Happy Birthday, Dad.
I was listening to a video essay by Khadija Mbowe, Stans: The perk and price of celebrity, and something she said made me pause the video and stare into the void.
“As someone who has lost a parent, it took me three years to start feeling like myself, like a person in the world again”.Khadija Mbowe
I have not resonated so profoundly with a message in quite a while.
On the day my Dad would turn 53, I am reminded of his death on March 4th, 2019 and for a while, it felt like a piece of me went with him. Before that day I was happier, naive, friendlier, lighter, and infinitely more carefree. It was not that I had never experienced adverse life events; my mum had survived cancer, I had moved around a lot as a teen (the effect of which I discovered in therapy) and I had lost my paternal grandfather but losing the man who for better or worse I had idolized, who I measured myself up to broke me a little.
Since then I have been thrust into the role of the man of the house, a role which encompasses both nuclear and extended family. In situations where I would once observe as children were meant to be seen and not heard, I was suddenly expected to not only offer an opinion but decide on matters.
(If you take anything from this, please make your funeral arrangements clear and let everyone know, your grieving family will thank you endlessly).
I remember the first birthday after he died, as the clock turned to midnight on my birthday I found myself crying. I remember parking and bawling inconsolably because it dawned on me that I would never receive a birthday message from him again. At that moment, I lost him again.
I say again because for a lot of the first year, I would forget he was dead. It sounds weird but in the midst of planning a turbulent funeral and being surrounded physically and virtually by friends and family, I would go through periods of amnesia about his death. Grief is a weird and non-linear process but the stage I remember most was denial. It gave me comfort because surely the man whose body was still warm to the touch when I saw him laying there in the hospital couldn’t in fact be dead.
Weirdly after I seemed to stumble into or maybe even become drawn to people similarly wounded. I dated women and made fast friends with others who unfortunately had also lost a parent. Meeting more and more unwilling members of this tragic group filled me with equal parts comfort and sadness. Talking with a colleague who had lost her dad and stepdad my first day back at work was one of those memories that sticks out because I think we all seek to be understood, to feel seen, and in that moment when I was fragile she helped edge me back from the abyss.
Facing mortality like that changed my outlook on things and I began to vacillate between two extremes – nothing mattered and therefore there was no point to anything (passive nihilism) or everything did and therefore I was wasting time by not making use of every opportunity. In time I think I have settled somewhere in the middle but closer to existentialism or active nihilism. The clarity made me consider many things and changes to my career, relationships and my life in general have followed in the years since.
The thing that I have noticed most keenly, has been the social change. I used to be the friend that would check in on people, arrange meet-ups and act as the glue but honestly, I haven’t had it in me for some time. Lockdowns further exacerbated the problem as relationships rely on in-person visits to be watered and those haven’t been consistent.
Life weighed on me and there was a clear separation between who I used to be and who I was now. I could see how I could handle a situation while knowing I didn’t have it within me to do that right now. So friendships and relationships both professional and personal suffered. I could turn on my social battery in spurts, like a car on its last legs (and with some people I didn’t have to) but I could feel how much energy it took, I felt so fearful inside. Interactions at work felt forced and I would default to the easiest things so unless I felt I could be low energy around you or that you’d raise my energy, a lot of interactions were virtual.
This makes me appreciate the people I still have in my life now more, the people who keep me in their thoughts, my name in their prayers and consistently check in on me. I remember when my Dad died so many people who I hadn’t heard from in ages (or since) reached out but even then I could tell the real from the fake. Dealing with the loss has left me more anxious, more loss averse, and resulted in me being more clingy often to the wrong people.
But this chapter has also been one of the most sustained and intense periods of personal growth. Losing my Dad encouraged me to seek professional help and start the process of doing the work on myself. This has been HARD. Ignorance is bliss because when you see something about yourself you cannot unsee it and change although necessary can be scary.
I could talk about the benefits of the work all day but the most salient is the improved relationship I have with my inner child. Holding and caring for him enables me to hold and care for myself as I am now. This looks like better boundaries, improved self-worth, and a renewed capacity for social interactions.
At the three-year mark, I am starting to feel like myself again which was evidenced by my incredible birthday weekend. I am not who I used to be but that is okay as I feel more balanced, more resilient, and better able to handle the challenges of life without getting overwhelmed.
So today when a man I met at the gym told me that I reminded him of his good friend that he, unfortunately, buried yesterday I was able to talk with him. He told me that seeing him at the gym gave him a bit of comfort in his own grieving process and I shared a bit about my own experience coincidently on my Dad’s birthday. Grief is such a strange thing but as with some things in life, it gets easier when you are able to share.
Love and Peace
Aharoun the Author
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