Today I’ve been thinking about how this strange labour seems to happen in the wake of a parent’s death. I felt today, while walking around during lunchtime that I was, in some way, giving birth to a new version of myself; a version who would now be equal parts parent, and child*. I’ll never be parented by my dad in quite the same way again, so I have begun to assume that role of reminding myself of the advice he would have given me in any particular situation.
Yesterday I was thinking about how nice the weather was, and about how the last time dad asked me, with the kind of wide eyes that only someone who’s seen a thing or two could still hone, what I would do “on a day like this,” in Melbourne. I laughed and said “probably just the washing,” as I loaded laundry into the machine and he affectionally called me an idiot.
It’s much too hard to summarise a life in the space of a few short months into a few, even shorter, paragraphs, so talking about an individual day seems to be the only way it works for me at present. However the writer in me (who is a little tried of dragging myself out of the house so as not to have to actually sit down and bloody write about this god awful thing that is somehow simultaneously so ubiquitously not-unique and yet so deeply, acutely, painfully personal) wants to start to make sense of it, or at least talk about it on paper. I suppose the hope is that perhaps if I have some of these thoughts written down, I won’t have to think them so often – and that would be nice. At best they might help someone else who is also feeling rather rubbish, stuck up Grief Creek without a paddle or so much as whiff of a trade wind, to feel a little less nuts also.
My dad passed away just shy of six months ago. He was 67, fit and healthy, hilarious, and one of my best friends. He had a heart attack / artery thing which I can’t remember the name of, and then mum called the ambulance. What a completely dreadful evening.
The next few hours / days / weeks / months for me were spent feeling like a vegetable, and at times I still feel like one. For someone who’s mind races a mile a mili-second it felt as though everything had wound to a complete halt with a very binary focus; “I am alive, dad is not… hang on, what?” I was amazed then, by the tidal wave of kindness people poured into my life. I imagined it a bit like a tsunami where the ground of my dad had dropped out, but before an earthquake could happen and propel this massive wave of grief into my life, the missing ground had been replaced by a pop-up safety net of loved ones who came to my house with wine, vitamins, books, food, flowers and company.
Six months later, what have I learned?
Not a hell of a lot, to be perfectly frank, but I have done a darn lot of thinking.
I’ve learned that I can go six months without hearing from dad, but I miss him every day, and that I have a lot of days ahead of me where I’ll miss him terribly too. I’ve also been very surprised that some days, even more days than not I dare say, dad’s passing does not rob a sunset of it’s a beauty, a funny joke of it’s punchline, or a good conversation of it’s togetherness. If anything, his passing makes them all the richer. I’ve also learned what an incredible physical toll grief takes on the body, and been more tired than i’ve ever been in my life.
That said, until I have anything else to say that I feel could be worth sharing, I’ve put together a short, but practical guide for how to survive your parent’s funeral which I sincerely hope you don’t have to use any time soon. (Or ever really. I sure know I toyed with the idea of just not attending the funeral and living in sweet, saccharine delusion; alas, reality has my heart.)
So here goes…
How To Survive Your Parent’s Funeral – An Amateur’s Guide (who really hopes to never become a pro.)
1) Have a really good breakfast. Like, have what you think is a really great, nutritional breakfast – and then have a smoothie AND a Berocca. Hell, invent a Berocca smoothie if you have the time, and have one of those. Have two.
2) Wear something really comfy. I unashamedly love clothes, so I wore a bright blue dress which was great because now I have this whole back catalogue of weird compliments from the day such as “you look really great for someone who just lost their dad!” and “I’m really sorry about your dad, but that dress is BEAUTIFUL!” Followed by tears which I am, to this day, unsure of whether they were about my dad, or if the lady just really, really liked my dress.
3) Be prepared for strangers to hug you. You probably have no idea just how insanely proud your parents are of you, or if you do – quadruple it. This pride will have had a flow-on effect which has caused them to talk to vast amounts of strangers in great depth about you and the latest mundane thing you’ve done. These strangers will find you at the funeral, proceed to tell you the things that your parent was proud of you for, and then they will hug you.
4) Some people will be really upset if you don’t cry. I didn’t cry at dad’s funeral that much for a number of reasons…
a) I don’t really like crying around strangers because it increases the likelihood of bullet point three occurring (see bullet point three).
b) The whole day seemed like an out-of-body-experience because I was in shock.
c) It’s just not that practical to be trying to get your mother a cup of tea, desperately attempting to remember your year seven maths teacher’s first name, and eating a miniature club sandwich while you’re crying now, is it?
It is however important to remember that these people are simply grieving in their own way, which is a lot more facially damp than yours in this moment – but don’t let this make your dry-face version of grief feel any less valid. The same applies vice-versa.
5) This really yucky thing happens where you go from being an immediately affected member of a deeply grief stricken / shocked family, to being an event co-organiser. Although this isn’t particularly ideal, my family found strange peace and moments of laughter organising photo boards, rolling hundreds of miniature spheres of blu-tac, and making a playlist of music my dad loved.
6) You may be asked to help put together an “Order of Service,” for the day. Where possible, try to refrain from referring to this as “the death brochure,” or “the funeral pamphlet,” as it, quite frankly, scared the living daylights out of people when I did so.
7) Invest in the three-ply tissues that have the aloe-vera in them. This is helpful on a number of levels, because not only will they keep your face from that sand-paper like feeling of inferior one-ply tissues being used over and over again on your baby-smooth skin, they’ll prevent strangers (see point three) from crying on you while they hug you. Three-ply aloe-vera tissues are the Cadillac’s of the disposable handkerchief world, so go on – treat yo’self.
8) Jokes aside, what helped me on the day was just imagining sitting there with my dad; my best friend and I shooting the shit like we would have a week prior. What helped me more than anything was knowing that I could sit there with no regrets, because after hard work and care, and laughter and tears – my dad and I had built a phenomenal relationship (just like he had equally done with my Mum, brother, and so many others) which I know was, and is rich enough to carry me through all the days yet to come.
That’s all for now,
Catherine JF. Sietkiewicz.
* Maybe that should be the definition of “adulthood;” the ability to parent ones self in co-operation with trusted friends and family, while remaining a child at heart.