Bound for Grief: A Fatherless Odyssey
“Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom.” Rumi
I’d like to share with you a story from the Grief Refuge app. This is a story from my own personal experience. At the time of this writing, Father’s Day is only a few days away. I feel called to share my own personal story of how grief has shaped my life, from a young age to the man I am now. Please enjoy.
“You finally did it, you son of a bitch.” Those were the first words that came out of my mouth when I heard the news that my father had died.
I had been prepping for that moment for a long time. My father was sick. He didn’t have cancer or heart problems. He was an alcoholic and he had PTSD. What made it harder for me was that he knew he was sick. Yet, it seemed like his efforts to get better were wimpy. He lived less than 2 miles from the VA hospital and spent a lot of time there. Ironically, he was so close to getting help but he never really embraced what was available to him. Eventually, his suffering got the best of him and took his life.
My youth was filled with confusion and self-blame for his issues. As a child, he often ‘disappeared’ on my birthdays. I grew up believing I was insignificant and wasn’t good enough to be celebrated. I grew up believing his suffering had to do with me.
Fast forward into my teens and young adulthood; I found ways to better relate to my dad. We went out for dinner every few weeks or so. My dad wasn’t easy to be around. He was a negative, defensive, and private person. At our dinners together, he vented and I listened. There were 3 things he was the most comfortable talking about: the VA hospital and the lack of help it provided, the Minnesota Vikings and how they choked when it counted the most, and how his old high school buddy, Jesse Ventura, betrayed their friendship and his trust. My dad was the best complainer I ever met.
There was one thing that my dad didn’t complain about though. It was how proud of me he was. That was one of the few positive things that ever came out of his mouth. It meant the world to me when he would tell me that.
He would also tell me that I could do anything I put my mind to. To this day, 14 years after his death, I still have a hard time believing he would tell me that. I found it ironic coming from him. He was someone who set his mind to his suffering. Here he was, saying I could do anything I put my mind to. Why didn’t he ever put his mind to his healing or some form of positive outlook on life?
Throughout his remaining years alive, I witnessed many more of his alcoholic binges. I used to drive by his place during the middle of the day to find all the blinds closed, his car in the garage, the doors locked, and no sign of life in his house.
In the back of my mind, I always wondered how long he could put himself through such misery. I figured he was destined to live a short life.
Then on April 30th, 2006, I got the dreaded but not surprising voicemail from my brother.
“Reid, there’s been a death in the family. Dad has died.”
When I got the voicemail, I was over 2000 miles away. I was on the West coast and in graduate school. The night before receiving the dreaded message, I had the most amazing date with my future wife. For me, life was going great. I was living my bliss: studying Holistic psychology and taking great care of myself.
But then just like that. My dad no longer existed.
I remember the feeling quite well when I got the news. It hit me like a tidal wave. I felt a lot of shock and sadness at first. I was also confused. What was I supposed to do next?
I was 28 years old and I no longer had a father.
I debated whether to go to class that day. I chose to go, mostly because I didn’t know what to do with myself if I were to stay home. I told my classmates about the news and they asked permission to perform a ceremony. I said yes, but in hindsight, wished I would have declined.
The brief ceremony was a foreshadowing for how I would initially respond to his death. A few days later, I went back to Minneapolis and put on a smile. I told people I was happy that his suffering had ended.
At the time, the way I was behaving was authentic. I truly believed his suffering was over, and for me, that invoked a feeling of relief. Initially, I felt joy and liberation in response to his death.
Within 6 months of his passing, all of his possessions were either handed down, sold, or donated. His estate was finalized. My dad had become more of a memory than anything else.
Since that time in 2006, my grief journey has also been an odyssey. I’ve made what seems like impossible efforts to get to know my dad more. I have read his journals several times. I have viewed his artwork. I have reached out to people he knew and asked them to share their memories.
I’ve also made efforts to keep our relationship going; to somehow feel closer to him although he’s no longer here. One way I do this is, at the time he died, I asked him to somehow embody a crow from time to time, to check-in and say hello. I know this sounds esoteric or weird but after 14 years of his passing, I still find myself saying “Hi, Dad” when I hear a crow caw. I then just watch the crow. I try to acknowledge what my energy is like when I’m in the moment. Is there something there for me to hear? Am I to be reminded of something?
I remember many anniversary dates of his death. The first couple years, I kept in touch with his significant other, Deb. We shared dozens of email messages. She would share how much she missed him and how kind he was to her. I would miss him in my own way: wondering how he could be emotionally available to his significant other but unavailable to pretty much everyone else.
