I joined a grief support group.
It's a 13-week class and I didn't find it until the 5th week. And it would've been EASY to find during Week One, but my brain missed it. This is one of the most debilitating parts of grief: Your brain gives out. Your ability to find things that you had in your hand ten minutes ago, shuts down. As does your quick recall of the name of a friend who walks up to you and engages you in conversation that ends up not being a very good conversation because you are distracted and digging in the dirt clods of your memory trying to find his name. Obviously some of this is just being middle-aged, but it's increased tenfold since my dad left the planet, this clueless fog of mine.
That said, I've only been to the group two times, but it's helpful. The first night I went I was stunned at just how much pain and suffering was gathered together in that circle. A dozen people and all kinds of loss. A father grieving his 25-year-old son who died suddenly from no medical reason that could be found. A husband who was shot to death. A mother gone after a long illness. A father. My father.
The room crackled with the intensity of it all. It was as though lightning had just passed through. People spoke with voices that carried confusion and bafflement like heavy fruit gathered into an apron. They looked around the room with glassy eyes, all cried out or starting up again. The eyes said it all: Where do I go from here?
I sat there thinking "This is just one grief group in one church in one town." The idea of how much pain there is everywhere else made me dizzy. It was like being a kid and having that moment when the size of the world suddenly occurs to you.
I've started to understand that grief is way more complicated than I imagined. First it was the disbelief that caught me off guard. But now my dad has been gone almost 4 months and some of that initial shock is wearing off. Not all of it. I'm split between "Oh my God. He is truly gone." and "I haven't seen Dad in such a long time. When is this part over? He surely must be coming back." I watch my thoughts stumble over themselves like two drunks, arm in arm, trying to make it down the street.
A good friend wrote this to me yesterday:
I suspect this is a triple grief for you--the loss of your father as he was recently, the loss of the man he was before he became ill, and a sharing of the loss your mother feels.
I was sitting in the group last night thinking about those three pieces, then realized that there are way more than three.
I imagine it like this: Grief is a scattering of islands, big and small, over a vast stretch of ocean. Each island is a particular chunk of it. I travel through the water in a little rowboat trying to find them all. I see the one called "The Man He Was Before He Became Ill." It's huge. Dad's old before-dementia personality is all over it. I can hear the echo of his full-blown laughter. I can see him walking along the beach in that white T-shirt with the red cartoon pigs on the front, the one I gave him that was too small but he wore it anyway. I wave at him but he can't see me. I want to stay and watch him smile and walk near the water with that little bounce in his step, but the current is pulling me elsewhere.
Another island comes into view. "Your Father As He Was Recently." He is on the beach here, too. Sitting in a wheelchair at a small square table. A tray of food sits in front of him. His head droops forward. I want to go wake him up by putting my hand on his cheek. I want to feed him his supper and then little spoonfuls of chocolate ice cream. But all I can do is look at him as my arms pull at the oars and take me to the next place.
This island is bleak and terrifying. Slate-colored clouds hang over it. The waves are slamming against the beach. This is the island of "His Very Last Day." In the near-darkness I see a group of people. They have their backs to me. It's us. Our family, gathered around his bed. I can't look at any of this. I turn away and row as hard as I can. I will have to come back to this island later. I'll have to come back to them all later. To these three and to the others I can see on the illuminated map of my heart, and to the ones I don't yet know about. I know about the island of "There's No Way to Fix Your Mom's Broken Heart" and the "Conversations You Should've Had With Your Father" one. And the primitive, rocky piece of land that does nothing but radiate "I miss you. I miss you. I miss you."
Traveling among this archipelago is part of my life now. Something was blown apart when I lost my dad and the pieces scattered like shrapnel. The islands will change sizes and names and some will merge together and, possibly, some may dissolve into the ocean. We'll see. For the time being, I have to look for them all.