When I was a freshman in high school my favorite teacher’s son committed suicide. One day during the teacher’s leave of absence, a guidance counselor spoke to the class about the stages of grief. I hated this woman standing before us, instructing us on how we would and should feel about this unbelievable tragedy. I give little credence to these so-called “stages,” as if everyone goes through the exact same feelings after their world is torn apart by death. As if there are definite, clear lines between each phase and that once we are through all of them we will feel better. It does not work like that.
The five stages are, in order: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Denial may be the easiest “stage” to be in, but not denial in a literal sense. I’m not neglecting to acknowledge that my dad is dead, it’s just that the very idea of it is so ridiculous and unfathomable that I have a hard time actually believing it. Jim McNaboe, the too-smart-for-his-own-good attorney who should have been an oldies radio station DJ, the overprotective father and stubborn husband who still collects toy trucks, the guy who never throws anything away and makes really corny jokes–that man is gone? How can that be? When I think about things like Christmas, the sheer weight of what happened hits me full-force and I cannot breathe, move, stand up. It also hits me at little moments, like when I needed to ask him for directions to my friend’s house or when I took money out of a non-Bank of America ATM, knowing he would lecture me about the extra $2 charge. But he won’t lecture me. I will never hear his voice again, and that alone is enough to make me want to curl up in bed and never get out.
Anger is also a very easy stage to be in, but I have tried extremely hard not to focus on that emotion. I am angry at my dad’s doctors, but my mom is much angrier than I. She received the best possible treatment for her brain cancer, mostly because my dad pushed so hard for it. My dad got too sick too fast to really shop around for other doctors and opinions, so he was stuck with the idiots at a hospital that will remain nameless. They should have said from the start that they had never seen a case like this and that we should seek a more specialized oncologist, surgeon, whatever. They should have prepared us sooner than two days before he died that he would not make it. They should not have taken so much damn time examining one biopsy while he could have been receiving treatment.
I am also angry at some of my friends. I’m angry at them for not being there for me when he got sick in the first place, for not asking how he was doing, how I was doing, for not understanding my pain, for being too cheerful and giggly around me, for mentioning their own dads around me, for asking me over and over again how I’m doing and if I’m okay knowing very well that the answer has not changed. I make a solid effort to not let this anger get the better of me, though, because I know it will do no good and I know this was no one’s fault. I lack the energy to even start an argument, and then I feel guilty for being mad in the first place. Anger takes a backseat to sadness most of the time.
I don’t really understand the bargaining stage. I know he’s not coming back, and I do not wish God–or whoever–had taken me or my mom or anyone else instead. I wish none of this had happened in the first place, that his back pain had just been cured by a few Tylenol. I wish more than anything that I would be sitting here in the house I’ve lived in for 22 years, annoyed at him for lecturing me about my cell phone bill yet again. But wishing, like being angry, gets me nowhere.
Depression is what I feel most consumed by; it is the “stage” I will be in for a long time. I don’t know if you can label it as clinical depression, but I’m certainly not suicidal. I’m just sad. So, so sad, broken, defeated, hopeless, overwhelmed.. in so much pain. I graduated college, moved out of Baltimore, moved home to New Jersey, and lost my father all in the same month–who wouldn’t be depressed? I know this mood causes people around me to worry, but I believe it is a perfectly appropriate mood to be in. I’m supposed to be sad. I’m supposed to cry. I’m supposed to be different, weird, not myself. I. JUST. LOST. MY. FATHER. Of course I’m being WEIRD! (Sorry, angry stage took over for a second.)
The acceptance stage scares the hell out of me. There will come a time when this won’t hurt so bad, when every reminder of my father feels like a knife to my heart, when his absence will become normal. I know plenty of people who have lost a parent, and I used to wonder how they got through it, if they still thought about him/her every second of every day. Now I am one of them. Years from now people will say, “Oh, well her father passed away when she was 22,” and whomever they are talking to will then understand me a little better, why I am the way I am. My father’s death will become part of who I am. That terrifies me.