Untabooing grief

This week, my family celebrates the 20th anniversary of my father’s death.

Did that sentence make you feel uncomfortable? Me too. They’re not the right words, are they? Celebrates. Anniversary. But the problem is, there ARE no right words. We are not equipped to talk about grief. We’re not supposed to talk about it.

So, with the lack of words available, I’m sticking by it. We celebrate the anniversary of my father’s death.

On this blog, I’ve alluded to the fact my father passed away when I was young, but I’ve never gone into detail about it. I’m not someone who shouts these things from the rooftops (which is perhaps ironic for someone who has their own blog). Grief is often buried away, as if it’s shameful.

It’s not shameful. My grief was real. My grief IS real. I still grieve for my father.

grief2

I was twelve years old when my father died suddenly. I went to school, I came home, and my mum took my brother and I into their room – her room? – to tell us he had died. The moment I realised what she was going to say (about 15 seconds before the words came out) is still the clearest memory I have of any one moment in my life.

I was twelve years old when my father died. I knew him as anyone who is not yet an adult knows their dad – as a hero, a fun guy, a guitarist, a musician. As a beer drinker, a stir-fryer, a barbecuer, a handyman. As someone who gave me ‘that’ look when I was in trouble. He was the person to ask for help when I had art or maths homework. The person to carry me in from the car when I fell asleep, to lift me up for a slam dunk in the backyard, to fix my bike when the chain fell off or to kiss me gently on the forehead before I fell asleep.

I was twelve years old when my father died. I was on the cusp of teenagehood, of perhaps rebelling against my parents to work out exactly who I was. I was years, months, perhaps even days away from the yelling, screaming, slammed doors and, “YOU JUST DON’T GET IT! I HATE YOU!”s of frustration and finding my way in the world. And of being sure I was right. Always so right.

I was twelve years old when my father died. Old enough to understand that my father’s death would be devastating for my younger brother and help him through it. Not yet old enough to understand that my brother and I were not necessarily the worst affected by the tragedy just because we were children.

I was twelve years old when my father died. Old enough to understand that my father’s death would be devastating for my mother. Not yet old enough to understand how much and in how many different ways. Not yet old enough to understand love and passion. Not yet old enough to understand respect, mutual trust and the beauty of two people growing old together.

I was twelve years old when my father died. Old enough to understand that my father’s death would be devastating for my grandmother. Nowhere near old enough to understand exactly how much. Nowhere near old enough to understand that a parent should never have to bury a child. EVER.

Grief doesn’t go away. It abates. It changes shape. But it stays. I still grieve the dad I lost. I also grieve the versions of him that others lost. And I grieve the dads I never got to know, the roles he never got to play in my life. The friend. The mentor. The father-in-law. The empty nester. The grandfather.

I want to remember these things and share them with others. But how? We live in a world where an acclaimed author can write a book about grief and have it rejected by publishers because GRIEF. Because SAD. Because UNCOMFORTABLE and AWKWARD. Because DARK and SCARY and CONFRONTING.

We don’t have the language to talk about death and grief. But we need to talk about death and grief so that we can develop the language. And round it goes.

We need Eden’s writings on her grief following her brother’s suicide. We need tears and fumbling and real emotions on famous faces in times of personal and national tragedy. And we need Kerri’s Grief Book.

I was twelve years old when my father died. His death didn’t define me. But it shaped me. So I’m going to talk about it. Even when I can’t find the right words.

 

Have you experienced grief? How do you talk about? Please share those words here.

Comments

  1. says

    Firstly, it really saddens me that you lost your father at such a young age and for that I am sorry. I have lost a number of people in my life. My father coming up 3 years in March, whom I miss everyday. I had the privilege of knowing my father into his 70s and for that I am grateful.
    I have also lost a sister-in-law, my brothers beautiful wife whom passed away after a car accident while they were holidaying in Canada. This is still raw, although I have become comfortable (if that makes sense). this year will mark 10 years since our beautiful Judy’s passing.

