It’s one of those days. Tuesdays to be specific. Tuesday is the day I go to my “suicide survivor group”. I signed a confidentiality agreement regarding the group and I’m trying to take it seriously so will say no more about it except that I tend to leave those groups feeling a little battered. I think going is productive but it is tough and I feel like I’ve worked when I leave. Inevitably I cry on the way home and am usually a bit more emotional the day after than I am most other days. I see an Ativan in my very near future so I can go to sleep tonight. Tonight is a bit extra painful because on the way home I called my dad.
He had written to ask for my social security number. He is preparing his bank accounts for his death, adding me and my siblings as ‘pay on death’ beneficiaries. A lawyer has advised it. I understand and suppose it is the smart way to set things up but it also feels gross to be doing this sort of business with him. But that wasn’t the painful part of the conversation. My Dad is ostensibly very healthy and I don’t anticipate his death in the near future. That part of the conversation just felt like an exercise in preparedness.
The hard part of tonight’s conversation was that I also told him that when I talk to him I feel sad because he seems to not be sad about Nelson dying. What does that look like? Well, when we talk I inevitably ask “how are you?” with meaning hanging heavy in my voice. I’m not asking how the day is going, I’m asking how he is doing with the grieving. I have to believe he knows that is what I am asking. But inevitably his response is “I am doing good, Teresa” said with emphasis on good. At first I wondered if this was his way of making sure I don’t spend energy worrying about him? Was he saying this to be protective of me? Was he being paternal? But in the back of my head has been a growing discomfort because I think I’ve known it was no such thing. What if he really is doing “good”? How do I feel about the idea of him feeling “good”?
Let’s back up. It’s important to know that I come from a long line of criers on my father’s side. Growing up I thought of my father as the emotionally in touch one of my parents. I saw my mother as tough, stoic and holding feelings at arm’s length. I thought of my father as being more affectionate than my mother and more capable of being emotionally vulnerable. Growing up I had seen my father break down in tears a multitude of times and can vividly remember the one time I saw my mother cry. A four-year old Nelson had used one of her college papers as a practice sheet for his scissor skills and had shredded it pretty thoroughly the night before it was due. So I thought of my dad as the feeling parent; the one who was emotionally available. All of that may actually be true but it’s all relative. The more time I spend in therapy the more I come to realize that our household didn’t lend itself to emotional honesty. Like at all. The fact that I thought of my dad as being emotionally available didn’t mean he was. it meant he was more so than my mother who had defense mechanisms on top of her defense mechanisims. Crying about something isn’t the same as talking about something. Caring isn’t communication.
When I was in highschool I spent a summer living with a friend’s mother. It was a pretty big crisis point in my family up until that point. My parents really struggled with how to parent me and things weren’t going smoothly. During the events that lead to me leaving to go live with this family friend and also during the months of that summer my parents wrote each other letters discussing what they thought about how to handle the situation. Let me say that again, they wrote letters. To each other. THEY LIVED TOGETHER and slept in the same bed but they left each other letters rather than talk about these emotionally charged concerns. I’m not sure that they didn’t talk but I certainly know the letters happened and I found them and read them my senior year. At the time they were a fount of information for me about the thought process my parents were each using to approach the subject of parenting me; the things they wanted to happen, the things that worried them, the strategies that would be employed. I wish I could read those letters now because I’d be curious to see if they contained any reference to actual feelings about what was happening. I am going to guess they did not. I feel so surprised to realize how little we all talked about feelings. I had such emotional upheaval as a teenager and spent so much time embattled with them and slamming doors and crying and seeing my dad cry that I think I thought of us as being an in touch group. But we weren’t. Not really. Maybe more than some other families of the day and my dad was certainly more comfortable being sad than many of the other dads I knew but we weren’t skilled at talking to each other about how we felt. We said I love you and at birthdays and other family celebrations we would talk about what we liked about each other and things we were grateful for and I confused that with emotional connection. It was the tip of the emotional iceberg but it didn’t mean we were comfortable or practiced at speaking truthfully about difficult emotions. I continue to get my arms around that. We would read books and cry about the things that happened to the characters and I felt very deeply which made me think I was part of a deeply feeling tribe. Maybe I was but feeling isn’t expressing.
When my Dad left us – and that is how we describe it – when Dad left us he gave us each a pretty silted phone call. I think he cried and tried to say that he just had to do this but it was a month or so later that we got a much more in-depth letter explaining his decisions. As I write this it occurs to me that Dad is much more comfortable talking about his own feelings than receiving the feelings of others. I’m not sure what I am trying to say. Or what significance any of that has on anything.
Anyway. So I told my Dad I needed him to be honest with me and tell me if he was really okay because I’m not okay and I feel really alone in that. No one seems to be sad like me and I don’t understand why and THAT makes me sad too. But he told me he is doing good. He said he is an old man with an old man’s perspective. He thinks it’s neither good nor bad that Nelson is gone – it is just is. It happened. He kept saying that. It happened. Which I guess means he is not struggling to accept it. I should be relieved for him. I continue to struggle with accepting it. I just have this notion in my head that parents who lose their children are devastated. I think of that as the worst pain a person could face. No one wants to outlive their children. Right? Talking to Dad it sounded like he was talking about the death of a houseplant. I can’t imagine he meant for me to feel this way about our conversation but it gutted me. I imagine he wanted the things he was saying to comfort me but I felt so distant from him. People can be at different places, I get that and talking about this stuff can make people uncomfortable and as I have already described raw emotions aren’t our strong suit. I get that too. And maybe there is something about being in the twilight of your life where you have a perspective that the rest of us don’t and you can put things into their place and process it without all the tears. I just don’t know. I just know I’m not in that place and it hurt me to talk to him and I can’t imagine wanting to talk to him again any time soon.
I feel so lonely with this grief. Both of my siblings have made statements that this loss is different from losing our mother. The context is that it is not as earth shattering for them. For me it is the exact opposite. My world was rocked when my mother died and I grieved hard and heavy but this hurts in a very different way. To me this is tragedy. My mother’s death was so hard but it was not a tragedy. There were even parts of her life that I felt profound sadness and regret about both on her behalf and on my own. She had a tough life and a lot of emotional upheaval that she didn’t know how to cope with until the very end of her life. She died just as she was beginning to live. And that is tragic but her death was not a tragedy. Nelson’s death is a tragedy to me.
Talking to Dad I think he also pointed out that he had not seen Nelson in some time and I suppose that makes him more removed? I don’t know. I miss Nelson’s presence for sure. There is a void on Friday evenings. There is an emptiness in my phone. It hurts. It is ongoing hurt. I feel like I just want (need!) to find someone who is as sad as I am about Nelson but that person can’t be found. And the looking for that person, that reaching out to others and finding such a disconnection is just too much.
Not every day feels like this. I readily admit that I am now in the possession of many good days, better days. But this has not been one of them.