Losing a parent feels insurmountable at any age. Our series helps you face it ― from the practical logistics to the existential questions about death and dying today.
Recently, I was driving in the car with my mother when a text message came in from my cousin. A friend of his had dug up his old high school band’s message board, and he had come across a comment I had left on it when I was 11.
“The message board is filled with the most ludicrous nonsense imaginable,” he wrote. “You were 11 and made the most mature post on the entire thing.” He followed up with a screenshot of the comment which ― if I do say so myself ― was exceptionally mature-sounding ― aside from the spelling and punctuation.
“Just wanted to say that u guys are like so cool,” it begins. “I love you to death see u soon.” It’s signed “LOOOOve Jamie, the best cousin u could have.”
I didn’t think twice when my mom, as moms do, asked what was so funny on my screen. I read her the comment, followed by the date it was posted.
April 23, 2000. It hung in the air long enough for me to know we were both doing the math, communicating without communicating. Wanting to say more but, at least on my end, not being able to find the words.
It’s true that on April 23, 2000, I was an 11-year-old with a sassy attitude and a habit of using “u” and “you” interchangeably. It’s also true that on April 23, 2000, just five days had passed since I came home from school to find my father on the couch, dead of a drug overdose.
If right about now you’re thinking something along the lines of “fuck,” or, “I’m sorry that happened to you,” I thank you for that. Thanks to my therapist, I’m no longer quick to say “it’s OK,” “it’s fine” or my personal favorite “it was a long time ago.”
Because sure, nearly 20 years is a long time, but when you never really grieved a death or allowed yourself to feel anything meaningful about the circumstances surrounding it, time doesn’t matter. Even re-reading the words above, I struggle to find my attachment to them. I know it happened, I’m just not sure it happened to me.
Therapy ― or rather, finally finding the right therapist ― has helped with that part. All the things I’ve dealt with over the years and did not connect to his death ― anxiety I did not recognize as such, not trusting any man while simultaneously seeking out dangerous and ill-intentioned men unworthy of my time or energy, dismissing any subconscious desires to find a partner and labeling that as independence ― I’ve starting threading those things together. And in doing so, I’m grieving him for what feels like the first time.
I cried at his funeral, I slept in my mother’s bed for at least a year after it happened, clutching on to her so tightly she on more than one occasion had to request I loosen my grip. I panic if she doesn’t answer the phone ― or if anyone I love doesn’t answer the phone, really ― and so yes, in some ways, grief has manifested itself in me. But my memories are blurred; the timeline is out of order. I’m not comfortable saying the word “dad,” even less so saying the words “my dad,” and am the least comfortable saying any of the above to my mom, the only other person who directly lived through and understands the shared experience, the only person who can help fill in the blanks.
Dr. Dan Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), offered some insight into why that might be, for me and anyone else who has suffered a loss early on.
“We don’t teach being open about grief and sadness and loss very well,” he said. “We don’t train people on how to have these conversations for ourselves. When we see it in young kids, our reaction is to try to help them calm down, to soothe them. We often end up engaging them in avoiding the grief rather than processing it.”
That instinct to distract or shield a child from feeling the very real pain they’re going through can turn grief into not only something Reidenberg says we see as wrong but something that is inappropriate and even unhealthy.
Looking back, I have felt that way for years. When I entered therapy this time around, 1.5 years ago, I assumed my dad would come up. After all, it had with therapists I saw when he was still alive, a year after he died, in college and again in my early 20s. But I was shocked to find myself fully wrapping my head around what had happened for the first time.
“We know a lot of things that happen to young children and adolescents really don’t surface until adulthood,” Reidenberg said, confirming my suspicions. “For example, a child who has experienced some kind of loss or trauma will deal with it, but it won’t really become prominent until their own child is the age they were when it happens.”
I’m not anywhere close to having an 11-year-old, but I have sat on countless couches trying to connect with the therapist across from me, making excuses as to why I should stop seeing each one. In middle school, one woman’s ears were “too big.” More recently, another tried to tell me I had to go out with someone at least 15 times before deciding if they were right for me (actually, I felt pretty justified in leaving that time).
What I realize now is that no one ever talked to me about anything related to my father’s death ― perhaps because they were too scared, perhaps because they didn’t know what to say. And as a result, I never talked about it, which meant that slowly I stopped ever thinking about it.
There is no one to blame when it comes to handling a child’s grief. I can’t fault my mom for not wanting to rehash something so painful with an 11-year-old (albeit, as displayed above, a very mature one). But when I think back at my life, the decisions I have made thus far, the journey I have taken, I can’t help but feel regret that it took me this long to start feeling.
It’s my hope that in talking about it, not only can I continue in my grieving process, but help take away some of the shame or trepidation someone else with a similar experience might be having. Reidenberg acknowledged it can be troubling and isolating for someone to start grieving a loss years later, and it even has physical side effects. But it’s important to do so ― and there are a couple of ways to do it.
“Definitely talk to someone, find someone you can trust, whether it’s a family member, friend or professional,” he said. “You can also go to grief support groups, they tend to be very open and it doesn’t matter at all how long it was you lost someone.”
I’m not through grieving the loss of my father, and perhaps I never will be. But it wasn’t too late for me to start ― and it isn’t for anyone else, either.