    Sending hugs your way. V x

    • Em says

      Thank you for your kind words Vicki, and I’m sorry that you know the feeling from experience. Comfort with grief makes total sense to me – in fact, I think it’s a really good choice of word. x

  2. says

    I’m so sorry for your loss Em.
    I understand grief and its changing shapes too. You’re right, we need Eden’s writing and Kerri’s grief book. When David died I went looking for books on sibling grief and found only one. It was helpful to know I wasn’t the only one thinking these seemingly-crazy thoughts.

    Thinking of you and your family today.
    A xx

    • Em says

      Just one book on sibling grief? Surely not enough. Sorry for your loss too, Amanda, and thank you for your kind words. x

  3. says

    Ah, I cried for ypur twelve year old self and for every other version of you, because I know how it feels, to go through life without your Dad. I was lucky to be a few years older, at 18 and to have a sister who was 23, and we never stopped talking about our grief. She wrote a beautiful memoir about my father and brother, mostly so that her son could know them in a way.
    I sometimes feel the tiniest bit uncomfortable writing about my grief-and I do write about it often- wondering if people think that I am banging on about it, but it’s there, and a big part of me, and I’m not going to uncomfortable about it, and nor should anyone else. Eden sets a great example with the very keening rawness of her grief.
    Hugs to you, I’ll bet your Dad was an awesome guy x

    • Em says

      Lucky maybe, but then if age of loss is how we define grief then that doesn’t sound so lucky to me. I’m glad you never stopped talking about it.
      And he was, he really was. Thank you so much. x

  4. says

    Em that was so beautifully written I had tears in my eyes. I think it’s so important to share the things that society says we should bury. This is why we blog instead of journaling- a topic I’m exploring lately. We need one another’s stories even if it’s just to know we are not alone. X

  5. says

    bravo for this Emily. It’s time more of us wrote, read & talked about grief. Instead it’s hidden, pushed away & supposedly has a “limited time frame”. Grief morphs & changes. It may soften for a while then reignite so strongly we go “woah!” So very saddened by your loss of Dad, mum’s loss of her partner & your grandmother’s loss of her son 20 years ago. My mum died at 82 8 years ago next month & my Dad writes to mum. Over 200 pages he tells me now, just catching her up on her family’s lives. Thank you for such a beautiful piece of writing.. Denyse x

    • Em says

      Thank you Kerri. These words mean a lot to me. I hope you find a publisher who understands just how important your book is. x

  6. says

    Perfectly written Em. I’m so sorry you lost your father and I hope this week is kind to you all.
    I unfortunately think grief will always make people feel uncomfortable. I think Grief is a living creature which moves in and stays with us forever after the death of loved ones.
    In two weeks it will be the fourth birthday and anniversary of our son and daughter, and I still find the weeks and days leading up to it to often be worse than the day itself as I think back to how naive and innocent we were back then before our lives were turned upside down. I admit to spending the first couple of years letting my grief define me. It suffocated me and affected every facet of my life, however over the past 12 – 18months I’ve started to fight back. It is still with me each and every day and had shaped the mother, wife, sister, friend, woman I am now, but it no longer consumes and defines me which many people mistake for me now being ‘over it’.
    Thank you for starting such an important discussion. Love to you all xx

    • Em says

      Thank you Lauren. I can’t imagine your grief. As I wrote, it took me a long time to understand how my grandmother must have felt, and even then I don’t think I do. Ditto to you. I don’t understand and I’m so very sorry. x

  7. says

    I’m not sure I can say anything that hasn’t already been said, other than to reiterate how beautifully written this was Em. Thank you for sharing your story and for adding to the much needed discourse around grief. I’m so sorry for your loss xx