For the first few years after his death, I was pretty angry with him. I still wanted him to be different. It was impossible but I think I had the desire because I wanted to feel differently. I felt a little guilty for hanging on to the anger.
I didn’t express the anger in ways that most would recommend. Rather than writing or sharing it with a counselor, I hiked. And I walked on the beach. In environments as such, anger didn’t feel as strong or intense. So it was able to be felt and then let go of with more ease.
Five years after my dad died, I began to feel a change in my relationship to him. I began to forgive him. I forgave him for not being there for me when I wanted to feel special. I forgave him for quitting on his own life. I forgave him for not being available as a father to me.
When I began to forgive, I noticed a change in our relationship. I began to feel compassion for him. I began to see more of his efforts in trying to be a father in his own unique way. I saw more of how he tried. I realized many of the things he did to show his love, I had taken those things for granted. For example, he found a way for me to get VA benefits to help pay for my college education. I remember thanking him for setting that up but I didn’t acknowledge it as a way he showed his care and love for me.
Several years have now passed since his death and I continue to discover new things about our relationship now, and before he died. This past April would have been his 70th birthday. He died when he was 56. The thought of hitting that 70 year milestone really hit me emotionally. So much has happened in those 14 years. I felt sad that he had missed so much of my growing up and becoming a man.
I found myself repeating over and over again in my head how proud of me he was. I still need to hear that.
I also found myself imagining what his life would be like in his senior years. Would he have become more positive? Would he have found even more to complain about? What would he think of my wife? She’s my everything in life and what kind of relationship would they have had?
I won’t ever know the answer to those questions and I have to be okay with that. Actually, I am okay with that. I just find myself continuing to be surprised by what kind of a father he was as I age and gain more life experience.
Although I feel more compassion and forgiveness in our relationship now, there are still hard times. Some of my hardest moments are the times I reflect back on our relationship and wish I would have known more of who he was. The soldier who blamed the Vietnam war for his personal problems were so real in his experience. Was that really who he was? To this day, I still ponder that question.
I also have moments of guilt and find myself regretting the times I took for granted. When he told me some of his war stories, I wasn’t aware of the amount of trust he had put into me. I don’t blame myself because I was much younger and unaware at the time. But I do wish I was able to be a bit more positively focused in his presence. That’s a lesson I’ve taken from our relationship and apply to other relationships in life: personally and professionally.
When the grief waves hit and the longing for more in our relationship comes up, I rely on time alone in nature. I venture on a hiking trail and think about my dad. I take in the scenery around me and look for metaphors that represent our relationship. For example, two different trees rooted right next to each other is great symbolism for my dad and I. Both trees have unique features but are rooted in the same system. That’s how I perceive him and I.
14 years after his death, I no longer judge my grief. Instead, I hold space for it. In addition to hiking and being in nature, I write and reflect more. Sometimes I write directly to my dad. Sometimes I write about a memory my mind is focused on.
Writing helps to reflect and let go of the emotions that weigh me down. It helps me feel better in the moment. Writing has become one of my greatest tools to help navigate the grief journey.
It’s a wonder how grief can stay with you for so long. Even though I truly feel reconciled with my father’s passing, I can still feel the sorrow hit me in the chest sometimes.
Many say that grief will stay with you forever. The claim is that grief reminds you of how much love you had for the person you lost. I tend to resonate with that belief, but also think that the feeling state transforms. The intensity lessens if you allow the feelings to run their course.
If you’ve ever been told grief will change your life, I hope that my story helps you better understand how. Although it’s been hard at times since my dad’s passing, there are also moments of deeper understanding for his behavior, more awareness of his love for me, and life wisdom gained from my fatherless odyssey.
Grief is a great teacher. There’s a lot one can learn from it. As my fatherless odyssey ventures on, I do my best to honor everything that comes up when I get hit by those grief waves that seem to come out of nowhere.
What I know now is that the range of feelings have the ability to keep you on your heels. You may find it more comfortable to distract yourself, numb out the pain, or freeze up in grief. However, doing that is not sustainable in the long term. You’ll eventually have to show up to your grief, give it space, learn from it, and feel through the emotions.
It’s sometimes a painful journey but there are blessings. You will find a deeper connection to your Soul, a heightened sense of compassion for others, and a wisdom to life that is uncanny. Grief teaches you how to grow; it deepens the connection to your heart and allows for more Self-love.