Shared grief

I cried when I heard the news.

It arrived, like most of what I consume in the moment: via Twitter. After I finished saying aloud "No!" I turned to Google. There were no new results in the News tab and I hoped against hope that someone had jumped the gun and gotten things mixed up.

But then I saw the Turner statement spreading. Craig Sager had, in fact, died.

 

Tears sprang to my eyes for although I had only officially met Mr. Sager once, I have some sense of the pain his family feels now.

The grief.

The loneliness.

The need to reshape how you view yourself and your family around the hole where your father used to be.

The guilt-inducing relief that sometimes comes upon realizing that the most awful roller coaster ride of your life is over.

The loss of a parent changes you. One day, I had a dad, the next he only lived on in my memories. Suddenly, I became attuned to loss all around me in a way I simply wasn't equipped to before.

I know now that my life tomorrow may not be as simple as it is today, and as a result, I strive to remain grateful on a daily basis, and to share what I have learned through these hard times in hopes of helping others. 

#SagerStrong

The trouble of an idle mind

My plane landed early at JFK Tuesday night, but a hiccup with the equipment meant that we didn't disembark until well after 11 pm. While we waited for a tow, my mind wandered. My phone was dead. Without email, texts, Twitter and Words with Friends, my thoughts were all I had. And they quickly turned sad and dark.

There are a few memories about my father's death that I have tried - mostly unsuccessfully - to tuck away somewhere unreachable. I try not to think about the heart-breaking ride from hospital to hospice. About how I knew that the end was coming, but felt trapped between not wanting him to die and wishing for the torturous in-between to be over. I remember how he had begun to change physically, no longer looking like the Dad I had known and loved every day of my life.

But what forced my emotions to surface Tuesday night was remembering what it felt like to sit with my head on Dad's shoulder one last time. It was July 16, hours before he was moved to hospice. Dad had been in ICU for a while now - days? a week? It's all a blur now - and subject to isolation protocol due to the fact that he had contracted several infections including pneumonia during his hospitalization. Each time Mom and I entered his room, we were required to don a fresh yellow paper gown and blue rubber gloves, all of which we would discard upon exiting. Each re-entry required fresh garb.

On that last day, I couldn't take the gloves anymore. I tossed them aside as I pulled up a chair close to Dad's bedside. My sweet mother worried for my safety, but I couldn't be concerned about myself.

Dad was sedated but sitting up at forty-five degree angle. Carefully, given the monitors and tubes connected to him, I put my head on his shoulder. One of my hands held his while the other stroked his forearm, committing the feeling to memory as I knew it would be one of my last opportunities to touch his warm skin.

Dad's shoulder, which I leaned on throughout my life both literally and figuratively, felt smaller than I remembered. As we sat there, I took in the feel of his bones against my cheek, thinking of the many times he lifted his arms to carry or hug me. I marveled at the strength within.

"My Daddy," I thought to myself, like I was a little girl. Tears fell.

 

I heard the woman in the seat next to mine rustling in her purse.

"Would you like these?" she asked in a lightly accented voice (Czech, I subsequently learned), offering napkins for the tears that had begun falling from my tired eyes.

"Thanks. I'm ok," I replied before adding "I lost my dad four months ago," so she wouldn't think I was mooning over something dumb. I care too much about what people think of me sometimes.

We talked. She was kind.

And then it was finally time to get off the stuffy plane, return home to Brooklyn for the first time in a week and hopefully let this aching heart of mine get some rest.


Dear Dad

Dear Dad,

This will be my first birthday without you. You always sent me a sweet card in the mail and called to sing me the birthday song first thing in the morning. How I will miss that.

When I think about you that way, my heart aches. It's better if I try to think about all of the wonderful birthdays you, Mom and I spent together. I am going to need every last one of those happy memories to get me through.


As the day approaches, I keep remembering your version of the story of my arrival. You used to tell anyone who would listen what it was like for you the day I was born, and it never failed to make me smile.

 

You loved being a dad

You loved being a dad

Yours wasn't a modern birth story. While Mom was laboring, you stayed with Nana in the hospital waiting room except for brief visits with Mom. I hate the idea of Mom being mostly alone for all of that time, but that's how things were done at the time, and it isn't the point of this story.

The point is your story. 

Your version of the story usually began with the obstetrician coming to tell you, "you have a big fat baby girl!" while still wearing blood-covered scrubs. Eek. You were always squeamish and hated even a mention of blood and guts, so thank you for remaining upright on my birthday.

I always loved the way you'd say "BIG FAT BABY GIRL" using your hands to show just how big.

The fact that you and Mom had a daughter was a surprise for I was born before ultrasounds were a routine part of prenatal care. Mom swears that you also hoped for a baby girl. I worried sometimes that you would have loved a son instead given your hobbies, but your love and limitless support let me know you were so invested in me.

[So Many Dance Recitals, Dad. How can I ever thank you?]

