My father died in a car accident over a year ago, last June. A few weeks ago, my family got a notification that he left the family group chat.
Again. My father died in a car accident over a year ago, last June.
Although the four of us were each in completely different places- Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Louisiana- I could feel a shared stunned silence between us. Our dead dad just… left the conversation? Were we bothering him?
After the initial shock, we remembered, of course, that our mother had finally cancelled his phone plan to save money, and his spirit had not literally ghosted us. A stranger had gotten his number and was surely very annoyed at the messages coming in from a group text titled May The Rock Be With Us (which yes, is a nod to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) and decided to remove themselves from the discussion, having no clue that in doing so, they confronted a widow and her three children with the still very recent and unexpected loss of their beloved husband and father.
By nature, loss is confrontational. Losing someone we love means they no longer stand in the spaces we’re used to seeing them fill. We’ve always seen them in it, therefore its perceived emptiness forces us to face the permanence of their physical absence. There’s suddenly a cruelty in the familiar. These people are supposed to be there because they always have been and the realization that they aren’t is a dizzying punch to the gut. It’s disorienting, like thinking there’s another stair when there isn’t.
These obscenely casual everyday encounters are heartbreaking in their own quiet, evocative way, nonchalantly reminding us that he’s tangibly no longer there. Finding his old to-do lists, making reservations for four instead of five, writing out cousins’ birthday cards from the family and having to hesitate before adding my dad’s name to the signature.
Interestingly, a similar thing happened to me years before, in my senior year of high school. I had a close friend in my class who had been killed by an accident during the first week of the calendar year, in late August. The following March, I pulled my phone from my pocket to answer a call and was startled to see his name and picture on the ID. Honestly, “startled” doesn’t quite cut it. The wind was knocked out of me. After managing a hello, I was both comforted and disheartened to hear his mother’s voice; she’d taken his number for herself. Of course it was her. I mean, as much as I wanted it to be him, I’m not sure what or who I really expected.
What if, in some horrible soap opera twist, it was my friend on the other end? Could I have even been able to handle hearing his voice after I’d accepted that the rest of my life would continue without it? With loss comes lasts. The last words we said to someone become extraordinarily significant, no matter what the actual words are. The context either enhances or replaces their meaning, or both; after all, words are only a vessel, and we make sense of them by a number of factors. I’ve said goodnight to a million people a million times, but the goodnight I yelled to my parents as they watched TV in the other room is special. That one goodnight, out of all the others I’ve wished to god knows how many people, carries the specific, painful burden of being the last thing I said to my father.
Still, his number remained unremoved from our group text. We could have taken it out, but it felt wrong. There’s an odd, almost offensive expectation that we pick up and “move on” after a loss, but what does moving on mean? This is the man who, when asked by a colleague what he believed to be his greatest accomplishment, would point to the picture of the five of us that was mounted on the wall among his impressive number of degrees and awards. We’re asked to pack our loved one neatly in a box and carry forward just like we did before.
But that’s the thing. Life is a series of befores and afters, large and small and in between. Before my first kiss, after my first kiss. Before I got bangs, after I got bangs. Before my dad died, after my dad died. Befores and afters mean challenge and change and growth. Our cultural understanding of moving on demands that the grieving must place their hands over their eyes and play a miserable version of I can’t see them, so they can’t see me. If we tuck our loved one and our loss of them away, maybe the trauma won’t be so present. We don’t have to deal with it and the people around us won’t have to. Right?
The fact that there is an after in the face of such events means that there was a before, and for this to be true there must be shift in our reality. The world in which we exist has changed. Pretending otherwise is deeply inhibiting. Carrying on like they didn’t happen to us brings more pain than feeling both their loss in body and their continued presence in our lives. Loss wouldn’t hurt like it does if we didn’t love them as much as we do. So much of me is my father, and it’s impossible to live fully, openly, and honestly if I refuse to honor his existence in me and in the world that I’ve been constructing for twenty-two years. If I erase him from my story, it no longer makes any sense.
It’s not only that I can’t erase him and what happened, it’s also that I don’t want to. I want to feel my dad’s presence around me. I cried when I graduated, wishing he was there to see. His physical life ended while mine was just beginning and any milestone will hold a bittersweet longing for him to be there, palpable, waiting to wrap his arms around me.
There is a balance, though. Attempting to recreate the before as if nothing happened stunts us, however it’s dangerous as well to be frozen by the trauma, ignoring that the world is still spinning and that we are very much alive. In doing so, we waive our power. It’s giving up the gun, forgoing personal agency in the face of challenge, leading to stagnation. This is not surrender, but rather resignation. The only thing left to do, then, if neither ignoring what happened nor renouncing our will are options, is to feel.
That being said, it’s necessary to remember, as many others have said before me, that all of this is nonlinear. While it would be convenient for there to be a defined path to healing from grief, there isn’t, especially when cultural expectations and definitions of what healing is are themselves so flawed. Afters are unknowns and unknowns are never easy. When confrontations arise, accept your loved one’s presence in the physical lack thereof and know that even though this is the after there was a before and honor that by letting the emotion move through you. However you feel, that’s okay. Wherever you are, that’s okay, too. Just breathe.