In Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden muses that the legend of the sakura blossom reminds us to savor life when we can. Such fragile blossoms seem too frail to be on the front-line of changing seasons, battered with high winds, heavy rains, and moments of scorching sun, but I did not design the trees or direct them as to which order might be safest to bloom in.
I do, however, remember the way they looked at Nara last year, sitting delicately on the dewy ground, carpeting the nearby temples. I recall how they hung on the branches of trees lining the Philosopher’s Walk. In my minds eye, I can still see a lone tree framed by kanji on the shoreline of Lake Biwa-Ko, petals bending in the breeze, quivering on the tightrope of color drawn between scarlet, and white — the liminal space between rich red, blood-filled life and brilliant light.
My father died suddenly the evening I arrived back from Japan to view the cherry blossoms during Golden Week. I have wondered for a long time how strange it was that the last two weeks of his life might be such a memorable two of my own: a fortnight dedicated entirely to taking time to appreciate the goodness in life. It has been exactly one year since I received the phone call, the one each of us who is lucky enough to love and be loved will receive at a handful of points in life. I feel compelled to share my experience of what this loss has been like.
I must acknowledge how profoundly fortunate I am to have been born into a loving family. This has been the most phenomenal gift and start to my life, which was achieved by no work of my own. I write on no one else’s behalf and draw on the strength of other brave individuals who have mined this most ubiquitous, yet strangely still taboo, of topics, in some ways to provide insight that may ameliorate the anxieties of another experiencing a similar grievance.
In writing, I also hope to lay my dad to rest. I was unprepared to do so a year ago, and remember thinking how surreal it was as we threw rose petals and sprigs of rosemary onto the coffin in the back of the hearse. Now I feel ready and am hopeful that I may further open myself up to experiencing what life after death can feel like. I remain convinced that it has the potential to be more wonderful — and I do mean more “full of wonder” — than I can conceive.
As Memoirs of a Geisha unfolds, the young Chiyo, having been bought into slavery by the matron of the geisha house, and unceremoniously told of her parents’ death, kneels in a pulsing, fetal heap of tears on the hard wooden floors of the okiya. As the scene peels open, Chiyo describes a poem at the local temple in her village called “Loss.” The poem “has three words, but the poet has scratched them out” for “you cannot read loss, only feel it.”
In writing this I have struggled to find a structure for the narrative to follow; grief has no structure, and it cannot be read. It is as C.S. Lewis cites in A Grief Observed:
“In grief nothing ‘stays put.’ One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral? But if a spiral, am I going up or down it?”
Henceforth, this piece will be structured by feeling. If it feels disorienting as you read, that’s because loss is disorienting. If it feels confusing, that’s because loss is confusing. If it feels uncomfortable, that’s because loss is uncomfortable. But, as I have found, and as I am finding on my best days, if I can sit with the disorientation, confusion, and discomfort of loss long enough, it can lead me to a greater appreciation of life and that the spiral C.S. Lewis describes can indeed bend towards the sun.
So let’s give it a red-hot go.
To paint a picture: my father was one of my best friends, and the person most like me on the planet. For that matter, it’s probably for the best that there aren’t two of us anymore. He was funny and generous. He lived his life from an earnest, genuine heart and, because of this, he got away with saying the most incredible things, leaving people incredulous and amazed as he went. He shook hands with rat-bag prime ministers and rat-bag school pupils. He walked endlessly, until the end, and championed anyone he came into contact with.
He chose simply to believe in people, especially those closest to him, and I am unfathomably lucky to have had my own personal, cheerleading mercenary for a quarter of a century. He was intelligent, and swore in a way that would make sailors shiver and run for the sea. He never lost his child-like interest and curiosity in the world, and though he was deeply imperfect, just like the rest of us, he grew into the most wonderful human being who co-labored with others to build the most fantastically real relationships. The one he and I built has been one of the greatest sources of strength in my life, and the most sincere (and at times hilarious) condolence in his death.
I have too many stories of our friendship, and foe-ship, to list here. In order to get to know the legend of my dad, you would have to invest in getting to know me. That knowledge makes me feel both proud and rich. I walk around each day feeling like I am a keeper of the most sacred treasure chest of memories, a weight that I am humbly delighted to bear, and which fills my sails with encouragement.
I woke up from a jet-lag nap on Mother’s Day in 2014 and, hearing the tone in my beautiful mum’s voice, had a gut-chilling feeling that it was the call I’d always dreaded — the call that tells you that the person who isn’t on the phone can’t call again. I remember walking up the hallway and asking my housemate if she could take care of my life for the next half-hour because my dad — the lively, fit-as-a-fiddle man with an all too affectionate propensity for short-shorts — had just died.
