Year 1 – A Difficult Chapter

Fifteen and a half years ago, my Dad and I stood outside the sanctuary with my arm linked in his. The last bridesmaid, my cousin Tess, was walking down the aisle.  Suddenly, it occurred to me that I’d focused the past 8 months on preparing for the wedding and had given little thought about what it would be like to be a wife, an adult, and independent of my parents.  I must have audibly gasped or tensed my arm, or perhaps Dad knew my thoughts were spinning out of control.  He softly said, “You know, I’m not giving you away.  I’m just walking you to the next chapter and I think it’s going to be one hell of a page turner.  We’ll begin walking when you are ready.”  He said exactly what I needed to hear in that moment.  I wrote those words down on a scrap of paper the next morning as Trey and I flew to our honeymoon.  I didn’t need to write them down because they were written on my heart.  I’ve never shared those words with anyone but they’ve served as a compass, a mantra, and a message of love.

I have lingered in a stage of anticipation of this day for months. Today marks the one year anniversary of Dad’s death. The one year mark has seemed like a landmark of sorts, despite many friends telling me that they felt the initial grief process took them closer to three years. Still, I’ve dreaded this day. This anticipation has encompassed all of the feelings that grief carries; fear, sorrow, anger, shame, guilt, and emotional fatigue.  I’ve struggled with emotional preparation for today, knowing that I needed to perform a sort of emotional ritual while still focusing on self-care.  Yeah, yeah…self-care…I really sound like a therapist or something.   I requested the day off work months ago and began creating a list of ways to spend the day; drive as far as I can before having to turn back to pick up the kids, sleep, binge Stranger Things, hike Pinnacle, read, dine alone at a nice restaurant, create something, get drunk, write (winner, winner), shop, visit the columbarium that memorializes Dad, volunteer, etc.  Ultimately, I’ve spent the day sitting in a quiet home, crying, sneaking chocolate from the Halloween buckets, meeting Trey for lunch, reading many of my journal entries that I have written about my grief over the past year, cooking, and writing. My writing took the form of a series of lists. I began with favorite memories, moved to chronicling the last week of Dad’s death and the week of his funeral, listing “Thank You Notes” that were never written, and ultimately with a list of moments of joy from the past year.

As I read what I’ve written this past year, I could help but laugh at myself. I couldn’t have been more cliché. I could print each of these entries out and categorize them into the traditional stages of grief. The progression through the stages certainly wasn’t linear but each stage is certainly represented. There were days that I chronicled my rage at politics and related how this connected with my grief (Election Day was the day following Dad’s funeral…it’s all very intertwined in my grief). I also wrote about difficult it has been knowing Dad isn’t the engine moving AETN forward and, to be completely honest, about feeling let down by people I expected to hold our family up during this difficult time but who were either absent or hurtful. I’ve also unfairly lashed out at my VERY patient husband and battled to stifle a nonsensical notion of competitive grief with loved ones. I’ve bargained, felt guilty, and I have spent time in shock and denial.

Much of the last year, as represented in what I’ve written, has been navigating feelings of sadness and depression. It has seemed like once I felt as though I was ready to step forward, something crashed down keeping my stationary in my process. Without a doubt, the most difficult challenges have been in finding a way to take care of my children, who have also been grieving, while still practicing self-care. Logan is a lot like me. He holds his feelings close until they become too heavy resulting in an explosion. Soccer is his passion and I assumed, incorrectly, that on the field he would be able to forget the burden of grief. Nine months after Dad died, Logan communicated that he missed GrandDude the most at games. Dad took great pictures of Logan playing and when he wasn’t able to see him play, Logan called him immediately after the game to give Dad the stats and play by play. I listened and observed Logan at the depths of despair. He loves soccer but the pain of knowing GrandDude wasn’t there for a new season was too heavy for him to carry. Mom found a few PBS temporary tattoos that he began wearing on his upper thigh for each game as a way to bring Dad on the field with him. When we ran out of those, I sent messages to PBS friends asking for more and, I’m sure that when we run out of our current stash, I’ll send out another cry of help if he needs it. (*Note: Logan has suggested that we allow him to just get a real PBS tattoo on his thigh. As much as I support PBS and his grief process, I’m not quite ready to have my 11 year old tattooed.)

Jack has presented a different kind of challenge. My happy go lucky, no filter, feral child has taken my breath away many times this last year with statements illustrating his grief. In the days leading up to Easter, Jack announced that Dude would be attending his party at school. No matter how much we corrected him or told him otherwise, he was insistent. It wasn’t until I overheard him explaining to his baby sister the Easter story (as shared at his daycare) that it all came together. I had to sit him down and explain that while we believe that Jesus rose from the dead at Easter, it doesn’t mean that Dude would do the same. In the periods in which I felt most comfortable wearing my denial shoes, Jack has knocked me down with statements like “I have two grandpas but one is dead, right Mama?” or “Hey, Mama, can I have a knife? I’m going to cut a hole in the sky so Dude can fall back down to me.”

