Before the day that your parent died, you’d never lived a single day on this planet without them. You might not have seen your parent every day or talked with them every day, but the only way you ever knew and understood this world was with them living in it. For better or worse, they were part of your reality for as long as you had a reality. It is no wonder that it feels utterly impossible to make sense of a world that exists without them.
This may seem a painfully obvious reminder, but it is one that I come back to surprisingly often as I continue to grieve my father’s death in new and different ways over time. Once, in my early 20s, I was talking with a 65 year old man who had recently lost his 90 year old mother. He was annoyed that everyone expected him to be ‘okay’ because he’d known she was ill and because she was older. He said to me, “I’ve been on this earth for 65 years and for 65 years she was one of the only things I knew for certain. The world doesn’t make sense without her”. Though on the surface we were so different and our losses felt quite different to me, his description of that confusion and pain grabbed me. I think of his words now whenever I meet any person who has just lost a parent.
There are no universals in grief. Every loss is unique to the person grieving it, specific to the relationship we all had with the person who died. But there are things shared – shared between those who’ve known loss at all, shared in the experiences of those who’ve lost parents or children, siblings or partners or friends, who’ve lost someone to overdose or suicide, to stillbirth or illness or an accident.
The moments that have often stayed with me in my grief are the moments when someone shares something about their own loss that allowed me to see my own grief more clearly, to remember that there are no universals but there are things deeply shared. Though I only had 18 years on this planet with my dad, not the 65 years he had with his mom, that man’s comment felt like it tapped into something at the core of my own loss. In those first 18 years of my life that he was here, my dad was one of the few things I knew for certain. It is no wonder that all these years later there are still days that I struggle to make sense of a world without him.
I have now lived more years on this planet without my dad than I did with him. And still I know that everything in my life would have been different if my dad hadn’t died. Every single day, every single thing. I have a wonderful life in so many ways. And yet my brain defaults to imagining that absolutely everything would have been ‘better’ if he hadn’t died, thinking it would have been ‘right’ and the way it was ‘supposed’ to be. But that’s just a made up story, the alternate ending that I wish for. When you stop and think about it, there are infinite alternate endings. That alternate life, the one where he didn’t die, it could have been better or it could have been worse – much worse, even. I have no way to know. Heck, how do you even quantify ‘better’ and ‘worse’ when it comes to the complexity of a life? All I can actually know for sure is that one thing would have been better – he’d have been here longer. As for the rest, it’s a mystery.