Three years ago I flew home from a year abroad in Madrid. And three years ago, my life changed forever. No, this is not your average study-abroad-changed-my-life story (well, in most ways, it is…). This is your life can change in an instant story—the kind of change that is unexpected, unforeseen, unanticipated, unwanted, unimaginable, and, quite frankly, seemingly impossible.
I left Madrid with a f*ck off sign tattooed on my forehead. I really didn’t want to leave. A year wasn’t enough for me. I stepped off the plane at Newark airport and was greeted by my ecstatic family. I truly was so happy to see them. I arrived home to a sushi surprise by my closest friends. But I was still speaking Spanish, holding onto those wisps of Spain as tight as I could.
I was thinking about applying to Fulbright, as well as the Peer Mentor on-campus internship with API, and, of course, Madrid. I was home for two weeks when my dad realized he needed help. He crawled up the stairs, plopped onto my comfy desk chair that he bought and assembled for me, and told me something was wrong. He was having trouble breathing, and though he continued prepping the pool for summer and working outside, he was in pain, and he had to go get it checked out. That was Friday, May 31, 2013. On Saturday, he went to the hospital, and I continued on with my day thinking nothing of it. I didn’t go to the hospital with him. He asked, but I said no. I showed up later to see how he was doing. He had pneumonia in one lung. Then two. And then, nothing. He died the following Friday. June 7, 2013 – just a few weeks after my return home from a year abroad in Madrid – will forever be my turning point, my date of reference, my before or after date.
When May rolls around, these events repeat in my mind, without fail. I replay the blurred memories of my father’s death, and June comes and I’m paralyzed by flashbacks. Sometimes I tell people that I blacked out. I showed up to the hospital after 3 AM to the news. My mom told my brothers and I that daddy was in heaven. And I blacked out. Or so I say. Truthfully, I’m not sure there’s a correct verb to describe what exactly happened. It’s like a stop motion comic book with no sound. I saw my brothers turn red with anger and clenched fists. I saw nurses and family members run to aid them, or control them. And I dropped, physically unable to control myself. I don’t remember screaming. I don’t remember anything I said. I do remember catching a glimpse of my dad’s feet in the hospital room. And I do remember eventually standing by his side singing.
The next thing I remember is around 7 AM. I was sitting on my couch at home next to my mom just staring blankly into our family room.
What do we do now? I wondered.
You take one step forward, and then another, and then another. And before you know it, three years have gone by and you still wonder how you survived that moment, that day, those few isolated weeks.
Before you know it, it’s June 7, 2016, a day that carries the weight of your grief within its confined twenty-four hours. It’s a date you can’t escape, it looms on the horizon and waits for your arrival to send you back to the past.
I still wonder how I got through my dad’s death. So many factors played into it, but I did the only thing I could: I moved forward.
I wrote about it, and I continue to write about it. Because grief is inevitable. Death is a part of life. A part that I believe should be talked about more openly and honestly. I am tired of hearing the “I’m sorry for your loss” and “everything happens for a reason” responses. They are bullshit. They are broken façades of empathy that I don’t care to entertain. I want real responses – questions, doubts, feelings, emotions. I want to be able to talk to people about my dad without getting cut off with an “I’m sorry” from puppy dog eyes. I’m at the point where, frankly, I’m offended by others’ lack of maturity and empathy.
To share each other’s burdens is one of the greatest connections we can make as human beings. To truly be there for someone else, whether you understand their pain and grief or not, is beautiful. To honestly tell someone that you are physically there to listen to them is admirable. To share their space by being present is necessary.
We need to do this more often. We need to be uncomfortable to bring others comfort. We need to realize that grief is not linear – in fact, life is not linear – in order to delve deeper than the broken record response of time heals all. Time does not heal. Time gives you the opportunity to reflect, accept, and deal with your pain. Time allows you the space to learn how to live with your pain. It does not go away. It is a part of you.
By sharing my seemingly impossible, life-changing moment, I hope to create a space for vulnerability. Writing as a method of working through my grief has helped me immensely. Three years ago I couldn’t even verbalize the phrase “My dad died.” Three years later, I still struggle with communicating my dad’s death, but lately I have been so inspired by those select few who have listened, empathized, and supported me in my pain and vulnerability. It’s something I hope to be able to say about more people as we navigate the unknown, unanticipated, unforeseen, and seemingly impossible moments of life.