What I thought I was going to achieve in half an hour, I still feel foggy on; none the less, I made it to the living room, sat on the couch, and began to cry as my housemate called my best friend and boyfriend at the time, who both came over immediately and sat, and stayed with me. This was the greatest gift. When you are in shock, your ability to think logically, make decisions, and comprehend is practically non-existent. I didn’t know if I needed people around me, I didn’t know if I was hungry, or what time I should go to bed, but my friends being there meant I didn’t have to know. I am so, so thankful for the knee-jerk reaction of loving kindness my friends showed me that evening.
The following morning I posted an obituary on social media. The intent was simple: if I repeated the information once, I would hopefully save myself having to say the words over and over again with each person I encountered. The response was overwhelming. My boss dropped off flowers and a chocolate brownie to my door within the hour. My friend Cam called and came over that evening with wine and food. Dani drove by and gave me an enormous book to read with a note that said, “If you want to escape for a while, here’s some reading material.” Another friend had flowers delivered from her shop, while another wrote a beautiful card and left it in my mailbox.
Acquaintances from across the globe who had experienced similar losses contacted me with condolences and camaraderie. One housemate took carer’s leave from work, while the other offered to help with any financial burdens. My best friend took the day off from work, and I remember being so thankful that it was unseasonably warm and sunny as we sat on the white plastic furniture outside of a milk bar on Lygon Street, eating lemonade icy-poles.
None of these people knew what to say at the time. Mostly I was met with blank looks or repetitions at slow intervals of the F-word. But they were there.
We spend so much time in Western culture trying to articulate the inarticulable, and missing the mark. I’m a writer — I should know. But in Judaism, during the mourning week, or shiva, there is a tradition that when tragedy strikes a family, someone will go and sit with the family of the deceased or tragedy-stricken person. They go, and they sit. Nothing is said; nothing needs to be, but the simple act of sitting quietly speaks volumes. I am so thankful for my friends who came and sat with me. In the midst of the deepest and most acute sense of absence I have ever felt, they were present. In the midst of death, they were life.
Shock lasted for months. I am quite certain it was the only way I was able to do things like fly to New Zealand, get up in the morning and go back to work, which I would not recommend doing two weeks after the event if you can do so unless you are fortunate as I am, and happen to have very supportive work environments.
Shock allowed me to change the tense of the way I spoke about my dad from present to past. It was completely disgusting the first time I did it, but was quickly followed by a sense of relief that, although I now had to begin saying “my father was…” I could always say that “I am my father’s daughter.” This little linguistic tool, although nerdy and minute, was the first inkling I had that although much had changed, and would yet need to change, there would be some things which would remain rock solid and immovable. As I write today, I am still my father’s daughter. Thankfully, I am also my mother’s daughter and this is for the best, because Dad would have gone completely bonkers years ago were it not for her.
Sir Isaac Newton stated “every action has an equal and opposite reaction,” which, when applied to relationships, highlights grief as a result of deep love. In life many of our problems can be solved by applying an equal and opposite reaction, or set of actions. We lose a job, we can find a new one. A relationship crumbles, we can, with time, move towards another. In many ways, I have felt a growing sense in the last year that how we deal with life’s “fixable” problems helps to set us up for life’s great unfixables.
I have experienced grief in the past which I have been to, and continue to go to, counseling for. I’ve had shitty break ups, I’ve lost jobs, dreams, and friendships, and I have needed to grieve these life changes appropriately. I am now convinced that the help I received, and sought, in these earlier dealings with grief laid a foundation to begin accepting that most unfixable of problems: death. In death, we cannot replicate the individual, and even if we could, knowing it wasn’t them, would it still be a desirable option? For me, certainly not. I don’t want another father, and I don’t want Diet Dad, or Dad Zero knowing that it would always be but an imitation of genuine, classic Dad-a-Cola.
I have encountered a number of people who have wanted to try to “fix” this problem, or make it go away, without realizing that my particular problem is unfixable by normal measures of mending, and exists precisely because someone has gone away. Conversely, I am so lucky to have a handful of people in my life whose caring didn’t stop with the “I’m sorry for your loss” messages. I have people in my life who unflinchingly refer to my dad by his first name, Vic, and it makes me smile every time they do it. These are the people who can laugh at my highly inappropriate but wickedly funny dead-dad jokes. They are the people who lean in to listen when my voice quiets and cracks as I speak about the myriad ways in which I miss him. These people are unafraid of walking with me through the mess of life, and are comfortable enough to let my dad’s stories live on in our conversations long after his life ended. Whether they are aware of it or not, these human beings normalize my story, and subtly invite me to feel whole in their presence — whole as a person who, for the rest of her life, will be learning how to miss and remember someone.
