When someone dies in your immediate family, the week following is utter chaos.
First, you are in complete shock. It’s as if something has sucked all the air from your life. You can’t breathe, you can’t speak, you can’t think. Your life splinters, in an instant, into a before and an after. And before you are able to even start to think about what has happened, the people flood in.
Your family, your friends, your neighbors. They come bearing casseroles and pity. Flowers and hushed condolences. Even clerks at the grocery store knowingly glance at you, silently trying to imagine what you must be going through.
The people think they’re being empathetic and supportive, but in reality, they just pity you. Instead of helping, it makes the gaping hole in your life more evident. You begin to find yourself relying on these people, clinging to the hollow promises that “They are always here for you” and that you can “Definitely call if you need something.”
However, just as quickly the family and the friends and the neighbors rushed in, their exodus occurs with just as much urgency. They don’t offer false hope purposefully, but they are trying to fill a hole that can’t be filled.
This false hope lingers briefly, through no fault of the people, and then you are left with nothing but silence.
The people have to go back to their normal lives, proving that your life is anything but.
“Grief is like the ocean; it comes in waves, ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.”
My dad died the summer before my senior year of high school. My world was turned upside down, and all the stability I thought I knew suddenly fell out from under my feet. I closed myself off, and declared war against the world that year, making my room the headquarters of my callousness, the home base for my anger and bitterness. Every morning I would wake up, and the walls would greet me, and there would be a moment where I didn’t remember the deep loss that had occurred in my life. And then, in an instant, it all came rushing in, and the walls that had greeted me only seconds earlier glared down at me, closing me in while simultaneously bursting with reminders of what I had lost.
I took my anger out on everyone around me that year. College came to me like a breath of air after being submerged underwater. When I was at school, I felt free and happy. The walls at school held no memories of loss or sadness, rather they brimmed with new possibilities. I was a new person, and even though college didn’t erase the fact that my dad had died, his absence wasn’t apparent everywhere I looked.
Until I moved back into my childhood home after college, my bedroom had stayed exactly the same. The same beach themed wallpaper border. The same aqua hue. The same old bedspread.
I remember painting the room with my dad and the rest of my family, together. I remember the way he joked that “no one would be able to sleep with the walls painted so loud.” My adolescent self is engrained on those walls, in those moments.
I always thought that I had successfully processed things, until I returned home for a quick visit to do laundry. As soon as my college-aged self stepped into the room my 17 year-old self had known and loved, I felt trapped, and the memories came flooding back in.
Anytime I would step through my front door, and I could feel the resentment, and the anger, and the memories buzzing upstairs, lying dormant in my walls, waiting for me. Moving through my days back at home, I felt heavy, constantly weighed down by the memories I had tried to leave behind, and the anger that I had chosen not to process. When my load of laundry would finish I would rush out my room and my reveries, trying to brush every last trace of my father and the life he left behind off of me.
When college ended, I moved back home permanently. Moving back into that bedroom after college was surreal. The past four years away from home had been filled with new experiences and challenges. I had traveled, I had seen the world, I had grown, leaving my adolescent self behind. As I crossed the threshold into my childhood home, I was met with the same buzz of resentment, anger and memories, this time even more pronounced, as if the walls knew that I was here to stay.
After getting back home, I spent two weeks straight in my room. I sat with the anger and the bitterness and the memories, and I tried to wrestle my way out of them, all the while, slowly being overcome by them. I was trapped inside a bright turquoise room.
I knew something had to change. Either the walls had to go, or I did.
So I headed to Home Depot, and began the long, painful, sometimes hilarious process of ridding myself of my turquoise enclosure. The road to grey walls was paved with many challenges. When I first proposed the plan to my mother, she was adamant that it was a terrible idea, and that I was not allowed to do it. After the initial pushback was over, she was still hesitant to be involved. I think part of her apprehension existed because she, too, was clinging to the memories in those walls. We had painted that room together, and seeing those walls change would be just another part of her husband that slipped away from this world. I understood her pain, but I could not cater to it.
I pressed on. I purchased paint, I taped the room, and myself and a dear friend began the process of letting that part of my life go. We began with primer, laying the foundation of my future in this room. With every brush stroke, I felt a little bit of the weight lift off my shoulders. Every bit of the turquoise that disappeared helped me breathe easier. As the day wore on, I felt better and better, knowing that though this was a process, and in no way easy, I was doing something that I desperately needed to do.
The first night in my new room was surreal. No longer did I lay in bed thinking about all of the milestones or the random and exciting moments that my dad wouldn’t be around for. Instead, I felt incredibly proud of myself. Proud of myself that I finally stopped letting my grief consume me; proud that I have started appreciating things around me rather than only look for the negative, the missing person. Proud that I could move on without forgetting.
It took me five years for me to properly say goodbye to my dad. Five years to stop telling myself that this has all been a huge mistake and that he’s been hiding playing a massive prank. Five years trying to process and change my surroundings, because I wanted to keep living in the world that my dad had been a part of. But that isn’t living.
The famous “Do Not Stand at My Grave” poem ends like this:
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there; I did not die.
So many times when people we love leave us, we hold tightly onto things we associate with them. We stand at the grave and never move on. I’m not sure why we torture ourselves like that.
My dad is gone forever, but his memory lives on in me, and my brother and my mother. I’ll never forget the way his big arms would wrap me up in a bear hug, or how he would fall asleep watching golf and his snoring would shake the house. I’ll never forget the sound of his deep belly laughs, or how fiercely he loved us, even at his worst.
My dad is gone forever, but his memory lives on in us, not in a room of turquoise walls.