‘Grief Is Like the Ocean’

Recovering from the loss of my dad has been a long journey. 

by Anonymous

Credit: Avosb (iStock)

My father died of cancer in June of 2020, a few months into the COVID-19 pandemic. At first he was diagnosed with a chronic, but not fatal, inflammatory arthritis that affects the spine and large joints. But after his condition continued to deteriorate, a trip back to the hospital revealed that he had metastatic brain cancer.

I couldn’t understand it; my father never smoked. He exercised frequently and rarely got sick. 

The last time I saw him, as he left to go back to the hospital, he stumbled out from his bed, so pale and gaunt from not being able to keep food down that he looked like a skeleton. He took two pain pills and told me, “I will come back again. Take care of your mother and sister for me now.”

A few weeks later, in the middle of June, my mom came back to my relative’s house. My sister and I were in a bedroom when I heard her arrive. I was ecstatic. It didn’t sound like she was crying, and I thought that meant my dad had made it home alive. I sat near the bedroom door, pretending to play a game on my laptop but secretly eavesdropping on her conversation. “…surgery was successful….tumor removed…excessive bleeding…nurses…too late…” Although I could only make out small phrases of what they said, I knew he’d died.

I told my little sister the news, but she was so young that she didn’t seem to understand. I wasn’t shocked; part of me kind of expected this outcome, but I had held onto the hope that he was going to be OK.

The aftermath was hard. Cancer roved through our family like a tornado, leaving us hopeless and confused. I felt as if I’d been dropped into a world where only darkness and silence existed. As if time itself had paused, the days all blurred together. 

When my dad left the world, I felt like I lost direction… I didn’t know who to depend on, or who I could talk to.

Gone were the little pranks and jokes my mother used to play on us. Little was said at the dinner table. Like a glass vase, my mother’s strength had shattered into shards. I felt that it was up to me to pick up the pieces, so I pretended to be OK even though I wasn’t.

Repressed Feelings

When my dad left the world, I felt like I lost direction. I was angry, and I was confused. I didn’t know who to depend on, or who I could talk to.

I was upset at my mother, who never confided in me. My father was the one who had treated me like I was an adult, and would tell me things my mother believed I was too young to know. Now, he was gone, and I felt that I couldn’t express my feelings to anyone.

My dad’s death was all I wanted to talk about, but my mom just pretended that it never happened. It seemed that she hoped one day he would magically reappear. When I cried, she’d hug me and say, “I know,” but never said anything else about my father.

A week after his death, it was still hard for me to believe that he was gone. As I got used to life without him, it felt a little more real. Then I started worrying obsessively that someone else in my family would suddenly fall ill. Back then, I didn’t know I was suffering from anxiety. Soon, it got so bad that I started experiencing heart pain. Then I worried that I was going to die, too. But I kept pretending to be OK for my family’s sake.

Breaking Silence

The next year was a blur of remote learning. I struggled academically because I was overwhelmed with grief, but because I was so preoccupied with school tasks, I had less time to worry about my family’s health, and my anxiety got better.

That August, a year and a month after my dad died, my mother decided to take my sister and me out shopping. We were so excited to go out after months of lockdown.

Recently my mom had begun to joke with my sister and me again, and to smile more often. She began to enjoy doing things she used to, like shopping or watching dramas. Sometimes she’d even mention my father in little comments. Seeing her improve made me happier. It also made some of my sadness that my father passed disappear, because it felt as if I’d lost two parents at once, but now I’d gained one back.

While walking down the streets of Manhattan, my sister asked where my father had gone. We’d often gone into the city as a family, and this was the first time we went without him. She knew he’d died, but being so young, she didn’t understand what that meant. She thought perhaps my father had gone to work for a long time.

I expected my mother to lie to her. Instead, she said, “He’s gone up there,” and pointed up to the sky.

“Can we go there too?” my sister asked. I nudged her to not push the topic further. I didn’t want to make my mother upset. 

To my surprise, she just said, “One day, but hopefully after a long, long time.” I watched her face, but nothing happened. She even smiled and continued talking about what we were going to shop for that day.

