Lessons I Learned From Loss
Three years ago, I lost my dad suddenly. It was just your average day. I had been cramming for exams, and was as unprepared as usual, mixing up case names, and stumbling on principles. I emerged from my crunchy sweet wrapper filled cave, and shuffled downstairs. My dad took one look at my dishevelled appearance, and instantly switched on the kettle. He had a tyranny of motivational speeches prepared, and my brother dutifully played ‘Eye of the Tiger’. We karate chopped the air, and played air guitar like pros. My dad ensured that I felt like Rocky going into battle. He reminded me: ‘Even if you fail, you go down fighting.’ Little did I know, I was entering unprepared, into a much tougher arena, to engage in a battle that I could never win. The last time I saw my father conscious, he was being carried down the stairs. He stared wide eyed and blankly at me, as he was loaded into the ambulance. As it drove off down the road, I prayed for a miracle. One that, in my heart I knew was not coming, no matter how many reassurances I gave my siblings.
Although the last three years have been very challenging for myself and my family, I am writing to tell you there is hope at the end of the tunnel. That something positive can emerge from the worst of tragedies. The loss of my dad changed my perspective on life completely, and I want to share some of the lessons I learned along the way. Losing someone we love, is unfortunately an unavoidable and universal occurrence. Yet it is something people often shy away from, a taboo topic to be avoided at all costs. So I want to shed some light on the topic, and hopefully bring comfort to those fortunate enough to have someone they loved dearly enough to grieve.
Lesson One: There Is No Correct Way To Grieve
Admittedly, I am a bit of an oddball by nature and I certainly didn’t grieve by the book. Whilst my family mourned together at the funeral home, I hopped on a bus and hurtled towards my unfortunate friend’s house. In her sitting room, I made myself truly at home. I huddled embryonic-like on her sofa, and ate fistfuls of jellies from a family-sized tub. On top of this, I refused to accept my reality and remained anchored on her couch. I had to be dragged into adulthood, kicking, and screaming, like a two-year-old having a tantrum. ‘I DON’T WANNA GO TO THE FUNERAL HOME. I WANT TO EAT JELLIES.’ Luckily, our friendship withstood this moment of weirdness.
Next I decided to sit each and every law exam, believing that Pocahontas-style spirits would guide me, and get my ass over the finish line. Needless to say, the spirits were shit at law and I flunked them all. I also had a penchant for drinking to settle my nerves, and ended up becoming Father Jack at every family occasion. Just replace cursing with vomiting.
People asked me why I was not crying at the funeral, why I was so remarkably calm. ‘I don’t know,’ I said, my mouth jammed full with chocolate. The crying came a few weeks down the line, but it came when I least expected it to. It came on the bus to work, at the shops, when I drank certain coffees or read a great book. The bottom line here is that there is no right way to grieve a death. You just do what you gotta do to survive, unless it involves criminal activities, or nudity etc.
Lesson Two: There Is No Timeline For Grief, But Thankfully You Won’t Feel This Shit Forever
From the outset, I felt grave pressure to be ‘better.’ Self-help books seemed to suggest one year as a timeframe for recovery. But twelve months passed and I didn’t feel any ‘better.’ I felt like there was a weight on my shoulders, and that life was to be trudged through. ‘Just get through today. Just get through till lunch time.’ After a few months, I felt that there must be something ‘wrong with me,’ that I was a burden on my friends. This led me to isolate myself, which made things a lot worse. I felt angry at myself for not healing quick enough, and at the world for dealing me this card.
The underlying truth of the matter is, there is no quick fix. You will not magically wake up one morning and accept the shitty ‘new normal.’ Your life grows around the pain. It fundamentally changes you as a person. It frames your experiences. You do however have a choice to make each morning; will you make the best of it or wallow miserably? Will you be a Scrooge or a Mother Teresa? Personally, I switched between both regularly each day.
