The day I buried my dad was the closest I’ve come to needing stitches.
In a freak act of klutziness, I cut my thumb on an upturned shaving razor. After an initial freak-out, I bandaged it up and did my best to ignore it as my thumb throbbed throughout the day.
As it healed, I discovered just how many ways a person uses the tip of their thumb. I buttoned a shirt and pain shot through my hand. I typed, knit, and tied my shoes. Each time, I got a little reminder that I wasn’t better yet.
After the skin healed on the surface, I mostly forgot about it. But then a sharp pain would surface again out of nowhere. One button, two buttons, three buttons – ow.
Today I don’t feel pain from my thumb. I go about my life for long periods of time before I notice the smooth scar out of the corner of my eye. If I look closer, I can see the grooves of my fingerprint fighting their way through the damaged tissue to make my print normal again. But I don’t know if it ever will be.
Going through the grieving process was a lot like the physical process of healing. At times I looked fine on the outside, but there was still damage on the inside. The following things I did helped me take care of myself and facilitate my healing.
I drank less alcohol
I actually reduced my drinking quite a bit after losing my dad. I knew that alcohol would only mask the pain temporarily and I didn’t want to run from my problems. Alcohol is a depressant and I certainly didn’t need anything else bringing me down.
I made time for self-care rituals
Between work and executing my dad’s estate, I had some very busy days, but I watched a Netflix episode every night. I scheduled time for my favorite method of self-care and refused to take it off my to-do list. I knew if I didn’t make the time, I would build up feelings of frustration at spending my entire day doing things I “had to do” and nothing I wanted to do for me.
I communicated what I needed to others
No one knows exactly what to say or what you need when you’re grieving. In the weeks immediately following my dad’s death, my mom checked in a lot. I love my mom and I know she meant well, but it made me feel pitied and it reminded me of my loss when I was trying to have a normal day. I told her exactly how I felt and we determined how she could support me without making me feel worse.
I gave myself permission to not be OK
Grief made it difficult to enjoy many things that are a big part of my life and personality. I am normally a very competitive football fan, but my dad passed away right before the season started. Watching sports was something we did together every weekend so I had no immediate desire to watch alone. The Cubs made the MLB playoffs for the first time since I was a kid and I couldn’t enjoy it.
Instead of having an identity crisis and worrying about who I was without my dad, I gave myself permission to not be my normal self. I focused on other passions that I didn’t associate with my dad knowing that someday I’d be able to connect with sports again.
I listened to how I felt day-by-day
My instinct was to get things done and be the take-charge, responsible person I normally am. Some days, I could be that person, but on other days I had to adjust my expectations. The key was to pay attention to how I was feeling.
I wanted to get my dad’s house cleaned out as quickly as possible so I could sell it during the peak season. My plan was to work on it pretty much all weekend, every weekend and take a few days off from work. I soon discovered that sorting through someone’s personal items is a daunting and emotional task. I still worked on it every weekend, but I settled on one day and saved my PTO days for relaxing.
I spent time with people I care about
Grief lies to you and tells you you’re alone. I was at Christmas dinner with my family when I noticed that my grandparents, my aunt and uncles, and my cousins were each turned to one another in conversation. Everyone at the table had a link that connected them, and then there was me. I felt like the branch that had broken off the family tree.
With the benefit of hindsight now, I know that I’m not alone and I was never alone. My emotions made me feel like I was in my own bubble, but my entire family and so many other people cared about me. They never left me.
The times I actually felt happy in the year after I lost my dad were all spent with people I love. Whether it was dinner out, a night of mini-golf, or a comedy marathon at home, allowing people to be there for me gave me the strength to face moments of difficulty.
I rewarded myself for the little things
Grief makes everything feel more difficult. Some weekends I didn’t really want to leave my bed so I rewarded myself for every errand I didn’t want to do.
Rewards can be as small as a candy bar or as large as concert tickets, depending on your budget. Having easy to achieve goals and positive reinforcement gave me motivation to do things that seemed hard.
I talked to a mental health professional
Perhaps most importantly, a counselor taught me things about the grieving process that I needed to know. I learned that not every day is better than the last. I felt OK on my dad’s birthday, but horrible around the holidays a few months later and that was normal.
It was also an outlet where I could talk about my dad. I stopped myself from talking about him a lot to others because I was afraid of bringing it up too much. I told myself that no one likes a downer and they just wanted to hear that I was doing fine. This was flawed thinking, but being able to share the positive memories of my dad with someone whose job was to listen helped me avoid bottling everything inside.