Thirteen Stages of Grief
“Thirteen Stages of Grief” originally appeared in the Summer/Fall 2015 issue of TSR. It was recognized as a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2016.
Three days after the funeral it became no longer acceptable to cry. So I did my best to hide my tears in the shower and in the car but they were disobedient little bastards. I’d wake in the middle of the night to find they’d soaked my cheeks and my pillow. It was the worst kind of crying. The kind that created an unnatural swelling under your eyes. The kind that caused your body to ache. It hurt to put on pants or to change my shirt, so for two weeks I didn’t.
When two months passed and I still couldn’t get my eyes to stop leaking, I sought out a therapist. Every week I’d greet her with “Hi, how are you?” and she would respond: “I’m good, but how are you?” Which made me feel like a mental patient.
My therapist gave me a photocopied outline of a breathing exercise she thought could help me cope with my anxiety, which had increased after my father’s death. Something I’d already Googled and been practicing on my own for years.
My therapist would often forget things I’d told her. Major things that made me doubt her authenticity, but things that I was thankful to repeat given I had little energy to fill the entire hour with words. Things like when it all happened and how I’d felt when it had. On our second meeting she gave me a list of the stages of grief. I wondered how much my health insurance company was paying her to photocopy for me. There’s five of them—five stages. I’d Googled them after my father’s death, thinking this knowledge would help, and I immediately came to the conclusion that these stages didn’t come close to describing what I’d been going through. Yet, here they were again. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Simple looking on paper, but for me the stages went a bit more like this...
As in a body’s response to traumatic events that causes one to forget certain details or entire occurrences. My memory of the night my father should have passed away is foggy at best. I distinctly remember the pitch of my mother’s screams...the panic in my sister’s face...the smell of rot on my father’s breath. I remember not realizing I was only wearing underwear and a T-shirt until I caught one of the responding police officers checking out my ass. White granny-panties with pink polka dots and a man’s neon green tank top with Kennebunk Maine written across the chest. We went there every Fourth of July. I’d bought the shirt only a month earlier. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to wear it again.
It started in the hospital, literal bargaining with this almighty God of whom people speak. I prayed to a God I didn’t believe in, hoping I was wrong, begging Him or Her to help my father make it through. Begged for him to get one more chance at life. Singing Hail Marys until my voice gave out, and clutching a set of rosary beads as if they meant something. If only my mother hadn’t woken up...if only technology wouldn’t have kept my father falsely alive in a coma for three days...he would have peacefully passed away in his sleep...as he was meant to.
I didn’t exactly turn to black magic for assistance, but by the second day in the hospital I knew a miracle was the only way my father was coming home again. I’d press my hand against his burning forehead, close my eyes, and instruct my body to give all of its functioning cells to him. I tried until my head ached, and then I’d rest and try again later. If Jessica Lange could bring a damn baby back to life in The Coven, I thought maybe I could at least get my Father to open his eyes. He opened them once on the first day and I immediately called out to him, grinning like a fool, thinking for a split second everything was going to be okay. But his was an involuntary movement. I didn’t even know that happened to people in comas. His eyes were a shade of blue that told me he wasn’t coming back to us.
Right before depression came a stage of robotic behaviors, lasting a little over a week. I was on autopilot, going through the motions of existence but not really taking anything in. There was so much work to do, planning the wake and the funeral, writing the death announcement and the eulogy, picking pallbearers, shopping. A ridiculous amount of shopping for things. Things like poster board for the photos we wanted to display, and funeral clothes for my mother. She didn’t want to taint anything she already owned with those memories. I went through it all as if I’d done it a hundred times. Not only did it come naturally to me, but also I cherished these moments. Because after the chaos was over, I knew I’d be left alone with my thoughts.
It came gradually rather than all at once, for which I was thankful. It was unlike anything I’d felt before. Darkness became the enemy, as sleep never found me fast enough, leaving me to battle my thoughts without armor. It pained me to get dressed in the morning, so I often didn’t. I became consumed with thoughts about my father, leaving little space for common sense thoughts like remembering to put on a bra or how to get to work in the morning. Being back at work wasn’t the distraction I’d hoped for. Pity eyes burned holes in my simulated cheerfulness as I walked through the halls with my head down. Each condolence, while appreciated, launched a catapult of knives at the protective wall surrounding my heart. I couldn’t let them see me cry, so I stopped wearing makeup and spent an excessive amount of time in the bathroom. No one said anything.
I viewed my life as an alternative universe, and I had somehow ended up in the wrong storyline. Somewhere, in another world, my father was still waiting for me to come home. Texting me to see where I was, always concerned but never worried. I wanted to get back to that universe, even if it meant crawling there through poisoned jungles and flaming deserts, surviving on rainwater and beetles for a decade.
My diet changed drastically. Mostly I ate jars of vanilla frosting and Butterfingers. I couldn’t get myself to the gym. My paralysis had forced a change of routine and the size of my new ass was the result. It was seven pounds on the scale, but 47 in my head. Suddenly I was too fat to go to the gym. If people noticed, they didn’t mention it to me. I think I would have bit their fucking heads off if they had. They did, however, notice the patches of white hair sprouting from my scalp. I spent weeks plucking them out of my head, one strand at a time.
