Grief, and time spent alone

Two weeks ago my father passed away. He was almost eighty, but anyone who knew him considered him sixty-five years old, if that. He was vibrantly alive. Sharp as a knife, gregarious, opinionated, and he had a huge appetite for life. Human curiosity demands an answer to the immediate question: it was a heart attack. But really all I can say is that he just stopped living. The medical specificity is ultimately irrelevant, though it lends comfort to know he didn’t suffer. And it would have pleased him immensely to have never been seen as feeble or weak.

He was a decorated combat fighter pilot, an honor student, a successful businessman, and someone who loved literature and good conversation. He was also a tough father who expected a lot, and he made his own success look easy. He took great risks. The brave rarely consider themselves fearless, and he was very much alive when he was strategizing his next life-campaign. Some people never live. They move from one safe zone to another, avoiding tragedy, life and the inherent feelings. The small moments of joy are good enough in a life spent avoiding pain and failure. He lived with a risk/reward profile most lack the courage to assume.

I’m beginning to miss him.

One of the hard parts of surviving a larger-than-life parent is the constant contact people seek. Everyone wants to talk to me, all the time. They only have that one topic. Many are reminded of someone they lost, and will project their experience on to mine. Others are pushed into recognizing a mortality they have denied thus far. How can a man filled with such vitality, who made youth seem eternal, suddenly cease? They begin doing their own math. All these people want to talk to me. They’re sharing extremely special memories, but their timing is off. I’m not ready to have these conversations, but I am forced to stand and listen. A very large number of people felt very close to him, who want to be consoled, so I spend my days absorbing strangers’ sadness and making them feel better, while they load more grief on to me.

And they all tell me not to be sad.

We are not allowed this. We are allowed to be deeply into art, or Buddhism, or photography, or music, but we are not allowed to be deeply sad. Grief is a thing that we are encouraged to “let go of,” to “move on from,” and we are told specifically how this should be done. Countless well-intentioned friends, distant family members, bankers, lawyers, and strangers I met at parties recited the famous five stages of grief to me: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I am alarmed by how many people know them, how deeply this single definition of the grieving process had permeated our cultural consciousness. Not only am I supposed to feel these five things, I am expected to feel them in that order, and other feelings must be reinterpreted to fit the template. Expressing any other feelings is anathema, because all these sad people would look at me like I’m an emotional cripple, or a callous ingrate.

What I want more than anything is time alone. And I just want to spend some time being sad, and I want to mourn the small pieces, the moving parts of a relationship that can now never fall perfectly into their places. I am surrounded all day long by people who want to be closer to the memory of my father, or need some family business issue to be resolved, or who simply want a piece of me. They pull at me, they take energy from me as they bathe in their own feelings, and they’re sucking the creativity and strength out of me. So I feel like a stone, an efficient machine, an executor of a will. But I can find no chance to feel like a son who lost his role model, or a man who will now lead his tribe. I honor my father’s life by working hard. His voice will be in my head forever, especially now as I absorb his responsibilities. I feel incredibly far away from creativity, and all I really want to do is walk around and shoot pictures.

There is a lot of work that remains to be done, and then I will take time for myself. Soon (hopefully) I will begin creating art again – with more effort, more determination, and a hell of a lot more risk. Because that’s when I feel the most alive.

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