In year two since losing Dad I’ve learned to:
- Emotional Constipation & let my emotions flow as they come.
-Grief distractions, the people or circumstances around my loss that kept me from processing my grief.
-Superwoman Syndrome. Accepting help on your grief journey is liberating.
-Holding space for joy & pain simultaneously.
-Receiving help & kindness from others.
-Emotional release as a gift.
Two years. It’s been two years since I heard Dad’s gregarious laugh. His laugh was sheer joy. It started from deep within and burst out. That laugh could brighten my darkest day, as could his positive attitude. God, I miss that laugh. I miss my Daddy.
Call it “delayed grief” or just part of my grief process, but something about year two solidified the fact that my Dad died. Specifically, I woke up with the thought, “It’s been two years since I heard Daddy’s voice. Two years since I heard his laugh.” And for the first time on my grief journey, tears flowed easily. Crying freely is a gift I don’t take for granted.
Three years ago, I started going to therapy for self-diagnosed “emotional constipation.” I was faced with many sad and life-altering situations. Even though I wanted to cry, I just couldn’t cry about it. I would literally feel blocked. If I did express a strong emotional reaction, it was usually anger. This continued after the loss of my Dad. My blocked emotions also kept me processing Dad being gone. Instead of focusing on his passing, I distracted myself with the circumstances around his death. It was easier to focus on people, places, and things still here than accept that my Dad was actually gone.
I was praying in circles about the same things over and over. I felt God gently nudge me to see a therapist. Working with my therapist helped me discover the root cause of this block. A big part of it was fear. I was afraid if I allowed my emotions to flow, I’d “fall apart” and not be able to do everything I needed to do.
Let’s explore that for a minute.
“Fall apart”- Falling apart is part of grieving. Solomon’s writings on time in the book of Ecclesiastes is one of my favorite literary works. It says, “There is a time to mourn” (Ecclesiastes 3:4). I’ve learned the hard way that avoiding this time of mourning doesn’t protect you but prohibits your process. So fall apart if you have to. Just be sure you have support around you to help you back up. For me, I’m so grateful for my family, dear friends, therapy, community support to help me through. And most importantly, my honest relationship with God.
We all have different definitions of fall apart. It’s important to know that you can get up when you fall down and rise stronger. Brene Brown says in Rising Strong, “We run from grief because loss scares us, yet our hearts reach toward grief because the broken parts want to mend. C. S. Lewis wrote, 'No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.' We can’t rise strong when we’re on the run.” Rising Strong is one of my favorite books and helped me release my emotions.
Year two taught me to make space for joy and pain at the same time. Emotions aren’t one-dimensional. Thank God we have the capacity to hold sadness and happiness at the same time.
Honestly, I felt I didn’t have a choice but to do both. My daughter was only 13 months old when Dad passed. If I chose to languish in the sorrow of grief, I would miss the joy of her most memorable moments.
And I know Dad wouldn’t have wanted me to miss the joys of life. Dad loved life and was so vibrant. He taught me, by example, to find joy even in the worst circumstances. He could find humor in even the saddest moments.
Part of how I’ve learned how to cultivate joy in the midst of pain during year two is by choosing to embrace:
Receiving help & kindness from others- I’m a recovering “superwoman.” In my quest for perfection, I felt I had to do everything myself and be strong for everyone else. In the last two years, I’ve learned to surrender my illusion of perfection. Now I share with those who care about me and receive the help they offer. I’ve learned sometimes, the “miraculous” answer to our prayer comes in the simplest forms.
Emotional release as a gift- “Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.” Brene Brown, Rising Strong.
I cried more in year two than I did when my Dad first died. The shock and denial have worn off. I dug beneath the superficial emotions of anger, and I realized I can fall apart and restart even better than before.
Now I embrace my emotions as gifts that keep me connected to the present without regretting the past or fearing the future. Emotions help me remember I’m human and connect with others’ humanity. I can remove the pretense of perfection and all the pressure that comes with perfectionism. Most importantly, I’ve learned breaking down often proceeds your breakthrough.
Choosing to continue- Last year, I wrote about “E.M.B.R.A.C.E. Your Grief Process.” Honestly, some days you just don’t feel like choosing joy or doing what’s needed to cultivate it. That’s okay; we’re humans, not God. As a Believer, I’m grateful I can turn to God for help at all times, especially on the “I don’t feel like it” days.
Choosing to Celebrate- My Dad passed on his birthday. Remember I said he loved life. So I think this was intentional so we’d always celebrate his life at the same time we remember his death. This year I chose to celebrate doing things he loved- food, family, fitness, and great music.
On January 19th, I went for 9.19 mile run to the Liberian Embassy in DC. A spot we frequented many times when he visited the US from Liberia. I included a run through Rock Creek Park on the route since Dad was a nature lover, and now I am also. My run was fueled by amazing music with some of my Dad’s favs- Bob Marley, Lucky Dube, & George Benson.
Later that evening, I traveled to Atlanta to attend the memorial service of my dear friend Krissy's incredible mother, Shelia White. Like my Dad, Ms. White loved life and great food. She introduced me to so many delicious meals. I was grateful to celebrate her amazing life on January 20th. Ms. White’s vibrant personality and generous heart will truly be missed.
January 21st-23rd My sister and I reflected on our fondest memories of Dad and did what he loved to do- dine out. Dad loved cuisine from all across the globe.
We went to Blue India and 26 Thai. Dad was looking out both days.
At Blue India Atlanta I had a delicious okra dish, Bhindi Masala. It was even better on day 2.
At 26 Thai I had the best drunken noodles I’ve ever eaten. The noodles were so fresh!
Yes, there were many tears during this time, but there was also laughter and an abundance of love.
All a reminder:
“Joy and pain are like sunshine and rain
Over and over you can be sure
There will be sorrow but you will endure (you will endure)”
Joy And Pain, by Frankie Beverly; Sung by Maze
Wrapping It Up
In medical school, I learned that “acute grief typically lasts 3-6 months” and has “five stages.” I always found it intriguing that we could medically quantify the length of someone’s grief. Life has taught me that the duration of grieving varies from person to person. My personal experience with grief has taught me this is true. Grief may not occur all at once or perfectly in five stages. Instead, grief can “ebb & flow.” I’m grateful the newer medical evidence gives more fluidity for the natural course of grief. Also, the latest edition of DSM V helps identify when mental health conditions such as major depression disorder (MDD) may complicate your grief response. MDD is a potentially life-threatening condition, so it is important to recognize it early. For more information, read here.
Wherever you are on your grief journey, I pray that you can:
- Release the emotions and mindsets blocking your grief process
-Embrace enjoyment even during the pain.
-Release perfectionism and Superwoman Syndrome. So you can savor the warm embrace of those who love you on your grief journey.
May God continue to bless & strengthen you on your grief journey.
With Love - Dr. Sylvia
Resources & References
Zisook, S., & Shear, K. (2009). Grief and bereavement: what psychiatrists need to know. World psychiatry : official journal of the World Psychiatric Association.