latter explains my feelings about work. I hate admitting that, but ever since my dad’s surgery, getting stressed over trivial things at work seemed beneath me. And they still do.
But grief is a walk alone.
Others can be there, and listen. But you will walk alone down your own path, at your own pace, with your sheared-off pain, your raw wounds, your denial, anger, and bitter loss. You’ll come to your own peace, hopefully… But it will be on your own, in your own time.
My dad’s memorial service was a week after his passing, but I knew that upon getting back into town, I had to refocus quickly and jump into dance rehearsals. I was in the middle of prepping for the showcase and I had two weeks to learn two routines and get my costumes together. It was a much-needed distraction.
But the day after the showcase, I felt so lost. I didn’t really know what to do with myself even though between work and dance and just general life, my days are pretty much laid out for me.
Since then, it’s gotten a little better – I know I must go on, and I know I have to continue to live the life I’ve dreamt of, especially now. None of us know just how much time we have, and I don’t want to ever be in my final days wishing I’d done more.
As you probably know, the stages of grief are not linear. They can come and go at any time – sometimes they last a minute, sometimes they may last months. Everyone deals differently.
Tomorrow, I’ll discuss stage two: Anger.
On Tuesday, my mom delivered the news to me that a dear family friend of ours had less than a 10 percent chance of surviving.
I wept behind the closed door of my office. This was not just any person – it was Cheryl, my mom’s best friend, a woman she’d known for 34 years, and someone who had influenced my life in many great ways. I wept for my mom, for Cheryl’s daughter, for her husband, for her family, her coworkers, and for anyone who’d ever knew her – even if just for a short moment.
Cheryl was a ray of light in the darkness – she always found a way to laugh at pretty much any situation, which is a trait I’ve always admired. I can recall so many fun times with Cheryl and her daughter, Sarah – times I will cherish for the rest of my life.
I know Cheryl meant so much to my mom, and to her family. To me, Cheryl was South Carolina sweet grass. She took her daughter and I on a rode trip one summer, from the middle of Indiana to the shores of South Carolina, where we stayed, for what seemed like a month.
It was my first time really discovering a new culture – we went to the market, bought handmade jewelry, tried homemade ice cream, walked cobblestone streets leading to plantation homes, and chased crabs in the sands of Folly Beach. It was heaven.
I’d nearly forgotten that Cheryl and Sarah had also joined my mom, dad, and I for a trip to Disney World when I was 10. Sarah and I met as many of the Disney characters as possible, having them all autograph pages in little journals we kept.
Although Cheryl divorced from Sarah’s father when we were very young, later she rekindled with a high school sweetheart whom she married and he became an integral part of the family. I always admired their love story – it was a fairytale.
But the entire time, Cheryl was battling Crohn’s Disease, which affects the digestive tract. The cause of Crohn’s is unknown, and even determining if you have it can be a complicated process. There is also no cure.
Personally, I know very little about Crohn’s, and have only known two people who’ve had it, including Cheryl. I know it affects each person differently, and I know I often forgot that Cheryl was fighting the symptoms of her illness.
But Crohn’s is eventually what took her body from this earth too soon – a move I know she didn’t let happen without a hard fight.
Yesterday, her body was laid to rest in its final place, and my mom was able to say her goodbyes to her dear friend. I couldn’t make it to Indiana for the funeral, which I feel terrible about, but I’ve already had a few talks with Cheryl’s spirit and I hope she understands.
I plan to honor Cheryl in a few ways, aside from just daily “What’s ups” and singing along to some John Mellencamp (she LOVED him). I have registered as a team to do the “Take Steps for Crohn’s” event in Austin at the end of May, so if you’re in the area and would like to join my team – Cheryl’s Southern Belles – or donate to my personal goal of $500, I would really love that.
I have also set up a GoFundMe campaign for Cheryl’s immediate family, as they are stressed about covering the costs of her funeral and her remaining medical bills. Although she had insurance, we all know that isn’t going to cover everything.
I am offering homemade baked goods and free blogging and Twitter courses for the higher donors, but if you would like to donate any amount, or share the link, it would be greatly appreciated.
I know the next few months will be emotional, and that we all deal with loss in our own ways. I wish my mom peace, and I hope everyone that loved Cheryl finds comfort in the fact that she touched so many lives and that we are all better people because of her.