Do not place expectations on yourself to be ‘better’. But for your own sake, do the best you can. ‘Treat yo’self,’ as the saying goes. Do whatever helps you to heal, even if that involves smuggling two budgies into a library. Life is too short to be miserable all the time. Your loved one wouldn’t want that, although admittedly if I was a ghost, I would want to see people cry over me, but I guess I’d be a narcissistic ghoul.
Lesson Three: You Are Not The First Person And You Will Not Be The Last
It is common enough to feel as if you are completely alone in the world when you lose someone you love.
‘Did you see EastEnders last night, Jess?’
‘Eh… Hardly. I’ve a dead dad. Get with the program.’
This sadly can turn to adolescent-like envy and anger. ‘Nobody gets this. Nobody gets me. My life is way harder than that person’s.’ I had far too many pity parties. I indulged in a lot of angry prose and revived my emo playlist. Yes, it is shit, and yes you have the right to rage, but remember you are not the first, and you will not be the last person to lose someone. Don’t expect people to always remember the loss or to say the right things. They have their own concerns. It is not possible for one person to take on the world’s burdens or to fully understand the complexities of another person’s suffering. Don’t wait for others to validate your feelings. Acknowledge them. Sometimes putting things into perspective helps. Walk down O’Connell Street at night, and see the sleeping bags strewn across the footpaths or stick on the telly and linger on a Trocaire ad. I myself am a sucker for donkey trust campaigns, those sad eyes and damaged hooves get me every time.
You can never fully understand a person’s difficulties. You can have empathy, but at the end of the day each person faces life’s challenges alone. The journey should not be a comparative one. It should be solely unique to you. Find solace in the unity of the human experience, and remember you are not alone. Don’t place high expectations on yourself or on others. This only leads to disappointment and further misery.
Lesson Four: Find God Later. He Will Be There Next Year Too
When desperation sinks in it can be natural to call up your old pal Jesus. I believed in spirits and researched ancient voodoo resurrection chants. I chatted to street preachers, exchanged numbers with Mormons, and had tea in the basement of a Born Again Christian group. Unfortunately, none of these groups brought me answers, and sadly I had to change phone numbers.
Lesson Five: You Will Find Happiness Again
If I could travel back in time, I would have reassured the younger me that happiness could be found in the darkest of places. Throughout the first few months, it felt like there was no room in my heart for anything but sorrow. Every waking moment seemed to be filled with sadness, panic, loneliness, or numbness. I felt like there would never be a time where I was able to genuinely laugh, and that every moment would be tainted by this loss.
Naturally, I was not the life and soul of any party. If for a moment, I dared to enjoy myself, I became riddled with guilt. At first, I thought it must be my Catholic upbringing (if it feels good then you best repent). Then, I realised it was misguided loyalty to the one I had lost. Skip the guilt if you can. Make a gratitude journal. Sometimes mine just repeated the word ‘DOUGHNUTS’ five times. This is probably cheating but again, whatever gets you through.
You will laugh again. You will have a good night’s sleep. You will go on great dates. One morning you will wake up, and the loss won’t be the first thought that pops into your mind.
You will appreciate life’s little wins without having to share them. You will not always need guidance; you will use your own intuition. Not every birthday, Christmas, and special occasion will be completely unbearable. You will laugh with tears in your eyes. Similarly the happier you get, the less likely you will be to hoard (no, you don’t need that odd holy sock belonging to them). You will be able to selectively chose your fond memories, and not desperately cling to the physical reminders.
To conclude, you are never going to forget your loved one. You do not have to be religious to know they live on. My dad lives on in the sarcasm of my brother, my sister’s jazzy piano tunes, my grandads awkward shoulder squeeze.
When I have a dilemma, my internal compass mirrors the advice he once gave me. Sometimes I see the world through his eyes, and his dry wit filters into my daily musings.
The biggest lesson I learnt from loss, is that life is far too short and too precious to waste. It is over in the blink of an eye. Remember your purpose on the planet, and if you have not found it yet, have fun searching. Carry your loved one with you on your journey, create a special place in your heart, and hold them dear. You have the choice to live life to the full, both for yourself, and for those we have lost along the way.