The most vivid memory I have of my dad’s cancer treatment is a silent one.
In it, we are alone in a dark, curtained room just off the emergency ward. I no longer remember why ― some complication related to his colon cancer, which seemed to mutate as quickly as we could consult doctors. It was cancer in one place, then two. It was stage 1, stage 4, seesawing back and forth depending on whom we asked. He’d be fine after chemo, radiation, an eight-hour surgery. He was fine, indefinitely — then, abruptly, he had weeks to months left. Then a week. Days.
It is late at night in the hospital room, and my dad is unconscious. There’s something intimate and uncomfortable about watching him sleep in the thin hospital gown, all emotion scrubbed from his face. I’m 22, and I have been utterly calm since the diagnosis came less than a year ago. I’ve had to be.
Watching his chest rise and fall, I slow my own breathing, matching it to his. We commune like this, still amid the buzzing hospital, lungs and heartbeats pulsing to the same slow rhythm. I know his breaths are numbered. I know we may never share silence like this again.
My dad died on July 12, 2017, a year after his diagnosis. That day, it rained ― a series of small and scattered thunderstorms.
He died at home, on the same couch on which we’d watched hockey and HGTV and shared nachos with exactly one topping (cheese). Summer air drifted inside through the screen door to the backyard, which we’d left open at his request, “so I’ll have somewhere to go.”
He opted for medically assisted death — and in a different context, there’s plenty I could say about how important that was for him and for all of us. For now, for here, this will have to do: He was able to leave us while he still felt, however marginally, like himself, and that was a blessing.
In the hours before the doctor pulled into our driveway, my thoughts buzzed into static, all that withheld panic flaring to sudden, hyperfixated life. I wanted to find something poetic or important to say, something worthy of my final chance to talk to my dad. Nothing came. I was sure that, in the coming years, there would be plenty I’d want to say to him: I’d want to tell him when my boyfriend proposed, for example, or ask his advice on friendships, writing projects, promotions. Here and now, those conversations were unreachable, locked in the future we were being robbed of.
Yet what I remember most about the days, weeks, years afterward was a constant need to talk not to him, but about him. This was coupled with a crushing inability to find the right words, the right opening, the confidence. Words exploded out of me in the wrong order, at the wrong time, and left me feeling hot with shame or empty and isolated.
“My dad would know the answer to this,” I blurted in an editorial meeting a few months after his death. “But I can’t ask.”
I was trying for jovial, but the words sucked the air from the room. My colleague cleared his throat, said that was all right, he’d figure out the answer. Under the table, I dug my nails into my skin until it stung, wishing I could take back every syllable.
The world had become an alien place, filled to bursting with reminders of a love that now hurt. I remember being struck by how everywhere my dad was, in Neil Young songs and overcooked french fries and apple orchards and photography exhibits. He hadn’t felt this present, hidden around every corner, when he was alive, but now I couldn’t move an inch without being gutted by some fragment of him. The loss was a part of my heartbeat, my everyday, and not to talk about it felt like withholding some essential context from whomever I was speaking to: family, friends, co-workers, strangers. My dad just died. Please act like it.
But the people who surrounded me seemed as helpless as I was, uncertain how to proceed regardless of whether they’d known him. Sometimes, their attempts at comfort made a difference: A walk around the funeral home with a friend who let me talk as long as I wanted, or a family friend sharing what they remembered of my father’s youth, helped pull me to the surface of my grief just long enough to breathe. Other times, however, the people I spoke to were so filled with awkwardness about death, or with eagerness to fix it for me, that the exchanges turned prescriptive (“It’ll take two years before you feel normal again,” a co-worker told me with absurd confidence) or unbearably presumptuous.
There were a few phrases that came up over and over again: I’m so sorry and Your poor mother and If there’s anything I can do… Many just floated past me, landing without impact on the enormous pile of condolences, but others became lodged under my skin. I know exactly what you’re going through was one.