As much as I’ve struggled to walk Logan and Jack through their grief, the hardest part has been knowing that Norah won’t have any memories of Dad. The day after he died, I began putting together a slide show of pictures for his visitation and frantically realized that we had failed in the 6 months since Norah was born to take any pictures of Dad and Norah together. I was crushed and this was the source of much of my focused despair and guilt for many months. We have so many pictures of Dad holding and playing with Jack and Logan. I have so many memories of their interactions that I can continue to share. I have evidence of his love for them. I can tell Logan about how I had planned to announce my pregnancy with him in a grand gesture by mailing a picture frame with the news inside but couldn’t wait that long. I called Dad and caught him on his way to Little Rock to a meeting. When I told him that he was going to be a grandparent, I was met with silence. “Dad?” I hesitantly asked. Dad then said, “I’m sorry, Lauren. I had to pull over. I didn’t know I’d get so choked up and happy.” I can tell Jack how funny Dad thought he was when he’d babble in what we assumed must be Dutch. But I had none of this for Norah.   In something that I can only describe as a miracle, Trey mentioned to his mom how upset I was about having no pictures of Norah and Dad. My mother-in-law produced a picture from her cell phone taken shortly after Norah was born of Dad holding her. Trey and Carolyn gave me the picture for Mother’s Day and it is one of my most cherished possessions.

To stick with the metaphor Dad shared on my wedding day, this past year has been a difficult chapter but here we are on the one year mark. Nothing has exploded, we are all intact, and we continue to walk forward. I have learned a lot about myself this year and have learned a lot about my Mom, my brother, and my husband. We have all grieved but in our own way. Sometimes these processes have clashed but, for the most part, I think we are proud of how we have each coped. For me, the most significant lesson that has come from the past year is how wonderful the people around me have been. So much of the first couple of weeks was (and is) such a blur.  I have clear memories of some conversations and events and other things seem out of focus.  A friend, who lost her father years ago, texted condolences through Trey with the suggestion to wear comfortable shoes to the visitation and funeral.  I latched onto that suggestion as though it were law.  I could barely think clearly enough to perform basic tasks but I was determined to wear comfortable shoes.  I remember sitting on the floor in front of my closet searching for dress shoes with the softest insole and thinking “Mandy knows because she has been through this.”  I then began creating a collection of people in my life who have lost their dads.  As the next month progressed, my collection grew.  I visualized this collection of faces, names, and situations as a collage on a wall with pins and red string connecting each person to another.  (Perhaps I’ve watched too many crime movies!?)  I found significant comfort in collecting another name and recognizing that although losing their Dad was painful, this person was still standing, still functioning, and still able to love. I have relied on these examples as mentors as I figured out how to move forward. Some of these friends shared their experiences and others have no idea that I looked to their experience as an inspiration.  As the year has progressed, I’ve had several more friends who have lost a parent and I’ve wondered if they collected my name for this mutual grief yearbook.  It has given me hope that perhaps someday I can be looked at as someone who continued to stand, function, and love.

Throughout the past year, people have ministered to me through their words and actions over and over. I’m simply awful at asking for help but help happened when I needed it most. Friends fed us, cared for our children, gave me books (my love language), donated in Dad’s memory, shared stories and memories, laughed, and were simply present. Several coworkers, including our psychiatrist, attended Dad’s funeral despite the billable hours they has to sacrifice. Friends who own a fabulous local restaurant not only provided dinner for friends and family that came to celebrate Dad’s life, but stayed and served us the night of the visitation. My best friend, Beth, and her teenage daughters spent the afternoon and evening after Dad’s funeral on my couch loving on my babies and holding me. Friends opened their home to us the week after the funeral so that we could attend Logan’s soccer tournament but not have to muster the stamina for a hotel stay so soon into our grief. My book club cared for my heart 2 weeks after Dad died at our annual Thanksgiving dinner. The night was already scheduled but what they didn’t know is that I spent an hour sitting on the floor of my office earlier that day, with the door closed, sobbing and unsure if I would ever be able to breathe again. Only a couple hours later, I was sitting around a table with some of my dearest friends laughing until my sides ached. A high school friend mailed me a book that fed my soul and soothed my heart. Other friends bought t-shirts and answered phones at the AETN pledge drive night in memory of Dad. PBS flew mom, Logan, and I to San Diego for a week to honor Dad. Logan and I were embraced by people from all over the country who respected and were positively influenced by Dad.   Our church held a blood drive in Dad’s name. Trey’s stepdad has always been a wonderful grandfather but he has been even more attentive and loving this year so that my kids didn’t feel as much of an absence. Not a month has passed this last year without there being a note in my mailbox telling me that we are being thought of, prayed for, and loved. When I checked the mailbox today, I found 3 letters and a book mailed by a friend of Dad’s who I was fortunate to meet in San Diego. Last night we gathered, as we have done for the past 5 (or maybe 6?) Halloweens with dear friends.  They were sensitive and yet aware of our need to have fun, just as we needed last year the night before Dad died.  Perhaps the most significant source of support has been my husband, the one who took my hand from my Dad’s fifteen and a half years ago.  Trey has loved me even at my most unlovable. He has made me laugh, given me reality checks when I’ve needed them most, loved our children, negotiated through my many snot-filled crying spells, cared for my mom and brother, and continued to walk with me through this chapter.

It has been a year since my Dad died. It has been a very difficult chapter of my life. I miss him every single day but I am still turning pages. Thank you to all of you who have walked with us this year and thank you to those who will walk with us into the chapters to come.

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