Right after my dad died I thought there would be a time where I would need to make a choice. I imagined that I would wake up one day and decide not to be sad anymore. As we approached the first anniversary of my dad’s death, I thought that time would be right around Day 366. Despite my best judgment, what I’ve heard from others, and what I’ve read about grief, I thought I’d come back to My Hat Trick a brand-new, grief free woman.
Well, I was right. Sort-of. Day 367 and I felt lonelier and emptier than I had since the day my dad died (actually, the day after my dad died because I spent most of the day he died blissfully unaware of what that night had in store for me). I had spent the entire year looking ahead to the One Year Mark as a time when things would change and I would be all better. Things did change, but not how I anticipated. I think I spent most of the past year trying to comprehend the shock of my dad’s death because it was completely unexpected and I was, to be perfectly honest, traumatized by what I experienced the night of his death. Once that shock wore off, I still couldn’t believe he was gone. Now, I know that he is gone. I know because I’ve just gone through a year of birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays without him anywhere in sight. And he was never one to miss a good meal. On day 367 it was obvious that there would be no more Dad hanging around, looking for leftovers or making a pot of coffee. And on day 367 it dawned on me that for the foreseeable future, I would need to figure out what it truly means to live my life without my dad. Something I only speculated about in the past. I thought the choice I would be making would involve happiness over sadness, or something like that. This may come as a shock to you, but I can’t control my feelings. Sometimes I feel sad, plain and simple, and other than recognizing my sadness there isn’t much I can do to make it stop. I can choose what to do with that sadness though, so that is my choice.
As I typed away last week, I thought I’d never again focus so much of my writing on my grief. I now think I would be remiss not to share a little bit about the Memorial Service my family and I had for my dad last weekend. Looking back, even to just last week, I can see that all the energy I put into that service was just the beginning of my decision-making process. What could I do with my sadness? Honor the man who made it possible and celebrate those he left behind.
In January my sister, my mom, and I took a trip together to Sedona, Arizona. We were mostly going to celebrate my mom’s 60th birthday, but while we were there we had the opportunity to perform a “Letting Go” ritual with a minister named Yana. We hiked through the red rocks of Sedona to a place where a stream flowed. We prayed, we meditated, we reflected on my dad and our memories, and we scattered some of his ashes. Just thinking about it, my heart skips a beat. It was the most extraordinary spiritual experience I have ever had (okay, to be fair, giving birth to three little beauties ranks pretty high on the extraordinary spiritual experience scale). More than anything though, our letting go ritual helped us to heal mending hearts.
Before we headed back to Michigan, we discussed the possibility of sharing something similar with our children and the rest of our families. As the day approached, we began to make plans, thinking about what we wanted to be sure to include. I even became an ordained minister so that the ceremony would be legit (I’m not kidding!). I took excerpts from a few different books on blessings and rituals, including a book specifically about Living and Dying; I added my own words here and there, and came up with a ceremony where everyone was involved in honoring my dad and, I hoped, in celebrating each other and the lives we have left together. I didn’t realize it when I was in the midst of it all last week, but all of the planning and crafting was very therapeutic for me. I was set with our service, our guests, dinner plans, and even programs. I wanted it to be a celebration. I wanted to honor my dad, as I said, but it was a lot like a birthday for the rest of us. We had made it through our first year, the hardest year according to everyone, and that was something to honor as well. I envisioned a beautiful, sunny, albeit cold, day on the beach at our family cottage in Northern Michigan.
Friday was gorgeous and Sunday was gorgeous. In between sat Saturday, the day of the ceremony, and the snowiest, coldest, most blustery day of the year (of the year might be a slight exaggeration). I kept asking if people wanted to stay inside, but nobody did. We all bundled up and headed outside. The beach was really way too windy, so we set up in sweet little spot under a tree. It was not what I had pictured, but in retrospect, the flying snow was a perfect touch. I couldn’t have planned it better myself. We read our parts and shared memories of my dad. We made an offering of rocks to the land and a cup of coffee in honor of my dad (he was coffeaholic). My mom and my sister and I walked down to the beach, to a large rock that we’ve all come to know as my dad’s rock, and scattered some ashes. This part was really special for me. We had my dad cremated so he doesn’t have a grave site to visit and I have often felt like it would be nice to visit him somewhere specific every once in a while. We laid him to rest in a place where I can visit often. After that, we joined the others who had already gone inside. By the fire, we toasted my dad and each other with champagne and homemade macaroons (his favorite cookie). It was a beautiful service.
I know there are a lot of ways that people honor and remember lost loved ones. I read a story about a family whose mother passed away right before her 70th birthday. They decided to have a “birthday” party for her and invited all her friends to share in a night of remembering and celebrating the woman they lost. I know there are all kinds of memorial services based in religion and in culture that provide a similar sense of honoring the lives of those we loved and lost. As individuals and in small groups, we do many beautiful things in remembrance. As a whole, though, I don’t see a lot of place for grief in our society. It seems like we are more apt to suggest that the grieving “move on” or “get over it.” I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. It’s hard to sit idly by as people we care about suffer. We feel helpless. Of course we want them to move on.
In the year since my dad died, two of my very dear friends also lost parents. Even after losing my own dad and knowing everything I knew, I felt helpless. I hoped these two women could find the strength to keep going. I hated to see them so sad. Sometimes the wisest, most profound action I could take was just to sit there. So, I think I wanted to share this story about the memorial service because I am forever grateful to the people who have just sat there with me this year. And, I am so grateful for the opportunity I had to share last weekend with people I love and who love me. I want everyone to know, that in the absence of abiding by religious or cultural traditions, we can create our very own ceremonies that honor those we’ve lost and that celebrate each other and what is to come. I really didn’t even need to become ordained, but the fact that I did makes me smile so I had to share that with you too. Finally, I just had to write one more losing-my-dad-related-blog-post because it feels so great to be making a choice that is rooted in celebrating the present and moving forward. I’m still sad and I miss my dad now more than ever, but I finally have the strength (at least for now) to choose to do something delightful with my sadness.