Another was this:
YOU WILL NEVER, EVER GET OVER IT.
I was surprised at how many people chose exactly those words.
“You never get over something this big,” someone said to me at the funeral. Her face was unfamiliar, but like everyone there, she seemed to know me: from photos framed at my dad’s office, tucked in his wallet, or sent through emails, I don’t know. “You’re so young.”
I numbly accepted her hug, firm arms smelling of a stranger’s perfume. The words stuck in me like a blade.
The sentiment was well intentioned, of course. She meant to tell me that my sadness was justified, the enormity undeniable. But, I remember thinking, I’m not certain that’s a good enough reason to say it. The intention might have been to comfort me, but the phrasing doomed me. In the world of those words — You never get over something this big — I was broken, irreversibly, by something I’d had no hope of controlling.
“I understand that I’m young,” I wrote in my journal a few weeks later. “I understand that it’s tempting to try to outline it all for me. But something in it feels so counterintuitive to what my dad wanted. The last piece of advice he gave me was to live a good life and make him proud. How can I do that if I’m permanently damaged? If even my good moments are, as people keep telling me, ‘being strong for my mother’?”
Others tried to empathize with the long illness, the slow march we had endured to get here. More than one person suggested to me that a different death — something fast and unpredictable, violent but at least quick — might have been better.
“A car accident would have been over in a second,” said a friend of a friend, over drinks in a dark apartment. “You wouldn’t have had to deal with any of this.”
“Right,” I managed. I took a swig of too-sweet wine, trying to drown any obligation to say more, while he pontificated on the failings of the medical system.
I’m no staunch defender of the cancer experience: The year of hospital visits, long surgeries, and slow wasting pulled me apart in its own methodical way. But I felt then and feel now that it doesn’t matter that much how you have your grief served. You can have a slowly running faucet, or you can have a downpour, but either way the outcome is the same. You’re still losing someone you love. No amount of warning is time enough to say goodbye. No amount of suddenness lessens the magnitude of pressure.
Still, as was becoming my habit, I said nothing. Picking at the cracked vinyl of the bar stool, I mustered what little energy I had and strove to be charitable: He wasn’t trying to be cruel or thoughtless. However poorly executed, this was a painfully genuine stab at commiseration.
Above all, what these exchanges and my own fumbling made clear to me was that one of the most ubiquitous things in life — loss — is something we have no idea how to talk about, whether it’s our own or someone else’s. For that reason, it can sometimes be tempting not to bother. After all, talking can only take us so far.
Part of me does believe that the answers to grief — if they exist at all — can’t really be found in other people. Privacy is essential ― you have to reassemble yourself without anyone else’s input. I didn’t cry at the funeral, surrounded by scores of family and friends, but I can’t count the number of times I cried during my long, private drives to work. Those commutes — virtually my only alone time in those years — became a kind of communion with my grief, time in which the loss that pulsed through me could exert its many demands.
But on those same drives, trapped in the gloom of my own head, I began to make stupid decisions: cutting off much bigger cars, shutting my eyes for a second to see what would happen. Life seemed to have contracted. I would continue like this, in an endless cycle of driving and crying and working and sleeping too little, for years that passed like an eye blink, and then my mother would get sick and die too, and my aunts, and my sister, and my friends, and my husband. Life would be flatness and mounting pain and then nothing at all.
“The day-to-day is terrifyingly tiring,” I wrote in my journal. “Numbing. It feels like I’m sleeping and can’t claw myself awake. I want to feel like I have a personality again, in control again, but I’m disappearing into this crisis and I don’t know how to fix any of it.”
I felt connected to the living world only in flashes, in those moments when I had the chance to acknowledge what had happened. I was drowning, and every conversation about my loss was a gulp of air: They couldn’t pull me to shore, but could keep me alive just a little longer. Even the clumsiest of these exchanges — even the most hurtful — allowed me to expel some of the enormous wave of feelings that roiled inside me, suffocating.
