I used to believe that grief and mourning were processes that only lasted for a set amount of time. I have no idea why I believed that, but I think it’s a holdover thought from my childhood, when I felt emotionally more resilient than I do now.
I say “felt emotionally more resilient,” but in truth, I know I’m stronger now. Back then, I hadn’t gained the courage to feel my emotions. I have that courage now.
Nothing ever seemed to affect me in those days, even though clearly it really did. I didn’t cry when I was abused. I didn’t cry when my grandmother – who I loved more than anyone – died. I didn’t cry about anything and existed in a perpetual state of numb. I’ve had years of healing and therapy that have shown me that my non-feelings were not the norm, and in fact, were pretty unhealthy. But that is what I knew, and that is how I survived. I essentially had to act my way through my childhood because my home was dominated by an alcoholic parent who could sometimes turn abusive. He was the child in our house and I was sometimes his parent. My mother, who ended up having a nervous breakdown from all the turmoil of our lives then, ran the gamut from being emotionally shutdown to raging through the house like a thundering she-devil. In those moments, dad was a little wounded boy and I was the one who safeguarded him. I was to play that role here and there throughout our lives, until the day he died. It was me, after all, who told him to go to sleep that last day and gentled him off to that long, great goodnight with the words, “don’t worry I’ll take care of mom. Go to sleep now, daddy.”
How many times had he sent me off to sleep with a similar sentiment?
“Go to sleep Rachel, there are no monsters under the bed or in the closet. Remember daddy always loves you.” (That’s the goodnight I got, if I was lucky.)
I said that part too that last day. I told him I loved him and what a journey it was from those words back into my younger self, who felt nothing and didn’t cry.
I don’t remember telling my father I loved him in those days. I do remember questioning if I did love him at all, which is an odd question for a child to ask herself, but there you have it. That is what living in an abusive household is like. You are forced, beyond your years to navigate odd roads of reason in an attempt to make sense of your situation; in order to survive.
I can remember the thought as clearly, as if I was back as my six-year-old self, already feeling weighed down by life. “Did I love mommy and daddy because I really loved them or because I was expected to love them?”
Yeah mom was in there too, because I was too young to understand what she was going through and also quite angry with her for abandoning me so much of the time. She was either not there or chose not to see a lot of what went on, and I was left alone to deal with it.
So yeah, mom was in that question too.
Now here I am, and I know what the answer to that question is. Yes, I love them and no, it is not because I have to. It is a choice. I will not say it was an easy choice, because it wasn’t. I had to learn how to love them, and in that act, I also had to learn that I had the right to set boundaries and make my own rules for whatever that love was to be.
I’m not talking Hallmark Cards here.
This was something uniquely my own and of my own creation.
Emotions are roads that we must navigate for all of our lives. We do not stop until we are either completely shutdown or die. And in this journey, along with learning that I loved my parents was the lesson of learning how to love myself. Actually, I think that lesson came first, and as that grew I was able to extend it more fully to them.
Years ago, I couldn’t hug anyone. I didn’t want to be touched by anyone, even if it was in friendship. I couldn’t decipher good touch from bad, and was repelled by any hugs, except when they came from my mom. I had a friend who used to stand in front of me with open arms and allowing her to hug me was a completely uncomfortable thing. In those days, I was not only removed from my emotional self, but my physical self as well. That is not who I am in any way now.
I embrace all of my friends with a freeness I never had then, and I can’t tell you when it began or why. It just simply is and I think God that it is so.
So here I am today, mourning the loss of my dad and learning that grief has no time limit. It comes like waves that just hit you and then roll back, and that process returns and ebbs and flows from day-to-day. You may wonder what I am mourning since I have mentioned how he was abusive; well I am mourning the father who wasn’t abusive. I didn’t often see him until he was up in age, but he’d make an appearance every now and then and it was wonderful. I could never trust how long he’d stay, but it was usually great when he was there. Of course sometimes those visits were short-lived, because my father would say something hurtful or inappropriate that sent his better self away.
So, I had to be on my guard with him or felt that I had to be, because that was just the nature of our relationship. I never felt completely safe with him and he always gave me reasons to justify those reservations. So, yeah I’m mourning him, but I’m also mourning the fact that because of choices he made, we never had a normal father/daughter relationship.
Sadly there are things you can’t return to and make up for in the future. I lost a spelling bee in the third grade, well I have won other prizes since, but I can’t win a new father and I can’t relive my life in hopes of fixing all that was lost.
And here it comes, another wave of mourning as I stand here on the shore feeling the mist of the salty air upon my face. It feels like I’ve been cast adrift and though I know I will eventually find my way back upon the shore, right now, I don’t feel quite so hopeful. Right now, it feels like I can’t find my footing and I don’t want to float out to sea.
Maybe, I’m mourning myself too. Mourning the loss of my childhood that died too soon. I will get through this. I will find my way to solid ground, even as the sea beckons me to look back upon it’s windswept shores.