“Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead.” ~John Updike
This is not a truism we consider daily. Typically, it is reserved for the day we are handed bad tidings – the cancer diagnosis that forces us to stare down our own mortality, or when the dreaded or unexpected news arrives that someone we love is dead or dying. From that day on, everything is different; we are different, mourning for what was lost, for who we were the day before, and for what we can no longer have.
There was and is no easy remedy, no standard step-by-step process for any of us. There is no beaten path to follow from beginning to end in the art of living. The famous “stages” of grief: Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance – are not “stops on some linear timeline”.
Such places are more reminiscent of landmarks we might visit during our first or subsequent visits to another country, places we will never forget. Some we land upon by accident – the onslaught of memories that accompany the first time you see someone else drive the same make and model Ford your husband once drove, or the faint scent of his cologne on the collar of a stranger standing too close to you on the train. There is no way to predict when grief will take your breath away and send you scurrying behind dark glasses, or to the bathroom at work where no one will see big fat tears spill down your face.
Other trips we plan meticulously – the first anniversary of his death, the scholarship in his name, the star named after him. Others are unavoidable – like today, Father's Day, his birthday, the empty seat at the Christmas table, re-runs of Cheers, reminders of things that humored you or humbled you or made you laugh until you ached. And all these things, you weave into your new life. It is what you must do – at your own pace.
In my new life, the man I love is reeling from the recent passing of his step-father and the stunning loss, just days later, of one of his dearest friends. Coming in close succession, such harrowing losses remind those of us still here of the fragility and fleetingness of life, and the finality of death.
My daughter tells me she would like to be more supportive of him, more “there”, more empathic for him and for his grieving mother who just days later fell and has been hospitalised ever since, but my girl is not up to the task – not fully, not yet. She feels selfish as she explains her inability to step again into that space in which the recently bereaved struggle – an often desolate hole where they may wail or deny or blame or feel guilty; where they may rage at those they love the most, or where, choking on the sharp stone of grief, they might say nothing at all.
It is a desperate place, where they may find they are no match for the grief, every minute a searing realisation that the one person they want to talk to is out of reach. Forever.
“A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty.” — Joan Didion
So where in the whole world do we turn? Inward. Forward. Backwards. Forward. At our own pace.
Every day between the last four Father’s Days, my daughter tells me, has begun not with a profound sadness but with an almost involuntary affirmation of her adjusted reality “Dad is dead. Dad is dead.” Shredding to bits my supposition that she has found a more conventional way back, it occurs to me, in a moment of devastating clarity, that she is not the child she once was; she is a young woman who has found a new way through the ever-shifting contours of grief, no longer stuck between what was and what might have been.
Worried that I am worried about her, she is quick to point out that she is not sad, this is not self-pity; it is a shift in perspective that enables her to move on in a world that never stops moving.
Immediately following news of his death, I fooled myself into believing the clocks had stopped. Nobody knew what to say to me. I didn't know what to say to myself. I concentrated on the word, "widow," a word that the day before had not applied to me. Unmoored by loss, I recall a surreal and sunny November afternoon in the Arizona desert. My bare feet in the grass, I found myself remembering - verbatim – a passage from a short story I'd first read in my high school English class, about the anguish of Irish youngsters about to board an emigrant ship to America, not knowing how to say goodbye to the family they would never see again:
"They stood in silence fully five minutes. Each hungered to embrace the other, to cry, to beat the air, to scream with an excess of sorrow. But they stood silent and sombre, like nature about them, hugging their woe." ( from Going into Exile by Liam O'Flaherty).
In that moment, loss was no longer literary or abstract. It was palpable, transforming the space in which I stood into a place I no longer recognised. The trees he planted especially for our daughter made no sense, casting their long shadows on blades of grass that would never again flatten under his footsteps. The mailman was delivering letters that bore his name. What should I do with them? The hummingbirds were still flitting about the honeysuckle waiting for him to feed them.
Disoriented and uncertain, I grew lost in my own home, no longer confident about what might happen at three o’clock or seven o’clock. Before, I had no doubt. Letting go of him meant letting go of the certainty of my life.
My daughter tells me she cannot feel at home in our home because its rooms have become open wounds. “Daddy” was her first word, but she will not risk watching old family movies, where she could see how he helped her say her first word the first time, or clap her hands or take her first steps. Nor will she go to the grocery store where he used to take her on last minute errands for me or to the Dairy Queen, since demolished, where he bought her ice-cream every Friday afternoon.
With practice, she has perfected the routines and rituals by which other people now define her, by which she now defines herself. An all-around “good kid”, she is the part-time receptionist in a beauty salon who looks like Audrey Hepburn. Kind and interested, she is also the full-time college student who never misses class and maintains a solid GPA. Circumspect and tentative, she is the one who will take the extra step to be safe. No alcohol, no drugs, no texting while driving, no speeding, no spending foolishly – no father.
She has woven the loss of her father into her life, learning to drive without him, striding across a stage to receive her high school diploma without his cheers ringing in her ears. She has begun her third year of college, along the way earning her first paycheck without the winks and smiles that would have encouraged her to keep on being great at being herself. It is beyond her grasp that so much – and so little – time has passed and that one day it will be ten years, 20 years, 40 years, since he last held her hand in the frozen food section of the grocery store, to keep her warm.
Worried that she has worried me, she emphasises that it is not a sadness that envelops her on a day like today. In fact, she sometimes faces the reality of her changed life with a humour that others may find irreverent. She is no longer undone by grief. The daily reminder of her father’s death, that the saddest thing that could ever have happened has already happened reminds her that whatever happens today or any day could not be worse. No rush hour traffic or broken air conditioner or math final or pissed off customer could be any worse.
Steeled thus, the sadness locked deep within her, she goes about her days, working, studying, laughing, loving, finding joy and hope, pausing in our doorway to check on four baby birds in a nest tucked under the eaves.
Signs of life – they are everywhere.
She has sought help from people in the business of helping people sort out their grief. Not entirely convinced of its usefulness yet, she balks when they tell her that to fully heal, perhaps she needs to process it more or cry more or allow herself to be really sad or “go there”, wherever there is. She does not want to dive into that dark, desolate rabbit hole. While her coping strategy may seem perverse, it is practical, a kind of acceptance. The little girl who made memories with the father who loved her is gone. In some strange ways, she tells me, it is as though she has become her father’s death. As much as his life was part of hers, so is his death, reminding me of what Joan Didion says about grief:
“There are certain losses you do not get past, but you incorporate them into who you are. It’s always a part of you. No matter how much you reconstruct your life and make a new life, I still think that there is room for part of you to always be aware that this happened. To always have a part of you grieving.”
So what do I say to her on this Father’s Day, and to those in my life who at this moment and the next and for who knows how long, must find their way within a landscape of private grief, perhaps seeing right in front of them only what’s missing – their altered world?
I would maybe invoke Seamus Heaney, and something he had written about himself as a father and his own father as well, and the symbolic passing of a kite from father to sons in his poem for his sons, Michael and Christopher:
“Before the kite plunges down into the wood and this line goes useless take in your two hands, boys, and feel the strumming, rooted, long-tailed pull of grief. You were born fit for it. Stand in here in front of me and take the strain”
This Father’s Day, my best thoughts are with those who miss their fathers. May they feel encouraged as they take the strain.
Originally from Co Antrim, Yvonne Watterson emigrated to the United States in 1988 and settled in Arizona where she works in education. She is director of education innovation at the Arizona Charter Schools Association. She has been recognised for her work in school reform and her activism on immigration. She blogs at Considering the Lilies . . . and Lessons from the Field where a version of this article originally appeared.