Seven or eight babies were born right around the same time as me - all boys. Periodically, the curtain of the newborn nursery would be opened to signal that parents could request to see their babies. You used an envelope to make a sign announcing KEENE so you could avoid the scrum. Whether due to the smart sign or your sweet smile, I was usually the first baby brought out by a nurse.

It wasn't long ago that you gave me the sign, and I'm so grateful to have it. You kept the sign with a cache of cards I had made and given you throughout my life. My sweet, sentimental Dad.

Today I think of that hopeful man, waiting for his baby to be born, and cry because I know how the story ends. I wish I could un-read the last page.

Someday, our many happy memories will mute the pain of losing you. But I'm not there yet. Not even close.

This will be my first birthday without you. I would try to pretend that it is just another day, but I know that would make you sad. And in the terrible months since we lost you, I have been trying to balance mourning your absence with living my life in a way that would make you proud. I hope I am doing a good job.

ETA: I am raising money to find a cure for Pulmonary Hypertension, the condition that ended Dad's life. Details here.

 

Learning through grief

Tomorrow will mark one month since my dear, sweet, wonderful Dad died. I'm doing OK, but it still sucks. I still cry. I still feel sad and awful and shocked that the world keeps turning without Dad present.

But I am also starting to manage to not cry every time I see a pic of Dad or think of him. Weirdly, I feel a teensy bit guilty for not grieving 24/7. That's normal, I'm told. Grief is weird and non-linear and unpredictable.

Dad and Jen - March 2015

 

Given this summer's experiences, I'm feeling kind of expert-y about grief (not really) and thought I'd share a few things I learned in the process. If you have anything you'd add, please share in the comments.

 

First and foremost, don't avoid people who are grieving because you don't know what to say.

Is it possible you'll say the wrong thing? Sure! But we're [mostly] glad to hear from people we love, even if they say the wrong thing.

When in doubt, say you're sorry for the loss your friend has suffered and ask if there is anything you can do to make the day even a tiny bit easier.

Send a note, send a card, send flowers, send food. Whatever feels right.

Before losing my dad, I didn't realize that everyone my mom and I had ever met would send food. That's life in a small town, I think!

Trays started arriving within hours of my father's death. We had so much food that close friends would take catering trays home for the night and bring them back the next day, knowing we would have more friends and relatives coming to share their condolences in person.

My mother and I have continued receiving cards, as well as letters acknowledging donations made to charity and research* on Dad's behalf. Yes, sometimes they make me cry, but I am so glad for Dad to be remembered and honored.

By the way, Joanna Goddard wrote a wonderful post about condolence notes here.

Be patient when someone in your life experiences a loss.

When Dad first died, I didn't answer my cell phone most of the time. It was too hard to keep telling the story, even to my well-intentioned, loving friends. I found that I could better handle texts and emails.

Other people may have a different point of view on this. The bottom line is to connect with those who are hurting in the way that they (not you) prefer.

Oh, the corollary to this bit about patience is that my thank you notes will be delayed, sorry.

Keep checking in.

Grief doesn't abate after a week or a month or any specific timeframe. Your friend may be feeling embarrassed about the lingering effects of grief. I was fortunate in that I could work from home as needed. Crying jags were common and unpredictable in the first few weeks so it was nice to be home - working, crying and somethings both at the same time. I had some structure, but I could not pretend life was normal (and no one tried to tell me otherwise).

My best friend has been so lovely about mailing me little notes, in addition to emailing, texting and calling. Thank you, Jen.

Now that I have experience the loss of a parent, I feel sorry that I didn't do more for friends when they lost loved ones. I plan to take my own advice and check in now. It's never too late.

Grief isn't solely emotional.

At times, I felt like I was physically ill. I was exhausted and my appetite was weird. Some mornings, I would wake up with the intention of going to the office only to find getting out of bed was not an option. Try to go easy on yourself.

If you are the person grieving, check your Facebook "Other" messages once you catch your breath.

I got lovely notes from Dad's friends with whom I wasn't directly connected, and from friends of friends with whom I wasn't already connected on Facebook.

Accept and perhaps embrace the fact that you've joined a club.

It's a really sad club, one made up of people who have lost a parent, but these people might understand what you're experiencing better than someone who hasn't suffered a great loss. I have found that friends who have lost a parent understand that their role isn't to get me to stop crying. These friends seems to get that I'm so grateful for the chance to talk about Dad, even if it makes me cry more.

Grief doesn't have a timeline.

My friend Liz, who also lost her father, told me I have six months to be a jerk anytime I feel like it and one year to opt out of any holiday I choose. Noted.

Some days are going to be good. Others, not so much. I didn't cry yesterday, but did cry today. There's no schedule or expiration date.


*If you're moved to donate on behalf of my father, here's Option 1. Specify that you wish to support Temple Hospital's Pulmonary Hypertension Program, c/o Dr. Paul Forfia, 3401 N. Broad St., Philadelphia, PA 19140 in memory of David Keene. Option 2 is a cause my family supports in Scranton.