  8. says

    Emily I think you found the right words and your post is very moving and I had tears. I hope it was cathartic and healing for you to write it. I think celebrate feels like the right word to me because you are celebrating your memories of your Dad’s life and reflecting back on them now that you are a parent and you have all your adult understanding – there is no good age to lose someone so close, but what a hard age for you to lose your father It is so sad that Kerri Sackville can’t get a publisher – I really hope this changes and I know how much it would mean for her to have that book out there, in tribute to her sister. Well done on what you have written and hugs. X

    • Em says

      Thank you Kathy. It did feel good to write, and after I got the okay from the family members mentioned it felt good to publish and get such an overwhelmingly supportive response. x

  9. says

    Oh Em I can’t fathom how hard that must have been at just 12, in fact I don’t want to think about it. There seems to be too many ‘rules’ with grief but it’s an emotion that can’t be harnessed or stopped and shouldn’t be. I’m sure it’s hard thinking about the what ifs. BIG hug to you my friend this week. xx

    • Em says

      Thanks Em. You’re right, there are rules. Or maybe just the one – do it privately. But the times they are a-changin’. Thanks for the words and the hug. x

  10. says

    My colleague and her family are currently experiencing horrible grief mixed with hope. Her sister’s twin girls were born early (just before Christmas), both in ICU, one contracting a bacterial infection in hospital in January which quickly took her life, and the other is still vulnerable to infections and the like.

    The headspace they are currently in – mourning, fear for the little one who is fighting away, joy at each little progress, exhaustion – it’s a real headspin. And one of the difficulties is what to say – how they feel they can express what they are going through. I agree – more discussion about grief, and how we can express it and share it and take some burden from others – can only be a good thing.

    • Em says

      Oh wow. So many conflicting feelings at once. Your poor colleague. And family. Sending fingers crossed vibes across the country.
      And what to say – what can they say, what can you say, it’s all so difficult. I guess just say anything. Thanks for sharing. x

  11. says

    It must have been so hard for you and your family to have experienced the loss of your father. You are right when you say grief makes people uncomfortable. Apart from offering condolences, people do not like to acknowledge grief. People will talk over it, around it and avoid it in every possible way. Sometimes I wonder why people can’t just say to someone who has lost a loved one — “you know what? This completely sucks! *insert whatever expletive here*”

    I haven’t been touched by grief yet although I have lost grandparents. But I know I will be. It is inevitable. I have clients though who have lost loved ones and it’s hard. I especially found it hard for a couple of my clients whose dads died before their birth. They grieve for what could have been and people don’t seem to understand that. Other people believe that because these kids didn’t know their dad, they shouldn’t grieve. Which is preposterous.

    You have expressed your emotions so beautifully in this post…grief is different for everyone and never goes away. It’s about the moments lost with the individual, and all of what could have been…

    We need to talk about it.

    • Em says

      Yes! This sucks! Sorry, you! Which reminds me of Eden’s cake – Your brother killed himself and that’s bullshit. Best. Cake. Ever.
      Grieving for what could have been is a big part of grief. Especially for young people – you have to imagine their life and it’s all about potential. And kids not grieving because they never knew their dad? I went through a grief program that included kids with separated parents and I can tell you that there were kids grieving dads who were ALIVE that they’d never met. Let grief be grief.
      Sorry. Rambling. Maybe another post there. Thank you for your beautiful comment.

    • Em says

      Thank you Natalie. What a beautiful thing you do. But it must be difficult at times. I have had twenty years to get these thoughts together (less time for some of them, given I’ve only learnt some of these lessons comparatively recently).