I was shocked that she had spoken so directly. I was also happy because I thought it might mean she was getting better. I had worried that my mother would never recover. Even though I felt relieved, afterwards I continued not bringing up my father, repressing my feelings to let my mother choose when she was ready to talk more.

Her acknowledgement also made me realize he really was gone. It only hit me then. I felt a little empty, but also hopeful that life was going to resume again.

After that, it seemed as if the rest of my family carried on just fine. I tried to follow their footsteps, resolving to give myself only the rest of summer to grieve. Then I went back to in-person school for my freshman year of high school. I tried to carry on as if nothing happened. I was talkative because I wanted to appear normal, but being around people again overwhelmed me, and I started feeling anxious all over again.

Starting to Heal

My grades were up for a few weeks, but then they plummeted again.

When I told my friends that I was struggling with my mental health, they responded that I seemed normal to them, and I could still go to school every day, so I shouldn’t bother with the “depression stuff.” My family doesn’t really think mental health is a real thing, but I wanted to learn more about the topic. I remembered a book I’d read about a girl whose brother passed away, and I Googled, “YA mental health books to read.” I loved reading books, and wanted the feeling of relatability that a good story could bring, the feeling that someone else shared how I felt.

One that popped up was The Fault in Our Stars by John Greene, which I put on hold at the library and read. I was surprised to learn that there were characters with cancer in the story. It helped them feel relatable and real, rather than just words on paper.

When I read, I could just let out my feelings.

I went on to read the novels The Perks of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, about a shy boy named Charlie who represses his trauma, and Winter Girls by Laurie Halse Anderson, about an anorexic teenage girl. I also read memoirs by people who faced mental health problems or other challenges like Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, and In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park and Maryanne Vollers.

They helped me realize that mental health struggles weren’t something only people with great trauma could have, and that there was more to mental health than depression and anxiety.

Reading these books also helped me finally put a name to the grief and depression that I was feeling (it was still hard for me to call how much I worried “anxiety”).

In school, I felt that I had to be the extroverted kid that people expected. At home, I had to be there for my sister and couldn’t even cry when my family was around. When I read, I could just let out my feelings.

Healing Is a Journey

I related to the exact thoughts and feelings of the characters, which comforted me more than anything, and helped me name the grief I was feeling. 

Even though I was more sure of what I felt, it didn’t mean that recovering from grief was a straightforward path. I still gave up sometimes on my assignments, and there were days where I felt that I had no motivation to do anything. Sometimes, I would fall back into a negative mindset and feel hopeless. But instead of staying discouraged, I tried again. The books I’d read had taught me that it was OK to take my time, because that’s what the characters were doing. Each setback disappointed me a little less.

Over the next two years, I slowly began to draw again, journaled, and took walks. Walking especially helped. I’d go to busy areas because the noise helped me shift my focus away from my anxious thoughts. I also started listening to upbeat genres of music, which lifted my overall mood. Eventually, my anxiety symptoms mostly went away (I still have bad anxiety some days), and I felt that I had more energy and could concentrate again.

I did reach out to guidance counselors at school, but when I tried to talk about my dad’s death, I would cry or tear up, and found it embarrassing afterwards. Although my counselor scheduled weekly sessions, they never reached out after the first, and I didn’t go back.

I think my mom is still recovering slowly. We are able to have more casual conversations about my father, and she sometimes speaks of him first, but not too much about the grief. Maybe in a few years we’ll be able to.

Three years after my dad’s death, I don’t think I have fully moved on yet. Even as I type these words, I can feel my eyes blur with tears. Still, the pain of his loss isn’t nearly as great as it was before. Back then, if you’d told me things would get better, I wouldn’t have believed it. I just needed my own time to piece myself back again, cracked, but complete. Everyone needs their own time to heal, and there is no set time to get over the death of a loved one. 

Although I’ve started to forget how my father looks, memories of him visit me occasionally in my dreams. As a Vicki Harrison quote that I found on GoodReads goes, “Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.”

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