It's got no place to go
I feel like we should talk about grief
I’ve only ever cried once about my dad’s death.
I hadn’t really thought about this fact until recently when talking to my mom on the phone. She told me about an evening when she was at my brother’s house. My dad came up in conversation and she and my brother had both started crying.
It was surprising to hear that my brother cried. Not in a judgmental way. Crying is a therapeutic, cathartic, and natural human thing that you should do and I fully endorse it as a way to process your emotions. It’s just that it has been nearly a year since our dad passed away. I miss him and think about him all the time, but it doesn’t feel as raw and new to me now.
The one time I did full-on cry was a few days after he passed. In the days after his death, I worked on a draft of my piece for that week, which eventually turned into my most popular piece to date. I chipped away on it every night at my mom’s house, at the airport, and on the flight home. When I arrived at my house, my wife and I went to our room, laid on our bed, and I read her what I had written. At first, I was fine. But as I got to the part about his cancer diagnosis and his deteriorating health, I started uncontrollably sobbing. I pressed on and read the whole thing through tears while she held me. I was proud of what I had written, especially given the circumstances, and I was determined to read it all.
Since then, there have been times when I’ve felt choked up thinking about him, but I still haven’t actually shed a tear again. For months, I would judge myself for not being upset enough. But as time has passed, I’ve come to realize that maybe we all process grief differently. And maybe that’s okay.
“Grief is love that has no place to go.”
I’m not sure where I heard that phrase. But it was instantly deposited into my memory bank when I did. I’ve been lucky to have loved ones to lean on. When grief would unexpectedly hit me, I could talk to my wife, or pick up the phone and call my mom or my brother about it—they’re the place where my love could go.
Now some of you are probably thinking, “riiiggghhhht sure, he’s totally in denial, the first stage of grief.” And I would probably think the same thing if someone else wrote this piece.
Perhaps I haven’t struggled too much with the grief around my dad’s death because I had years to process his illness and his passing wasn’t a surprise. Perhaps it’s because I don’t feel like there was anything left unresolved in our relationship—no outstanding quarrels or words left unsaid. Perhaps it’s because I’ve written about it multiple times right here in this newsletter.
Or perhaps I’m just not very good at expressing my emotions.
I tend to be in a rational mindset most of the time. As a writer, it serves me well. It allows me to analyze a situation and craft it into a compelling story that—hopefully, fingers crossed—entertains you during your lovely Saturday morning. One of the reasons I started this newsletter was to write about and process my daughter’s traumatic entry into this world and her subsequent disability—to dig into the emotions of my experience and channel them onto the page in an artistic way. That type of deeper, emotional writing has helped me understand the hardships I’ve been through.
In couples therapy, I would often start answering a question by saying “I feel like”, instead of just “I feel”. The first is an intellectual response where I’m trying to interpret how I feel, while the second can only be followed by an emotion—I feel happy, or angry, or lonely, or [insert some other emotion here]. Eventually, our therapist would stop me mid-sentence and ask me to start over without saying the word “like”. It was way harder than it reasonably should’ve been. I still have a tough time doing it sometimes.
So how do I feel about my dad’s death?
I feel sad.
As a writer, that word sounds so basic. It lacks nuance and specificity.
But I do feel sad.
Sad that I can’t have another conversation with him—even an argument. Sad that he won’t get to see my daughter and stepdaughter grow up. Sad that every family picture will be missing him now. Sad that he spent so much of his retirement dealing with health issues.
But I also feel like it’s okay for me to not force myself to feel sad about it. I feel like it’s honoring, rather than questioning, my natural tendencies. I feel like being both an expresser and thinker of my emotions is all part of what it means to be a feeling person trying to figure out what it means to be human in this often unfair world.
Whoops, there’s that “like” word again.
Thank you for reading. And thank you to all the *checks notes* 121 new subscribers who joined in the past week. I appreciate all of you.
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Lyle, I’m always impressed with your willingness to be so vulnerable in these pieces. Thank for sharing so freely.
On the subject of grief, particularly of a son grieving a father, I’ve been in your shoes. I lost my dad in 2015. That first years was a blur. I felt all of the emotions (and all of the stages of grief because we don’t really process them sequentially), but never felt at ease with any of my feelings. If a happy memory of my dad popped in my head I felt sorrow or melancholy. If a sad memory of his time in the hospital came to me, I felt guilty and sad and helpless.
At the time of my father’s death, everyone told me grief would last a year. My family is Jewish, although not religious, and for Jews there really is a prescribed order to grief that ends on the one year anniversary when you put the headstone on the grave. After that, life is for the living, as they say. But when we were sitting Shiva for my dad (the day after the funeral) my best friend, who I’ve know since we were 14, told me something I’ll never forget about grief. My friend had lost his dad in 2008.
“It takes a year before you feel normal, dude, but actually that’s bullshit because it takes two years, and honestly that’s bullshit too. The truth is, it always hurts, but the rawness fades over time, except that there’s no rhyme or reason to how it fades.”
All of this is by way of saying that in the years since my father’s death I know three things.
First, that quote about grief being love with nowhere to go is right on the money.
Second, my friend was right.
Third, it’s true that grief is different for everyone, but it’s also true that everyone grieves as who they are. In other words, we bring the best and worst of us to grief, and in turn grief reveals us to ourselves. What we choose to do with those revelations, of course, is a different story.
Lyle, another beautiful thoughtful piece. I'm with you. I have more to say, in private and for another time, but you're right to observe how it is - there's no fitting into others' forms for feeling and experiences. Especially for this.