April 30 marks four years since my dad died. His death wasn’t untimely by definition; he was 72 years old, and he had been dealing with cancer for nine years. But one of the burdens of having older parents is that their deaths will always be untimely for you.
I was 22 when my dad died. To snapshot where I was in life that April, I was finishing up my bachelor’s degree at USF. A week before he died, I attended my first beer festival in Ybor. The night before he died, I was in Gainesville because I recently found out I got into a master’s program at UF. I graduated from USF three days after he died.
No one understood that in the few days leading up to graduation, I was not only applying Mod Podge and gold glitter to my grad cap, but I was sitting with my mom at a funeral home deciding on what urn design we wanted for my dad. No one understood that as I walked across the stage, it would be the first of many major life events that he would not witness.
No one understands that seemingly innocuous Father’s Day spam emails can ruin a whole day. No one understands that when I see an older man who looks and acts like my dad, I want to throw up. No one understands that when making small talk, mentioning “parents” in the plural sends a pang through my throat. No one understands the void that exists in my life because he isn’t here.
Most of all, it was me who did not understand how to cope. I had spent nine years thinking that each year would be his last, but when it finally happened, it still came as a complete shock. Instead of letting myself be depressed and withdrawn, I compartmentalized it and continued on. I grieved at the funeral, but in a few months I was starting a rigorous master’s program. After moving to Gainesville I worked at the Alligator copy desk during the summer, with shifts lasting from 4 p.m. to midnight. During the day I busied myself with chores and exploring the town. It left little time for grieving.
But after four years, what I’m beginning to understand is that you can’t grieve in pre-portioned breaks or periods. No one has the luxury of taking a three month bereavement vacation through the wilderness to accept loss. For me, I have found that understanding and acceptance happens randomly. It happens when I hear the word “motormouth,” a nickname he used to give me, and instead of shutting down, I laugh at it when I hear it. It happens when I am able to finally tell someone that my dad died four years ago when they bring up my parents, as opposed to just going along like I have both. It happens when I accept the sadness that my dad won’t be able to walk me down the aisle next year, and realize that my mom can walk me down the aisle too.
There were a lot of things I didn’t understand about death until it happened to me. You’re talking to a person one day, and then they vanish, and the world keeps spinning as you pay for funeral arrangements. You have to continue doing what you did before, except you do it while wearing a 50 pound backpack of grief. It’s impossible to dump out all of its contents at once and suddenly be free. You slowly unpack each item and leave it behind as you travel through life. If you’re lucky, it starts to feel lighter over time.