As we approach middle-age, many of us are losing our parents. Theoretically, we understand life is fragile - for Pete's sake, every episode of Grey's Anatomy warns us of this - and yet, when death becomes reality, we are often unprepared. We question how time could pass so quickly since we still feel like we're 19, even if our increasingly saggy faces and bingo wings tell a different story.
My dad sits in a nursing home in the end stages of Alzheimer's Disease. In many ways, he is already gone - his brain dies a thousand little deaths each day. He was diagnosed four years ago, at age 60. He has deteriorated to the point where he can barely walk or eat, and he no longer knows us. Losing a parent will change you in ways you didn't expect. Here are nine things I've learned facing my dad's mortality.
1. You'll have good days
I have a full-time job, a husband, and two small children to look after, so the show must go on. There are mouths to feed, bodies to dress, tantrums to settle - and that's just my husband. Heaven knows we can't live in a constant state of sadness, so we cope by putting one foot in front of the other most days. But then...
2. Grief will hit you out of nowhere
One rainy night, I was surfing TV channels when Pride and Prejudice came on. Like any red-blooded American woman, I got sucked in to Mr Darcy's delightful tractor beam and followed the film to its conclusion for the thousandth time. (Just try not to watch Pride and Prejudice in its entirety once you've noticed it is airing. Just try. It's scientifically impossible.) Keira Knightley's beautiful, dew-soaked morning stroll - the one in which she and Darcy finally confess their love - is normally sappy enough to make me swoon for a week. But this time, it was overshadowed by the very next scene, where Donald Sutherlin gives his blessing to Elizabeth and Darcy's marriage. I had completely forgotten about the father-daughter storyline, and that's when I burst into uncontrollable sobs until I was a puddle of melancholy. I longed to be able to chat with my father like Elizabeth Bennett did, but I knew it was now impossible.
Damn you, Jane Austen and your compelling characters. DAMN YOU! (Not really. I love you, Jane. Always and forever.) The point is, grief will strike when you least expect it.
Y'all, not even Jane Mother-Hugging Austen is safe anymore.
3. Father's Day will suck forevermore
Unless you want to anoint your eyebags with a metric tonne of haemorrhoid cream to keep them from swelling, just avoid Facebook on Father's Day when everyone is posting pictures of their dads. Otherwise, you'll cry all day. You'll cry thinking of fond memories and you'll cry knowing you can make no more. You'll cry that your children will never know their grandfather as you'd always hoped.
4.You'll be emotionally spent
This year I've moved across the world, started a new job, and taken on a mortgage. Between the major life changes and the responsibility of raising two young children, I barely have time to grieve. Thus the emotional energy I used to put into difficult relationships has been depleted to zero. My nurturing side--the one that normally puts up other people's shit - needs room to breathe. My "I can't even" level is off the charts, and sometimes I snap.
5. People will show their true colours
Genuine friends will come out of the woodwork to offer messages of love and support. Likewise, toxic personalities won't cease to treat you like crap, even when you are at your most vulnerable. You know the ones: they love gossiping, they see the worst in people, and they are always putting others down. Maybe you gave them a pass before this point, but things have changed. You'll come to the conclusion that if toxic people can't be kind and empathetic in a moment like this, they no longer deserve your heart.
6. You'll realise your grief only is bitter because of the sweetness.
Not everyone has a good father. I count my blessings that I did. My dad believed I could do anything, and he was always ready to lend a listening ear. The void of sweetness he left in my life can never be filled or mended, only carried.
7. You'll join a club you never knew existed.
In a podcast interview between comedians Kelly Carlin and Chris Hardwick, they discussed being in "The Dead Dad Club". Kelly, whose father was famous comedian George Carlin, explained that losing your dad is an experience connecting you with strangers who have gone through the same grief. She said that upon entering this club, you'll be able to offer a knowing nod to other members - one that speaks volumes, without saying a word.
8. Guilt will happen
When my dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, I was living in Scotland and he was all the way across the world in Texas. The physical distance between us rendered me helpless to do anything for him, and I felt enormously guilty that I missed the last good years of his life. But how do you anticipate a terminal diagnosis? How do you make decisions when you can't predict the future? We can't plan our lives around what-if scenarios or things outside of our control.
9. People will say the wrong things to you
Since my father's diagnosis, I've heard all the trite sayings:
"Everything happens for a reason."
"This, too, shall pass."
"He'll be in a better place soon."
Oftentimes well-meaning folks try to sympathise by telling me that their 95-year-old grandmother has dementia. In doing so, they minimise the tragedy of a life cut short. Mortality is an awkward subject, so forgive these people. They don't get it. They're not in The Dead Dad Club.
Maybe you can relate to this post. If so, I welcome you to The Dead Dad Club. There is immense pain here, but there is also understanding. Join us as we stumble toward a new normal.
And please know that you are not alone.