Knowing that we can’t make things better by cloning a lost loved one, we can perhaps then deduce that the event of death can only be soothed with time, with gentleness, with the growth of new life. In my own experience, this has proved to be true. New life in experiences, a greater appreciation of the life that exists before our eyes, and a deeper understanding of life as a gift, not an entitlement. In these 365 days since Dad died (and thank God it wasn’t a leap year), I have grown to love this life more than I imagined possible. To relish my ability to experience it, and to throw out the window time and time again my desire to “achieve for achievement’s sake” (which I believe I will forever need to practice).
My father spent the last decade of his life earning next to no money, and these were the years during which he dove into the riches of the love that accumulates between family members. These were the years he did more work for the community he lived in, helping literally hundreds of individuals along the way. To me, this is an inheritance infinitely more meaningful than a sum of money. If “rings and jewels are not gifts, but apologies for gifts,” and “the only gift is a portion of thyself,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson shouts from the pages of history, then I am a lucky woman to have inherited a portion of my dad’s humanity — which lives on in my own.
Tiredness, and Scheduled Crying: Together, At Last!
When I actively decided, in a rather Victorian manner, to give myself an entire year to make grieving for dad my number-one priority, I did so with some hopes in mind. I imposed as little pressure as possible on myself to attain them. I hoped to completely accept and acknowledge Dad’s death, figuring this was a healthy first step in my modus operandi.
How can I lay a new foundation if I don’t acknowledge that the old house has been bulldozed? The reason I wanted to acknowledge this new reality when I could was so I could increase the likelihood of doing the very thing Dad invested so much effort into in the first place: ensuring that I had every opportunity to enjoy this life as much as humanly possible, its full spectrum of experiences and emotions included. I wanted to learn how to enfold this experience into my personhood in a healthy way, and hopefully become a bigger person because of it. I wanted to be happy for my friends’ relationships with their parents and encourage them to make the most of those relationships while they had the chance. I wanted to be able to remember my dad and laugh, sometimes, not just remember him and want to cry.
My dad was so funny, and I pause as I write, with tears in my eyes, recalling his exact way of laughing. I smile. To me this is a miracle, considering I still remember the visceral reaction I had when the funeral director announced “the facts,” that my dad was dead, and I sat in the front row wanting to punch him. Considering that in the months following, whenever I remembered anything Dad did, I was overwhelmed with tears and monumental tiredness.
I had no map of how to move towards these hopes, and people were quick to offer unhelpful sentiments like “nothing prepares you for losing a parent,” which, by the way, is a crock. Your relationship with the individual in life will prepare you for the loss of the human in death — so get cracking. Stop reading this rubbish and go call your parents/spouse/kids/best friend. Hell, get outside and spend time with your pets. I began map-less, but when we were in New Zealand, my mum’s doctor said something that became my mantra: “Eat well, get enough exercise, and take the time to laugh.”
It sounds simple, but I can’t encourage you enough to do it, even when you’re not in a time of crisis. If you are eating well, you increase your likelihood of staying physically healthy and, as Kat Daley says, “A healthy body is a good place to store a world weary mind.” If you are getting enough exercise, you’re more likely to be sleeping well, which is vital when your mind is undergoing such a profound restructuring of emotions, bearings, and patterns of life. If you’re taking the time to laugh, you’re doing something unbelievably brave: you are protesting against sorrow by remembering, even if only in small moments, that the world is still good, and there are still things to smile about.
This choice to prioritize grieving hasn’t been a particularly easy one. In some ways, the sudden death of a loved one feels like you’ve been served your own death sentence. In the weeks after it happened, I could just manage three days’ work a week. I needed to be in bed by 9 p.m. every night, only to wake the following morning after a full ten hours and, when the softness of dreaming was rinsed by reality, feel utterly exhausted again as I cried my way through tasks like making breakfast, showering, and putting on clothes. I have missed out on countless events and opportunities because of my decision to let myself feel the full weight of exhaustion from grief, and to take time to allow myself space for “scheduled crying.” However, I’m not someone who believes easy work can be made of a complex task, or vice versa. To mourn fully has been the best choice for me, and in light of how I feel most days now — full of laughter, surprised by hope, warm in heart, and appreciative of the human experience — it has been a no-brainer.
