Friday, December 7, 2012

The Tears That Followed

When I was growing up, my parents used to tell me that even if you have to have a good reason to cry, at some point you need to stop crying and move on - or you risk running out of tears.  I'm not sure if I totally believed them or not, but regardless I have never been much of a crier, until my dad got sick.  Since the time of his diagnosis and even more so since he went on ahead, I have officially become a crier.  And today, I'm here to say that evidently what my parents told me decades ago about running out of tears isn't really true - the tears do not ever dry up.  

On the night my dad went on ahead, when they took his body away, there was a sense of utter bizarreness, almost of an unearthly quality.  It felt like everything was happening in the midst of a fog.  Afterwards, somehow - probably from sheer exhaustion, both physical and emotional - my mom, my sisters, and I all slept for a few hours that night before we had to get up and start planning for the funeral.  Once we had made it through that, we knew we had to make ourselves eat, even though none of us felt like eating, and so we stopped by a pizza place on the way home from the funeral home.  "This is so surreal," I kept thinking, and it really was.  My brother arrived from out of state not long after we got back to my parents' house after lunch, and, after awhile, we resolved to do something instead of sitting around the house crying or in a daze.  

Someone suggested we go to get our nails done at the nail place near where my parents lived, the same place where my mom usually went and where we had taken my dad just after he'd gotten out of rehab, on the day before we'd left to take him to Duke.  

"Was it only six weeks ago that we were here with Dad?" I thought, with tears in my eyes, as we walked into the nail place.  When the woman who worked there and who knew my parents looked up and saw us, she asked, "Where's your dad?"  I couldn't bring myself to say the words "he died," and so I just stood there until my sister Jennifer said, "He didn't make it."  The woman and the other staff members there were very nice; I was grateful that they just expressed their condolences and then moved on to other more casual topics instead of asking for details.

I don't remember much from over the course of the next few days, just bits and pieces and feeling lots of sadness and confusion.  I was grateful that my family was there together and that many of our extended family members and friends had come to the memorial service, but the shroud of despair was so pervasive that it was impossible not to retreat into bouts of stunned silence and driving tears, both at regular intervals.  

It was really tough to leave my parents' house that Sunday; I wasn't sure how I was going to get through walking back into my house, when the last time I was there things were so very different.  I was operating on auto-pilot, I'm sure.  I remember one of my friends from work texting me that Sunday night to express her condolences and to suggest that I take some time off work; no, I told her, it's better if I keep busy.  I couldn't stand the thought of sitting in a quiet house with nothing but my thoughts and my tears.  

Looking back now, I think it's odd that I didn't think I should take any time off from work.  The ten weeks preceeding my dad's death while he was sick and certainly his death itself were the most traumatic experience of my life, and I was exhausted, hurt, and in shock.  So much so that I thought going right back to work was a rational decision.  But, as it turned out, I ended up with two extra days off, and I didn't have to spend them alone, because it snowed enough to warrant two snow days off from school that Monday and Tuesday.  I felt like Dad had sent me a gift, so that I didn't have to go back to work right away and so that I was able to grieve in the comfort of my own home with my kids there with me.  

I have this photo saved on my
computer under "Snow From Dad."

After that, though, I tried to hit the ground running.  I guess I somehow thought it would be back to business as usual, even though nothing felt "normal" at all to me.  In reality, though, I was in a daze much of the time.  The emotional pain, and the physical pain that came along with it, were almost more than I could bear.  The physical effects - the body aches, the back pain, the crazy appetite, the insomnia - were a complete shock to me; I had never heard that those things are part of the grief process, and they all compounded the difficulty of trying to cope with the sadness and the other emotions. 
A far as I can remember, I functioned well enough at work, but it was at a much slower than usual capacity.  Some days it was all I could do to get dressed and drive to work, often while crying, to fake being ok for the duration of the work day, and then to make it back home.  It was as if I was just going through the motions from the time I got out of bed in the morning until the time when I could get back in it in the evening.  At home, for the first time in my life, I let others take care of things like dinner and laundry and paying bills.  I often couldn't sleep at night; I spent a lot of time wishing with all my might that my dad would at least come back to me in a dream, and I was unbelievably tired.  Tired from not sleeping, tired from the grief, tired from crying, and tired from trying to keep it together.  It was beyond my capability to make plans or even very many decisions; I felt like I couldn't think straight or keep track of things, and in some cases I just couldn't make myself care about a lot of things that were going on around me.

If I had to choose one word to describe myself during those first weeks or maybe even months after Dad went on ahead, it would be "depleted." As I had done while my dad was sick, I read about brain cancer; sometimes it made me feel better, but mostly it just made me angry and sad and so I started to read about grief instead.  Eventually, I found my way to a grief counselor, and my sessions with her helped a little in that she told me each time I saw her that what I was feeling was "normal" and in that attending those sessions eventually led me to writing.  Sometimes I still wasn't so sure, though, that I was doing anything right or that I was going to make it through any of the pain, but I just kept plugging away, getting through the days and the nights, one at a time, because that's all I knew to do.

Dr. Albert Schweitzer said that he found there was “a fellowship of those who bear the mark of pain,” and that “sensitivity to human suffering does not stand alone and rootless.” We have all stood over different graves and have had different beliefs as to the fate of our loved ones, but our tears remain a universal constant and need no translation.

Sorrow makes us all children again – destroys all differences of intellect. The wisest know nothing.”
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

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