  12. says

    12 years old. Wow. I’m so sorry Em. I get it though. As I wrote about last week, my mum died when I was 15. Grief does shape us, but it doesn’t define us. And yes grief never disappears, it is always there, rising up when we least expect it and in ways we don’t recognise.
    We need to talk about it. We need to acknowledge the effect it has on us, the whys, the hows and all the things that don’t make sense.
    Thank you for being so open, and so beautifully honest. xx

    • Em says

      12, 15, potayto, potahto. I’m so sorry for you too, Jodi. Thank you for your beautiful words and post as well. Let’s keep talking about grief. x

  13. says

    Grief is definitely a tricky thing to talk about. I like to think that I’m pretty good at talking about most things, but grief is still a hard one. I think part of it stems from not wanting to upset the person who is grieving, so rather than ask them about it we avoid it. On the flipside, the person who is grieving doesn’t know how to put exactly what they are feeling in to words, and there can also be the issue of not wanting to totally bum people out as well. When one of my old best friends died in 2008 it was a hard situation, as my husband and his family, whom I saw most often at that stage, had never met her. Despite the fact that it really affected me in the worst way, I felt like I couldn’t talk about it to them because a), they hadn’t known her, and b) I didn’t want to bring everyone down with my grief. I’m sure talking about it more at the time would definitely have helped me process it better and come to terms with it quicker, but at the time I was just in this fog, and I also didn’t want the attention that talking about it would bring. if you know what I mean.

    My Dad’s father passed away when he was 12 also. Back then grief was even less acceptable to talk about than it is today, and I know he was basically made to keep it to himself, and he didn’t have a lot of love or support from his extended family. I can see now, 50 years later, how that has shaped my Dad and affected the way he is today, and it makes me really sad.

    Great post Emily, and definitely something to think about.
    #teamIBOT

    • Em says

      I think it’s tricky because people don’t know WHAT to say, so they say nothing when, sometimes, pretty much anything would be preferable. And your talk of the fog, YES, the grief fog. Absolutely. Yet with crystal clear moments.
      Thank you for sharing about your dad. x

  14. says

    I am so sorry for the loss you had to experience, especially at such a young age. And I am also proud of the way you are now able to express your grief and your feelings. You are right, people in our society tend to tiptoe around anything to do with death or grief.

    • Em says

      Thank you Sarah. I’m amazed at how many people are listening to me specifically, but not surprised that people want to talk more about grief generally.

  15. says

    This may have been one of the most beautiful things I have ever read Emily. I’m sorry you lost him, and I’m sorry that you have this experience, but thank you for sharing about it so beautifully. xx

  16. says

    What a beautiful writer you are, Em. I’m so very sorry you and your family lost your dad, and the man he would have become over all these years. And that your children never got to meet him. Grief is awful, and it never goes away, but talking about it takes back some of the power lost in the silence. Love this post. xxx

  17. says

    We definitely need Kerri’s grief book and I think we definitely need to be more open in our grieving. Having lost a brother I know the truth you mention above – the pain never ever goes away. Like you remember the moment your mum told you about your dad, I remember with sharp clarity the moment my cousin told me about my brother.

    I’m so sorry your Dad never got to see the remarkable person you’ve grown up to be Em xx

    • Em says

      Your posts about losing your brother had me in tears Kel. And so did your last line in this comment. Thank you SO MUCH. x

  18. says

    Thank you for your absolutely beautiful words and for being so open with us all. I had tears as I was reading this. I can not comprehend how publishers can reject a book about grief. It’s insane. My husband’s Dad died suddenly not long before our eldest daughter was born. We keep his memory alive and talk about ‘papa’ often. We even had a little ceremony in our backyard where we planted a tree and scattered his ashes into the ground before we dropped the tree in. The girls both refer to the tree as ‘papa’s tree’. Both Dave and I talk about him often. Although the girls never met him, they will grow up knowing who he is and what he was like (if that makes sense). Hugs to you xxxxxxxx

    • Em says

      I’m sorry for your loss (and Dave’s). And the timing. I like that you keep the memory alive. I talk about my dad with the kids too. Certain things attract the comments – my dad made the doll’s house my daughter now plays with. And she knows (and little man will too as he grows up) that she had a grandpa who would have loved her like crazy. But she has two other grandpas (my husband’s dad and my step-dad) so it’s led to some funny conversations about how many husbands nana has had and who else she wants to marry!