One of the most frustrating things about intentional grieving was people who seemed all too keen to suggest that perhaps I was “depressed.” Grief can exhibit many of the same symptoms as depression. The etymologies of the words “depression” and “grief” themselves point to the way they weigh down the person experiencing them. But the distinction lies in the fact that the griever is profoundly sad for a lengthy duration because of a specific, traceable event or reason that seeps through many of the cracks of daily life, dulling its hue.
Never having experienced depression myself, I can only imagine how exasperating and infuriating it must be for someone who is depressed to be confronted by well-meaning individuals who are all too quick to suggest that perhaps they are just “very sad.” We must expand our lexicon of thought, and take care to better accommodate our fellow humans processing the less glossy, less glamorous aspects of life. We have put a man on the moon and invented the Internet, yet still we live by such disengaging binaries. Surely someone can create an app to help us do this already. (Hop to it, Tim Cook!)
Birthdays, Father’s Day, and Christmas; oh my!
The usual celebratory occasions in my life have been fraught with emotional land mines in the last year, which is also part of why I was determined to give myself a full calendar year to see what these days could look like without his presence. My brother’s birthday was in July, followed by two consecutive Super Bowl Sundays of Sadness; my dad’s birthday on the 31st of August and Father’s Day on the 7th of September. Christmas was scary for me, too. I had trouble adjusting to the idea of saying my “family” was coming to visit when my family looked so strikingly different from how it had the year before. The alternative to stuttering “My f-f-family is coming to visit” was to say “My mum and my brother and his fiancee are coming to visit,” which made me want to immediately shout, “BUT I DID HAVE A DAD! AND HE WAS A GREAT ONE! HE JUST CAN’T MAKE IT TO CHRISTMAS THIS YEAR BECAUSE HE’S BUSY BEING DEAD!” Which, as you can imagine, makes for poor festive chit-chat around a table of acquaintances.
This made me question what underlying prejudices I carried about what a “broken” family looks like. After all, aren’t all families, as accumulations of broken people, in some way inherently broken? Doesn’t that brokenness make our humanity more beautifully human? I have only recently begun to feel more okay about calling my family, my “family,” but I will keep calling them that until it sits right in a new way again. For me it is validating and liberating, and because they have all seen me naked and losing my shit over the years, and because I love them.
I took time to think about and prepare for each of these days before they arrived, which, for me, was a wise move. It allowed time for scheduled crying (now a hobby of mine), and extra sleeping, so that when they arrived I could enjoy my housemate cooking pancakes on my dad’s birthday, followed by dinner with friends. And on Father’s Day I was able to feel both sad for my loss and happy for my friends’ relationships with their dads, too.
I was so lucky to have passing conversations with other people who had lost parents who let me know that, yes, dead people could still have birthdays, and that, yes, it would be a good idea to do something nice to commemorate his life. I can’t encourage you enough to allow yourself space to go gently with these occasions. I found time and time again that although the occasions themselves were hard, I was lucky enough to have supportive people around me, and that the looming, dreading fear of the day was the hardest part.
I don’t really believe in heaven in a “pearly gates/place you go when you die” sense, and sometimes I wonder if this heaven is a fabrication for people who aren’t pausing to appreciate this life enough as it is. I understand, though, that it’s partly because of my privileges that I can say this. I have functioning body parts, five senses, a tertiary education, speak English, am white, and have gainful employment. Had I not won the genetic, socio-economic, born-in-a-peaceful-country-to-a-loving-family lottery, I might be imagining the most beautiful heaven for myself. Instead of believing in heaven as a place we are moving towards, I believe heaven is something we can invite into this life by choosing how to live and love one another. It’s why “heavenly” is one of my favorite adjectives. This being said, I certainly believe in the afterlife — it’s the life each of us enters after the life of someone we love has ended. One of the most jarring things about grief is that, in the midst of death, we become acutely aware of life happening all around us. Perhaps our new eyes see this contrast and illuminate it even more than what we might have been waltzing through all these years without noticing.
It is said that people who are “missing” one sense have increased sensitivity in the other four. Perhaps, when juxtaposed with our heightened sense of death, our sense of life becomes stronger too. In a recent essay, musician and party enthusiast Andrew W.K. muses that death holds a mirror up to life, while Plato himself ponders that death, which we fear to be the greatest evil may, in fact, be “the greatest good.” In my walk with grief thus far, I have found that with time, gentleness, and openness, both statements have proved to be true. I hope that I can continue to look into that mirror of death, beholding my experience of life for what it is: something breathtakingly beautiful. This opening of my thoughts about life and death has made me want to turn directly to my dad to thank him. I can’t thank him for it physically anymore, so on my best days, I try point out beautiful things to others, and to thank them for being beautiful, too.
