The Grief Tornado

“They’re called the Stages of Grief, but don’t expect them to march along in a logical, predictable order. Their arrival may seem more like a swirling tornado.”

Mirroring this state of emotional chaos, the presenter whirled his arms through the air while I doodled row upon row of tiny circles in my notebook. Though his style was dynamic, it’s hard for lecturers to capture my attention for long, especially when I’m seated in a frigid banquet room under anemic lighting with hundreds of other whispering, coughing, fidgeting attendees.

His arms continued to spiral while he pantomimed a wild ride through the stages of grief: a sudden crash into depression, swift slide over to bargaining, explosion of anger, dip of a toe in acceptance, then a graceless stumble back to denial. As he said, “Sometimes that’s all in an hour!” and the audience laughed, I wrote Stages of Grief = Emotional Tornado below a row of tiny circles.

The trainer’s whirling arms were brought to mind a few days after my father’s sudden death two weeks ago, when Mom described a dream she’d had the night before in which she and Dad watched a huge tornado bearing down on them. These days, I’m caught squarely in the center of my own grief tornado, and I don’t need anywhere near an hour to spiral erratically through the stages. In a span of five minutes, I’ll sob my head off, narrow my eyes at a photo of him and mutter, “Thanks for bailing on us,” sob again, convince myself that this is just part of the relentless nightmare that is 2020 and he’ll be back at any moment, sob some more, tell God that I will totally start believing in him/her/them if this situation can be undone (please and thank you, amen), sob sob sob, then decide that staying in bed forever is probably the best idea. Clearly, acceptance has not yet found its place in my tornado. The pain is still so raw that acceptance seems like a betrayal to his memory. I know (hope/trust) that this will change with time.

When I arrived at my parents’ house the morning after Dad’s death, I found his to-do list on the kitchen table, his pill case beside his bed, filled up for the week to come, his day-to-day toiletries in the bathroom, his clothes piled on the dryer, and a pair of his shoes by every door. His watch, placed on the table next to his usual spot on the couch, still tracked the seconds, minutes, and hours in which he no longer existed. Packages of fishing supplies he’d recently ordered arrived at the house alongside floral arrangements and sympathy cards.

Dad was yanked away so quickly that it’s hard to stop reeling from the shock. I hugged him and said goodbye just hours before he died. He was expected at my sister’s later that week to look after his grandsons for a few days. He and Mom had planned to take the Blue Ridge Parkway to visit my husband, sister, and me at our campsite that weekend. When we’d made the plan, he’d pulled out one of his trusty paper maps to plan the route and said, “It’s good to have something to look forward to.”

I’ve dreaded my father’s passing ever since his first major cardiac event in 1985, when I was ten years old. Despite the fervent protests of his loved ones, he was always cavalier about his death, replying to each, “Good night – see you in the morning!” with, “I certainly hope so,” and reminding us ad nauseam that he wouldn’t be around forever. But nothing could’ve prepared me for this abrupt loss. The finality. The permanent state of absence. As I told my mom the other day, “He just keeps being gone.” She said she’d been thinking the same thing – that he’d been away plenty of times before, but he’d always come back. And we took a step away from our separate tornados to hold each other and cry.

I know that my family, and everyone who loved Dad, will find a way to get through this. We’re huddling close and holding onto one another. In my journal, I’m writing a list of all the things he loved, and while it makes me break down now, someday it will make me smile. I’ve discovered two good grief strategies: the shower is a good place to cry, and the car is a good place to scream. And I’m not fighting the tornado. Like all forces of nature, even the most vicious, it will run its course, and in the wake of its destructive path, there will be opportunities for rebirth. While that future is unforeseeable today, I trust that it will come.

Dad Talks

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My parents celebrate their 50th anniversary today. When they got married in the summer of ’68, Dad was 25, and Mom was 3 days shy of her 20th birthday, which means this year brings other milestones as well: Dad’s 75th and Mom’s 70th. To honor their awesomeness, I’m going to write something about each of them. Dad was born first, so he gets Post of Honor #1.

Because I’ve been in the counseling field for almost 20 years, I tend to avoid things like talk radio, podcasts, and Ted Talks. The last thing I want to do outside of work is spend more time listening to people talking. But Dad’s talks are different. Like precious gems, they are both rare and valuable. The ones that stick out most in my memory are those that came during times of transition, usually right before a big move.

Dad Talk #1: On the night before I headed to college, Dad told me we needed to talk. He took me aside and said this: “At the place you’re going, there will be a lot of kids who are smarter than you and a lot who have more money than you. And I don’t want you to forget who you are.” His warning stuck with me, and each time my identity got derailed throughout the college years, his words helped me find the way back to myself.

Dad Talk #2: Six years later, when I made the decision to move from the East Coast to California, Dad sat me down for another talk. “All right, there’s something important I need you to know,” he began. Tears sprang to my eyes as I prepared for a heart-wrenching farewell speech, but what came next was this: “If you’re attacked by a mountain lion, you need to fight. You can’t play dead. It’s the same with black bears. Playing dead only works with grizzlies. Black bears and mountain lions will kill you, so you’ve got to fight.” I said, “Okay, Dad,” but what I thought was, If it comes down to hand-to-paw combat between me and a mountain lion, I will not win. I will be cat food. He did get a little more emotional after that. Once I’d agreed to fight off mountain lion attacks, he added, “I hope you don’t like it out there. But I know you’re going to love it.”

Dad Talk #3: Fast-forward fourteen years. When Dad caught wind of the fact that I was planning to move from Oregon to San Diego, I received a voicemail: “It’s your father. Call me.” Since his usual message was: “Kelly, call your mother,” I figured it was serious and called back right away. “Your sister tells me you’re thinking of moving back to California,” he said. Before I had a chance to respond, he continued, “Your nephew is moving to North Carolina, and he’ll need his aunt and uncle. It’s time for you to move back east. Your mother misses you.” The way I figure, if someone I love and respect gives me one stern directive every couple decades or so, I should probably follow it, so my husband and I packed up and moved across the country. That was five years ago. Now we have two little nephews, and it’s awesome to be a part of their lives.

Of course, Dad has taught me way more than what I gleaned from those three talks. He taught me to fish, shoot, play sports, face fears, be true to my word, appreciate the outdoors, keep an open mind, hold myself to a high standard, treat people with respect, and be an honest and genuine friend. He also taught me that vanity is stupid, which is an invaluable lesson. He once dreamt that he had a bald spot on the back of his head. Upon waking, he decided it was true, then retained the belief for an indeterminate period of time (weeks? months?) until he happened to mention his bald spot to Mom, who informed him that it didn’t exist. I just love the fact that he never checked.

DSC_0021.jpgSpeaking of hair, that hairy beast is ’90s me, fishing off the seawall with Dad

Many years ago, back in my mountain-lion-battling California days, I gave a training to a group of child advocates. At the end of the session, one of the trainees stayed behind to ask me some follow-up questions. He let me know he was a single dad raising two teenagers, and we chatted for a while about kids, families, and child rearing practices. Before he left, he asked if I was raised by both of my parents, and I told him I was. “Were you close to your dad?” he asked. I said I was and still am. “It shows,” he said with a smile. That was one of the best compliments I’ve ever received.

Love you, Dad. Happy anniversary. ❤️