It’s the time of year when in my corner of the South happy and merry greetings dust the air more frequently than snowflakes. Families gather and expect good cheer. However, for those who have experienced a recent loss, grief can tarnish those glittery feelings.
This year, I am one of the grieving.
My beloved father died at the end of August. Three months have passed and I miss him. Still.
Dad and I lived several states away, but love kept us close and connected. In his later years we spoke on the phone every day, sometimes several times a day. For a man in his eighties, my father was a night owl, often staying up well after midnight. I’m the apple that fell right next to the tree and I often talked to my father late at night. And though our holidays were generally spent apart, I loved hearing his plans. Our shared love of food gave us lots to talk about and he enjoyed telling me about his meals as much as I liked posting pictures of mine on social media. His stories were always entertaining and humorous. My father was a character—a description used only in the fondest way.
One year, he and his girlfriend ate Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant with a group of four other women. According to Dad, the reason the group consisted of only women was because their spouses or boyfriends had all passed away. My father said this in a matter-of-fact way, accepting life and death as bosom buddies.
Then he told me, “The other women tell my girlfriend to hang onto me. They say I’m ‘a catch.’”
I’d felt a shot of pride at what these ladies said about my father. “That’s because you’re a good guy,” I said. “They recognize a nice man.”
“That’s not why,” he said in a sly tone that conveyed a secret, albeit one he planned to share.
“No? Then why?” I asked.
“I’m a catch because I can drive at night.”
“Really?” I knew that though in his mid-eighties, Dad could still safely drive at night, but I didn’t know that particular criterion was considered elderly female catnip.
“It’s true. It’s a big deal,” he said.
We laughed even as we acknowledged the sobering reality in his statement.
This December, I’m the one driving in the dark with my grief riding shotgun beside me. I’m no stranger to mourning. I lost my mother sixteen years ago; the first year after she died was tough. Even though, I’ve lived through this type of loss before, it doesn’t get any easier. When my father’s health was failing, I wrote about the things I did to take care of myself while I was caretaking him. http://betterafter50.com/2016/06/5-strategies-to-stay-healthy-when-caregiving-your-parent/ Now, I’ve got a new list—how I’m finding comfort in the wake of losing him.
- I’ve kept busy doing what I love.
One fortuitous thing happened to me in the days immediately following my father’s death—a writing project came my way. Writing has always been my salvation; the cure for all that ails me. This fall, I spent a lot of time writing—sometimes eighteen hours a day—pouring my grief into fictional characters and essays.
- I gave myself permission to say yes or no depending on how I felt.
Plans and invitations didn’t vex me—if I felt like going, I went. If I didn’t feel up to a particular engagement, I begged off. At times, I overbooked myself—cramming days and nights with the company of good friends and family. If I laughed they laughed with me, if I cried, they passed the Kleenex. It’s been a time where I’ve put my emotional well-being first and have refused to feel guilty about it.
- I’ve embraced my father’s attitude toward life.
My father believed that every day was a bonus—something I wrote about several years ago. http://betterafter50.com/2014/03/the-wisdom-of-a-father/ Daily, I remind myself of his joie de vive, even when I’m sad. Thanks to his attitude, I make it a point to highlight the things I am grateful for each day.
- I let myself feel my feelings.
Grief comes in a range of emotions. It doesn’t matter whether I’m feeling sad, angry, weepy, or restless—I don’t hold back. I acknowledge and own my feelings. A dear friend pointed me toward this line in a Robert Frost poem—“the best way out is always through.”
- Staying active soothes me.
I love to run, bike, and walk. I’ve logged many miles since losing my father. For the first few weeks, I told my husband “I feel like Forrest Gump. I just keep running.” There were days when I hit the road and felt like jogging from my home in North Carolina clear across to California. I didn’t, although, I did wear through a new pair of sneakers in two months. In October, my weekly mileage waned, but I’ve noticed that since Thanksgiving week there’s been an uptick. I’ve invested in some new cold weather running gear and I’ll be due for new sneakers again soon.
If you are coping with loss this season, you are not alone. Life taught me something valuable over Thanksgiving week, when my kids came home from college. I was so grateful to have my children home for the holiday and I learned that grief and joy can coexist.
For the remainder of 2016, it is my sincerest wish for all that our holiday season be happier and merrier than expected.