I always find myself returning to John Donne’s sentiment that “each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind.” Until recently I have wholeheartedly agreed with this, blindly professing to feel a sense of reduction in my own life experience on account of another loss of human life. This is very noble of me (and probably a little lofty if I’m completely honest), but in recent weeks, I have found myself disagreeing with old J.D. In spite of the gaping loss of my dad, and though grief has certainly changed me (and, I hope, continues to change me in healthy and sustainable ways), the part of my life that does feel diminished is outweighed by my enriched experience of life.
So, What’s It Like Now?
The process of grieving is never finished, nor is it something we achieve. We can recover from it and, if we want to, with the help of others, we can move towards new life. It will always be shit that my dad is dead, and that’s completely okay. At this time in my life I struggle with wanting to know my family as closely as possible, while still experiencing the grace that it is to not have to work too hard at relationships with people who, quite miraculously, choose to love and forgive me no matter what. I struggle with understanding that everyone I love is going to die someday, and that I have no idea when that day might come, and I wrestle with trying not to allow that to propel me too far in the direction of either disengagement or overbearing engagement with those I love.
I spend time thinking about how best to embrace the liberty of defining my own happiness. I think about how proud of myself I will feel at the end of the day, knowing I had two parents who never wanted me to be anything but myself, and that I lived my life to the fullness of its daily expression — whether through riding a camel on an adventure through the center of the desert, or simply gathering the energy to drag myself out of bed.
I cope with knowing this is the longest I’ve gone without talking to my dad, and knowing I have a long way to go without him yet. I cope with dishes and laundry and trying to get to work on time, attempting to buy appropriately ripe avocados, and being a good friend, sister, daughter, employee, and a million other things. I have no idea what you are trying to cope with, so I am beginning to learn to not be so quick to judge the actions of others.
I am re-learning to believe that good surprises can and do happen, and that they have happened in my life, even after a handful of major bad surprises in the last few years. I am learning how to talk freely with others about my dad’s life, without letting its ending eclipse the bigger narrative of who he was, and who he will forever be. I cope with being extremely sad about wondering who will send me National Geographic magazines, stickers, and handwritten letters for my birthday, and I balance that by understanding how lucky I am to have had a relationship with my dad that allowed me to be the recipient of these gifts in the first place.
Two weeks and three days before my dad died, a woman who works near me mentioned how much her life had changed since her own father had passed away. She said she felt so unprepared, and then she told me how much practicing mindfulness and meditation through yoga had helped her to find a place in who she was for the loss of her dad.
I didn’t tell her my dad had died just a fortnight after this timely, out of the blue conversation. It just never really came up, but when I did, she grabbed me by the shoulders, looked me squarely in the eyes, and told me I should write about it when I felt like I could. She said it was screwed up because no one talks about this thing that happens to everyone. Then she said the most wonderful words to me:
“Grief is an incredibly difficult process, which takes time, because it is learning to get to know someone who has always existed as an external, physical being as a purely internal being.”
When the human form passes away we are left with the imprint of the person inside of us. Allowing space to look inside of ourselves is an incredibly difficult task at the best of times, let alone when our insides are wracked with hurt. It’s a process that takes roughly a lifetime, I suppose, but one that I am committed to engaging with so that the memory of the people I love, and lose, can live on.
In Melbourne now, the last of autumn’s golden leaves on the trees that line my street are falling. In Japan, the last of spring’s sakura petals will be scattered along the ground. Eventually these fragile ephemera will be crushed into the mud, becoming an invisible part of the fertilizer that helps the visible tree to find strength, grow, and bloom again. They are birthed from a cycle of life, and when they die they continue in that cycle. Nothing stays put; everything repeats.
In the 365 days that the Earth has moved around the sun, and in the 365 times the moon has risen over my sky here in Australia, I have learned, just as Memoirs of a Geisha‘s Chiyo does, to appreciate the good in life. To savor it, to relish it when it comes my way, and to remember it when it seems so far from where I find myself. I have learned that although loss cannot truly be read, it can be shared, and that in this process of sharing, new life, new laughter, and new love can grow.
I am thankful for my dad. I am thankful for his life and for his death, which has caused me to love this life more than I knew I could. I hope that someday, with grace, gentleness, and kindness towards yourself, this may be your experience too.