Being Sexually Motivated
Sex was no longer a trending topic. My body no longer craved a man’s touch, it actually repelled it. Just the thought of intimacy made me sick, and I thought for a while my sexual appetite was gone for good. My fantasies were taken over by storylines consisting of me saving my father’s life. Not in the normal way, in which I would have done a better job at giving him CPR, but in a ridiculous way where I have magical powers that allow me to go back in time and change our story.
This stage was the hardest. There were brief periods toward the end of my first stint with depression where I thought it was coming to an end because I would experience moments of happiness. These moments, however, were moments of forgetting. Not happiness.
The absolute hardest part about losing my father was that life kept going when I wanted so badly for it to stop. Everyone who supported us while we mourned slowly trickled back into their regular routines. It wasn’t fair. They got to go back to their lives while mine had turned to rubble.
Regardless of my desires, the seasons changed from Summer to Fall and things happened. Good things. It was during these moments that I would escape the burden of him being gone, too distracted by life’s excitement. It wasn’t denial, it was forgetting. I’d run into the house to tell him about my great day at work, I’d reach for my phone to call him with great news about my latest published article, I’d look for him at family events, always expecting him to walk in at any moment.
Then, whether seconds or minutes later, I’d remember that he was gone. I’d remember why I was dressed like a schlep and why I hadn’t put makeup on that morning. But for those brief moments, that heaviness in my chest, the heaviness only one who has lost someone who was part of them understands, would be gone. And I could breathe again—and laugh.
Needing To Escape
I couldn’t live this life anymore, the 9–5 bullshit office life. Sitting behind a computer was no way to live, and I needed to go somewhere. But where? And what would I do when I got there? I spent hours tediously searching for quick getaways, a temporary solution I hoped would settle my cubicle claustrophobia. So I planned a trip up north, to calm my mind and watch the leaves turn. But my depression came back just before I was scheduled to leave, and I was paralyzed again. It was too big a step, too soon.
After all the help and support my family received, I felt as if I needed to give back somehow. To whom didn’t matter, I just needed to feel important. Like my life was more than a series of events that led me to a desk in a building with hundreds of identical desks, one that I kept swamped with empty files in order to disguise my disposability. So I signed up to volunteer, organized teams to walk for every disorder and disease imaginable, schemed out a whole plan to make art and raise more money for The American Heart Association. It was my way of trying to fast forward the grieving process, skipping ahead to an in-depth coping method. My mind was ready to move on, rapidly scrolling through a memory log of all the organizations I’d always meant to get involved with, but my body was still paralyzed. My body wasn’t getting off the couch.
While isolation and depression often came and went in a package, there were also many instances during which isolation was its own stage. After my father’s wake and funeral, I realized how unbalanced my relationships were. People who I thought for sure would at the very least make an appearance, didn’t even send a condolence text message. And, of course, vice versa. Those who I couldn’t care less about were bombarding my phone with messages and my front stoop with Edible Arrangements. I really had no crutch, no go-to pal when I needed a hug. I felt incredibly alone at times, which dug me deeper into a world of isolation. A world where I didn’t look at my phone or answer the front door. Where I hid from people at work, and hid from my family at home. I’d go days without uttering a single word. It was a cleanse of some sort. I felt free from my obligation to stay strong, and smile through each day. I didn’t have to fake my happiness.
Typically, I’m not an angry person, but on the rare occasions I do raise my voice at someone, I sound like Mickey Mouse on a helium high. It’s too amusing for anyone to take seriously, so over the years I’ve acquired a silent death stare that is inevitably more effective. After my father was gone, I was slightly angry with this God everyone talks about, but I was angrier at myself for being foolish enough to put aside my true beliefs. Angry that I had stooped to the level of praying when I should have been taking action.
Then my family and friends began to talk to me about signs. Whether signs of my father’s presence or signs of a greeting from heaven, the notion drove me insane. The overall concept was just ludicrous to me, but mostly it made me angry because I didn’t see anything. I received no signs, and if this were a true thing, as his daughter, I’d be one of the first people to witness one. They were making shit up to make themselves feel better about his death, and unintentionally making me feel left out. It really fucking pissed me off.
Drugs became my best friend. Not the illegal kind—I know nothing about those. The kind that made it hurt less to put on fresh clothes and made the Christmas season disappear. They’d make my stomach sick and my head hazy, but the time passed without my realization and that’s what was important to me. Forgetting became easier, and smiling slowly became a habit again. Without them, I wonder if I’d still be crumpled in a ball on the bathroom floor.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” my therapist would usually ask. She’d never remember that I’d already told her I did not. “Why not?” Because no one wants to date a depressed commitment-phobe with mental health issues. Can we please just deal with one issue at a time?
My first date with B was at some dive bar that made me feel like I was upstate in the boonies drinking out of a dirty glass among the toothless townies. We stood out, but I enjoyed the environment. I was barely interested in dating, but I was forcing myself back into life six months after the worst day of my existence.
One and a half beers into the evening, B started telling me about his mother.
“We found her on the toilet. It’ll be ten years next month.”
I hadn’t mentioned what happened to my father, but perhaps he recognized the grief underlying my mannerisms and felt the need to bring it up. He spoke about his mother with a fresh devastation that made me realize that with death there isn’t always acceptance. For me, there will be no acceptance. Just an adjustment to the new life I’m forced to live.