Surviving “Death Day”: How Loss Changes Our Views on Time
Every day following the loss of a loved one becomes “X time since.” Ten days since Grandma died. Five years since we lost Uncle Garrett. This is our twelfth Christmas without so-and-so. The days turn into neverending markers we plunge into the soil as we walk through life, looking back now and then with a mixture of grief and wonder.
My markers are carved with a simple “Dad.”
My Dad died three years ago today. There are so many markers to look at — so many things he has missed out on. I am often taken aback when I realize that something that is now an everyday part of me is a part of me he never had the chance to meet.
Dad doesn’t know I moved out of the country. He doesn’t know about my Ph.D., my travels through Europe, or my husband. He doesn’t know about COVID, the winter storm raging back home, or how the Trump saga ended. He never heard of TikTok because it debuted in the U.S. months after he died — and his namesake grandson wouldn’t make his entrance for more than a year after that. Dad doesn’t know I stripped the black from my hair and went back to red. He never saw me wear these glasses, and never saw my sister turn her hair blue and dive into grad school while raising three kids under five.
He has missed births and birthdays, wedding anniversaries, Christmas mornings, Thanksgiving dinners, and summer barbecues. He has missed first steps, first words, grand wins, sour losses, powerful moments, and the forgettable mundane. Dad has missed life.
Many people have the misconception that grief is something to repair — that you “get over it” and move on. If you don’t move on, you should. After all, death is unavoidable, right?
This is the Western, practical approach to death. Deny, deny, deny. Get angry. Reason with God. Fall apart. Accept your fate and move on.
The problem is that is not how grief works, but society has not caught onto that reality yet. We are trained for short periods of mourning, groomed to believe crying is a weakness, and taught that it is inappropriate to still be sad after X markers pass, because — surely — we should have moved on by now. The Five Stages of Grief model has crippled the emotional responses of an entire generation, convincing us there is a simple marathon to run to get back to some elusive concept known as “normal.”
But that’s not what modern research has to say on the matter. The more we collectively study death — researchers, psychologists, social scientists, physicians, and more — the more we are learning grief is an experience that is woven into our life. As one psychotherapist explains, “[W]hen a bereavement happens, there isn’t an area of your life that isn’t affected…but our life grows around it.” In other words, at the moment of loss, that loss has touched every part of us, but as time passes, more of “us” happens around it. Unlike the flawed grief cycle, which suggests death is something to walk through, new thinking on death is finally acknowledging that death is something we walk with.
This is why we have moments of despair and moments of happiness. This is why I have days where I celebrate Dad and smile at the memories, and moments when I crumble and sob and am entirely inconsolable. There is no getting over death. Ever. Yes, it happens every day. Yes, it is a part of life. Yes, it is normal — as is grief. It is okay to cry over a loss, whether expected or tragic, at any stage of life, following any number of days, weeks, months, years, or entire decades since that death occurred. It is okay to be human, to be angry, sad, forlorn. It is okay to have no answers, and want nothing but to cry. It is okay to simply be with your grief and experience those feelings like it all just happened yesterday.
Life is a series of markers. Today marks three years since Dad died. Today, I am back in the whirlwind of February 18, 2018, when all I could manage to do was rage and cry and ask God why bad things happen to good people. My feelings are not the result of failing to get over something or having poor coping skills. My feelings are perfectly normal and entirely valid.
Markers will creep up on you. They will transport you to a different time and place, to a plane where misery is fresh again. When you find yourself standing there, explore it. Breathe it in, cry it out, and acknowledge that your feelings, too, are entirely valid.