This Saturday is my dad’s birthday (May 30th). He’d be 65 years old if he were still here. He died suddenly, unexpectedly when I was only 3 years old. I’ve often felt I didn’t have a right to grieve the loss of my father, Owen. When I shared parts of my story or someone would ask a question, I’d quickly follow it up with, “I was so little when he died. I don’t remember him. It’s ok.”
Grief often felt self indulgent to me.
I had a beautiful childhood. One of privilege. It wasn’t perfect, as nothing ever is, but, I was loved, safe and cherished. I have a mother who is my best friend and an aunt who is my second mother. My (step) dad loved me, and still loves me, even when I relentlessly try to push him away and keep him at a distance. Amidst all of this, grief was illusive to me. Something I was chasing. And, I didn’t know what I was looking for.
My dad died on the side of the road. On December 23rd no less. We were on our way to Florida (from Indiana) for Christmas. My mom, brother, maternal grandparents and I were all in our station wagon. My dad was driving. As the story goes, my, at the time, 32-year-old, uber healthy dad started to feel funny. Tight in the chest. Shortness of breath. Dizzy maybe. He said out loud something along the lines of, “I’m not feeling so well.” He pulled the car over and passed out. My mom and grandfather quickly pulled him out of the car. It was evident he hadn’t simply passed out. We were losing him. My mom, a practicing nurse at the time, started CPR. My grandfather helped. It wasn’t enough. He died right there. On the side of the highway. My brother and I were in the car.
My mom blames herself. She thinks if she had performed CPR better he’d still be here. Somewhere deep inside, she knows that’s not the case. She and my grandfather did everything they could to save him. An autopsy later revealed he had a heart defect. He had recently had the flu/pneumonia, and likely the infection combined with his heart, caused his death. No one could have saved him. At some point his heart would have been compromised by something.
I don’t (cognitively) remember any of it. Nothing. I’ve heard stories. Those have shaped some “memories.” Though I don’t “remember,” something changed on that day. I was forever different. I suffered a loss so profound grief became etched in my DNA. On a physical, primal level, I wasn’t the same. Three year olds may not hold memories in the traditional sense, but based on what I now know, they remember. Their bodies remember. Their hearts and souls do too.
It’s no wonder I now work in field cloaked in grief.
Gosh, I’m not sure where I could find more grief if I tried. Working in adoption, you’re confronted with the triad of grief. The infertility grief an adoptive family brings to table. The grief a birth mother experiences when she places her child in the arms of another. And equally as important, the grief an adoptee feels. Her life began with loss. Trauma. She was born into one family. Raised in another. There’s possibly no loss quite like it.
We can’t intimately know another’s grief.
I’ll never know the hurt of a couple trying to start their family, only to be faced with disappointment, loss and heartbreak time and time again. I can’t begin to imagine what a birth mother feels when she finds herself in a time and place unable to parent her child and thus she walks out of the hospital empty handed. And, I don’t know the pain of an adoptee who feels there is hole in her heart. Something missing. Curious about where she came from. Desperate for answers. Wanting to understand.
But, I do know grief. In the depths of my soul, I know it. I haven’t always been able to find it. But, it’s there. I once attended a continuing education class (for my social work license) on grief and children. Basically, how to help children grieve. We were practicing exercises to use with kids. As one activity, we were given paper and crayons. Told to draw grief. It was left at that. I grabbed the yellow and black crayons and started creating. I wasn’t thinking. Just drawing. This is what ended up on my paper.
A few minutes later, we were asked to share our picture with the group. Describe it. I wasn’t exactly sure what I had drawn but I started talking. “I think this is my grief. This hidden treasure. And, it’s buried. If I can dig deep enough to get to it, uncover and unearth it, I’ll have found the gold, the gift. If I can hold it and get to know it, I can begin to heal.”
My entire life I’ve been trying to uncover my grief.
Trying to let it breath. I now have the sacred honor and privilege of helping others in the adoption triad do the same. I get to be a guide and support. I wish I knew how to better help them. How to make their pain go away. I don’t. I don’t have any of the answers. I’m just now starting to learn how to help myself. But, I’m not afraid of walking with them. Of guiding them to their grief, their buried treasure, and sitting next to them in their pain. Because grief was written in the depths of me the day my father died. It’s a part of who I am. One of my favorite authors, Glennon Doyle Melton, writes, “Grief, like joy, is holy. Grief is love’s souvenir. It’s our proof that we once loved.” Maybe we shouldn’t be so afraid of it at all.
The night before my father died, we were staying in a hotel. My brother was in a bed with my mom, and I was sleeping next to my dad. He turned to my mom as I lay next to him asleep and said, “have you ever seen anything more beautiful in your life?”
There are no videos of my dad. I’ve never heard his voice. I have only a few pictures. There were no letters left for me (from him). But, he left me with a gift. He left me with this grief. My hidden treasure. I’m able to walk with others as they hunt for their treasure too. It’s the humbling work of my life. It’s freakin’ hard most days. But, I was made for this. And, he’s with me. Every step of the way.
Happy 65th birth to my father, Owen, who left me with his love and this grief, too. I will forever work to find it, and in turn I know I’ll be making my way back to you.