Life goes on, long after the thrill of livin’ is gone.” -John Mellencamp, Jack and Diane
It was a Thursday afternoon when D told me it wouldn’t be much longer for his grandfather. I asked him what he wanted me to do.
He wanted me to meet him for lunch, and drinks. So I did.
Needless to say, D was pretty upset. His family was close, his parents and grandparents all live within a 10 mile radius of each other and D.
I am really not good at handling these types of situations. I never know what to say, I just kept telling D I was sorry, asking him if he was okay, and reminding him that I’m always here to listen.
D had gone to Hospice, where the family was gathered around his grandfather’s bedside. According to D, his grandfather wasn’t responding to anything they were saying, and it seemed like the family was just waiting for the final breath.
We stayed at the bar, drinking, and found out that his grandfather passed away around 2 am.
Of course, when D told me his grandfather passed away, I offered to go with him to the services. He was worried about me missing work, which I assured him was not a big deal.
So that Monday evening, I picked him and his daughter up and we went to the funeral home for the wake. There, I saw his brothers, parents, nieces and nephews. But there was also a slew of people I had to meet, including his grandma, now a widow.
It was difficult. You don’t want to be cheery when everyone is sad, but it also feels silly to say, “Sorry for your loss,” when you never even met the guy in the casket. Am I wrong?
Anyway, one person coming to the wake I was particularly nervous to meet was D’s ex wife, and his baby-mama.
She was friendly and honestly seemed like someone I would be friends with; and that was a nice feeling to have. However, other people in the room were eyeing the situation.
“Is it weird to meet her?” his mom whispered to me.
“Mmm…no,” I said. “It’s kind of weird that we are meeting under these circumstances, but not in general.”
Why would it be weird? It’s not like I was afraid they would get back together.
The weirder part for me was when D’s daughter talked about her mom. Not because I had any ill feelings toward her, but just because I wasn’t sure what to say, aside from, “Oooohhh.”
After the wake, the 3 of us (D, his daughter and I) went to dinner. It was there that I felt like a little bit of an outsider.
Anyone ever dated someone with kids? It was cool to hang out as a new little family, but it wasn’t my little family, and I didn’t feel like his daughter would ever accept me. Even if D and I were to get married, she would still see me as that evil stepmom.
I was already feeling like she didn’t want me around. And honestly, I couldn’t blame her. I had no experience with kids. I wasn’t really the most cheerful person around, and I was pretty much trying to move in on her dad… what was there to like about me?
The next morning, we met back up for breakfast and hit the road for the funeral. D was a pallbearer, so his daughter needed a buddy to sit with during the service. She refused to sit with me, and D looked at me, “Wow she really does not want to sit with you.”
I said, “Yeah, pretty sure she hates me.”
D and the woman next to me were sympathetic.
“She doesn’t seem to like anyone,” the lady whispered.
I didn’t know if that’s comforting or not.
The next day, one of my columns was published in the local paper:
Building the Boat: Lessons in Life and Death
When I was a child, my best friend’s father died. It was the first time I’d seen an open casket. I remember my mom telling me that an open casket is a way for some people to say their goodbyes.
Since then, I’ve seen a few open caskets, especially lately.
During a routine cut and color, my hair stylist told me her father was in hospice. The only thing I knew about hospice was what I read in “The Mercy Papers” by Robin Romm. In it, Romm describes a hospice nurse as someone who “builds the boat of morphine and pillows.”
My stylist explained that her father was in such bad shape, he wished for a lethal dose of morphine. But she and I both knew Dr. Kevorkian was dead, literally.
The next night, my boyfriend told me his grandfather was also in hospice. My heart was heavy. I am never good at handling tough situations. Even as a writer full of words, I never know what to say.
A little more than a week later, his grandfather died. At the wake, my boyfriend’s mom took note that both times I’d seen the family, there’d been a casket present. I promise, she meant it in a fun, loving way.
The first time I met my boyfriend’s parents was at church on Easter Sunday. While I went to church and Bible camp as a child, I’m not well versed in religion. My mom will tell you this is one thing she regrets about my childhood — not subjecting me to more Jesus.
We joined his family at a Baptist church that was packed, either because of the holiday or because Jesus is really popular. I was told to expect singing, but upon arrival, our usher informed us that they would be bringing in a casket. My stomach churned.