  19. says

    So sorry about your Dad Em, I can’t imagine how hard that must have been for you and your family. I know a few people who have anniversaries in the coming weeks. Husbands, children, grandparents. It isn’t easy, and I know your openness and words will give comfort to many people.

  20. says

    Oh, Em. I had no idea. My deepest condolences. 12 is so young and life is so unfair. Grief does need to be discussed more freely not because it defines us but because it is with us every day. Just as we breathe, we need to be able to talk about it and feel it freely without fear of taboo. Big hugs xxx

    • Em says

      Thank you Grace. Lovely words. I know you experienced a similar anniversary recently, and I’m hugging you just as hard right back.

  21. Maxabella says

    If anyone can write the right words about grief, it is you, Em. I feel the pain of your dad not being here so much. Like a rush of enlightenment written with heavy longing. The what could have been pressed with an urgent missing is what cloaks every moment after a loss. Every single moment. x

    • Em says

      Thanks Bron. I thought I’d done the feelings some degree of justice – it’s been something of a relief to read these comments (through the tears!) and realise the words might just be the right ones.

  22. says

    I was fourteen when my mum died. My father came and told me at school. I have never got over it. It has defined me, but hopefully it has brought strength as well as fragility and distrust. I feel your pain.

    • Em says

      Hugs and thoughts to you, Louisa. It’s weird – when I was at school, I was so focused on NOT becoming ‘the girl whose dad died’ that that’s exactly what I became for a while. Because I’d not talk about it and pretend all was okay, then something would happen out of the blue to make me SOB and lose it. So in a way, trying not to let his death define me worked the opposite way for a while. I feel your pain, too. x

  23. says

    I have written about grief. Mainly when my own father died. It may not surprise you that my stats started to drop when I was struggling with grief. When I couldn’t get the energy to be happy and light. I also felt guilty for throwing my grief out into the world.

    I was 37 when my Dad died. Lucky enough to get 25 years more then you did. I do, I really do feel so lucky to have had him for that long. But he was 62. He had plans. He was meant to be here for another 30. So I still feel pissed off that, or sad, or just miserable somedays, because I just miss him. I really miss him.

    Your dad sounds ace. I bet he is pissed off not to be here with you too.

    • Em says

      The guilt about grieving, gah. Because it feels self-indulgent, yes? I hear you. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and story. And feeling lucky combined with grief, yes. I never doubted for a single day of my life that my dad loved me, so I feel lucky to have had what others don’t. But still too young.
      And your last line. Oh, man. Claire, you’ve done me in. Thank you. x

  24. says

    This in itself is a beautiful tribute to your dad Em and to grief itself. I work with grieving families everyday in my work for Heartfelt and I often want to offer them so much more, some understanding and some of that feeling that they are not alone. I write about it sometimes on my blog after the loss of my daughter but I guess as she is the inspiration for so much of what I do, I hope it comes out in all of my work xx

  25. says

    Em, this post is so beautifully written and I agree wholeheartedly that we don’t talk about grief enough – in some ways some of us don’t know how to do it.
    I am so sorry about the loss of your dad. When I read this it broke my heart because I am close to my dad and I couldn’t imagine not having him in my life. I am so sorry that you missed out on so many experiences with your dad. It must be hard at Father’s Day. xxx

  26. says

    This is so beautifully written Em. I am so sorry you had to go through this, let alone at only 12. Two of Miss TT’s little friends lost their parents last year (one lost his Dad and another lost his Mum). It was heartbreaking to see them and their families go through that pain. I never know the right words to say but friend who lost her husband said that not talking about him was worse. Even in her grief, she wants everyone to keep talking about him. Remembering him. Celebrating him. Big hugs to you and your family this week.