In other words, my intention in telling these stories isn’t to scold, shame or gossip. Though some people seemed only to want the gory details, or to get the moment over with and move on, the vast majority braved this territory with me because they saw the devastation and cared to help me navigate it. They were worried about me, so they tried to do what I was struggling to: talk about it. And whatever complicated feelings I have about their choice of words, I’m thankful for that.
It’s also clear to me, as I look back on those thousand little moments, that many of them weren’t really about me. Those words emerged from other people’s experiences with loss. When they tell me I’m being strong for someone else, or that this will follow me for the rest of my life, or that a quicker death might have been easier, I can’t read that as anything but an attempt to express their own grief, their own trauma, their own remembered hurt. These are memories of someone else’s strength or lack of it; someone else’s life spent grieving; someone else’s too-slow slog toward the end. They’re attempts to tell a different story, and to extract some sense from it by making it useful to me.
Some told me this outright, shifting seamlessly from advice or condolences into stories about the deaths that touched them ― often, those of their own parents. Others left it unsaid, but the specificity of their advice, their comfort in the taboo world of grief and death, emanated undeniable experience.
“Give yourself a creative project,” an old writing teacher told me, during those hazy first months after he died. “Something that gets you out of the house, around other people.”
I think of grief as water: an oceanic swell of emotion and memory, demanding every inch of my soul and threatening to tear me open from within. Every crying spell, journal entry, and conversation is a turned-on faucet, a chance to alleviate that pressure a little bit at a time until I have enough space to breathe again. It’s too much to expel all at once, but also too much to hold inside indefinitely. And while I know that grief is custom, that every person’s trauma shapes it differently, I have to imagine that pressure is something many of us have felt.
Is it any wonder, then, that we leap on each other when death comes up? The chance to talk about someone else’s grief is also a chance to air some of your own, to release some of the pressure you still carry — and while that impulse doesn’t make us better confidants, it is human and it’s sometimes necessary.
It’s possible, I suppose, that someone somewhere has a solid answer to the question, “How do you talk to someone who’s grieving?” But that person certainly isn’t me. More than one person I love is currently dealing with a loss as enormous as mine was — parents, partners, children — and I’m not at all confident that I’m saying the right things. I know only that it’s essential to try. So I try to listen first, to ask gentle questions, to make no assumptions. But sometimes, I also bring too much of myself to the conversation. Part of me is still looking for chances to turn on the water.
I’m still hungry to talk about my dad whenever I can. I want to tell you how he grew flowers in the backyard, how I still hear his voice telling me the names of plants and birds. I want to tell you how he read everything I wrote, even my much-too-long first novel, and how we listened to music together after dinner whenever we could. I want to tell you how hard he tried to parent me even from the hospital: insisting I go home and nap when I was exhausted, showing me where the nurses kept the Popsicles. I want to tell you that for two full years at least, I stopped believing in the possibility of happiness.
Am I ruined, the way I feared I would be? Will I, as I was told, “never, ever get over it?” Maybe. If the goal was to go back to “normal” — to a world where this loss doesn’t in some way define me — then I’ve certainly failed. I never had a chance. Like it or not, I’m a different person now, with a new need: to talk about what happened.
I don’t know how to make this easier for anyone else. I don’t even know how I’ll withstand it the next time it happens to me. I know that I’ll keep looking for the right moments to turn on the faucet, to give my heart what it demands. And I know that, whether I find it comfortable or not, I’ll keep trying to allow others space to mourn their losses aloud. None of us really know what we’re doing, and this kind of talk is fragile. I think I’d better allow it to hurt.
Carly Midgley is a writer, freelance editor, and library program planner based near Toronto. When not writing, she can be found drinking too much tea and overanalyzing books and video games. You can find her on Instagram @carlymidgleywrites or online at carlymidgley.com.