The casket was fit for Buckwild’s Shain Gandee, with antlers for handles and a lining made of camouflage fabric. The pastor used the casket to represent a modern tomb, and said one day, he’ll need one — he preferred the camo option.
He went on to ask the congregation, “Why do we seek life where there is death?” One of his examples was drinking; there isn’t life at the bottom of the bottle (debatable). He later said life begins at death and when we choose to accept Jesus, we are choosing death.
A few days later, I asked a coworker what that whole “life begins at death” thing meant.
“I think it means you’re supposed to kill yourself,” he said. I promise, he meant it in a fun, loving way.
After the wake, my boyfriend and I went to dinner with his daughter. Between coloring and eating, she sweetly said, “I hope grandpa has a fun time in heaven with God.”
Leave it to a blue-eyed 6-year-old to lighten my heavy heart.
I don’t want to get too deep into the workings of religion here, but right then and there, I decided to translate the pastor’s words as such: “Afterlife begins at death.”
Because, although my visions of an afterlife are sweet, I still want to enjoy the life I’ve got right here on Earth. I’ve got a man who loves me, and includes me in his life. I’ve got friends to lean on and to share laughs. And, I’ve got a family who supports me.
Heaven, to me, isn’t about golden gates. I think of heaven when I’m stuck in a really great moment, enjoying a delicious meal, reading a fantastic book, catching a sunset or sitting on the patio with a mango mojito (see, there’s the bottle again).
Perhaps my heaven will be all of those moments mashed together looped like a Vine video of my life. Or maybe, my afterlife will be like that described by of one of my favorite poets, Chancelier “Xero” Skidmore, a heaven that includes everyone, a house where breakfast (including canned biscuits) is served on the weekends.
I hope I’m done seeing caskets for awhile. If they start showing up at the movie theatre or at California Pizza Kitchen, I’ll take it as a sign. And when my time should come, I want to be cremated and stored in a rhinestone jar of some sort, something reflective.
It was easy for me to admit I was falling in love with D.
We were nearly inseparable, and I still looked forward to seeing him every chance I got. I especially loved our “date night” which was Saturday night. We would go out sometimes, or round-up new cheeses and wines and have a wine night at my apartment.
I loved it.
Although I wasn’t convinced his daughter was a huge fan of me, I was really trying to think of fun things we could all do together on the nights he had her. After the pizza night was such a success, I wanted to do a “craft night” (I swear I’m not obsessed with themed nights). D said she loved crafts.
I asked him if Monday was good. He said yes.
So the day before, I ransacked Dollar Tree, Big Lots, and Walmart, ending up with materials to decorate tin buckets and plant flowers in. I had upwards of 20 bottles of glitter glue, bags of glass rocks, paint, sequins, ribbon, and flowers and soil. I packed everything up and set it beside my front door.
The next day, D headed out-of-town (about an hour away) for a charity golf tournament. He was really excited because he hadn’t golfed in so long. I’ve learned about men and their golf—don’t bother them. So I didn’t.
But when I hadn’t heard from him all day, I went ahead and sent him a text, especially because I didn’t know the plan for craft night. No reply. I logged onto Facebook and saw he posted a few pictures from the tournament, including one of him and a large-busted caddy he “bought” for the day.
“Oh, so you can post pictures on Facebook, but not reply my text?” I said to myself.
Around 6 pm, I still hadn’t heard from him and the amount of anxiety that weighed on me was unlike any other. I paced my apartment, I growled as I paced, I even unleashed a scream.
If you know me, you’ll know this is completely unlike me. It was so unlike me, in fact, that I was starting to scare myself. I went frantic and sent crazed texts wanting to know where he was, why he was ignoring me, what did I do?
He finally replied.
“I’m golfing!!! FUCK.”
I cried, took a shower, and put on my pajamas at 7 p.m.
Was I crazy or were we supposed to have craft night that night? I know I didn’t spend my Sunday buying dumb shit for someone else’s kid just to be sitting at home the next day, watching a Housewives marathon.
I was exhausted from crying; I was drained. I tucked myself into bed around 9. I got a text from D around 9:30.
“Who are you going on a date with tonight?”
I didn’t reply.
TO BE CONTINUED…