    • Em says

      Thank you Tash. Remembering and celebrating – that’s lovely. Thanks for sharing your friend’s thoughts. And those poor little friends of Miss TT’s. Sending love their way.

  27. says

    I think grief is like mental illness, and addiction – nobody really wants to talk about it because everybody handles it differently. I think we should talk about these things, because it is cathartic and unites us all.

    PS – Celebrate is a perfect word – you were celebrating the life he lived and that’s a beautiful thing

    • Em says

      That’s a really interesting perspective. Another parallel is that those not experiencing it feel ‘unqualified’ to talk about it.
      And thanks for validating celebrate. I’m becoming more comfortable with it.

  28. says

    Em{{}} to lose your father at 12…{{{}}
    It is 10 years this week that my father died, but I was 32, though my little sister was 13.
    I’ll be thinking of you and praying this week, sending you hugs of comfort.

  29. says

    A beautiful post. Thank you for sharing something so personal and so important. I hope you are able to spend some time with those you love sharing memories of your beloved dad over this time. xx

    • Em says

      Thank you Karen. Life got in the way of seeing my family, unfortunately (they live in the country) but I’ve seen them since and we’ll be spending a week together soon enough. x

  30. says

    You are so right. We don’t talk about grief but it does shape us. My heart goes out to you and the many stages of your life when you would and will feel your father’s absence. My Nan was my main parent growing up and i spoke to her everyday and sometimes up to three times a day until she died 19 years ago. I miss her everyday and treasure my memories. X

    • Em says

      Sorry about your nan. I’m glad you treasure your memories – it’s a great moment when the memories turn from something painful into something to treasure.

  31. says

    You got me Em. Tears! This October will mark 20 years my Dad passed away too. Usually I don’t tear up that easily these days but little things will get me. Have you seen that TV ad where all the kids are calling Dad? Oh my word!! Sobbed for ages. Looking at your beautiful kids and knowing how much he’d adore them, ugh!! (Eden’s onion cutter has paid me a visit – how rude, go cut them somewhere else!)
    I really can relate Em. I think bloggers like Eden are brilliant at sharing grief openly and learning that gradually you do start smiling and laughing again but you’ll always hold a heavy heart and that’s ok.
    If we one day bump into each other, let have a drink and say cheers to our Dads! They’d love it. Enjoy all the memories xx

    • says

      Thank you Jo. I’m sorry you’re approaching the same anniversary. Raising my glass to you and to our dads. Thanks for the beautiful comment. xx

  32. says

    I don’t know why I am still surprised to hear of other peoples grief and loss of a father. I still at times feel like I must be the only person who has ever gone through it. Then I just get sad that there are so many of us who lost a parent far earlier than anyone should. And I am reminded that it doesn’t matter what age you go through it, the symptoms are the same, the loss is still unbearable, and as you say, it NEVER goes away. It morphs, it hurts less, sometimes it hurts more. When I see kids with their grandparents my heart aches. When I see friends with their dads etc. It all just hurts too much. I was 32 when my dad died. My 26 year old sister had to knock on my door at 2am and tell me because our phones were off. I remember the days following where for the first few seconds after waking up I had forgotten what had happened. It’ll be 5 years this year. He’s missed seeing his grandson grow into a school boy. He’s missed seeing him swing his first golf club (my dad’s 1st love his whole life). He completely missed 2 grandsons and a granddaughter who he would have totally doted on. Five years later I can mostly talk about it without crying, but sometimes it still destroys me. Sending you much love xox

    • says

      Thanks Aroha. It is usually a surprise because we’re still conditioned to not talk about it. That’s my theory, anyway. Thanks for the beautiful comment. x

  33. Keira says

    Thanks for sharing this Em. I went searching for my estranged Dad a few years ago only to find he’d passed away. Think I’m still finding out the impact that has on me. Grieving for someone you could have known and loved is a strange feeling. It’s definitely compelled me to appreciate those who are in my life now! Grateful to have met you Emily!

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