“Hey there kiddo, well how are you?”
I never thought those would be the last words I would hear from my stepdad on Tuesday the 7th of April at 11 am, his rich southern accent as familiar to me as my mother’s voice, having been in my life for over 20 years.
My deepest fear as an American expat in New Zealand was realized two weeks ago, with the unexpected loss of my stepdad, my second dad.
Oh god, I can’t face this yet. I’m not ready for grief and loss. Sobs bubble up from chest again as I type these words, surprising me. I didn’t think I could physically cry anymore, but my body is on its own trajectory that I can’t really control. I can’t even say or write the “d” word yet. In fact, I am not quite sure I’ve truly accepted what has happened yet. It can’t be real.
Helplessness has never suited me, but that’s how I currently feel. I hesitated even sharing any of this, but I did so for two reasons. One: I need you all. I need to know I’m not alone. I need support to get through this; please let me lean on you. And two: I wanted to capture the mess of this loss early on.
As a writer, I can’t help it. I don’t want to wait for a year or two or even ten when I’ve processed this all, and can look back all-wise and shit to share a distanced, shiny and polished reflection. This is real, and this is my reality now. And it hurts, and it’s awful. And I know many of you will have gone through this too, and if you haven’t, you will (and my god I’m sorry). You are not alone; I’m in the mess with you.
Any money I have, I would pay to escape this reality. It’s too painful. I wish I could distract myself with work, with adventure, nature, or travel. But I can’t. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic, and my home of New Zealand is locked down, while my family suffers half a world away. I would literally do anything to be anywhere else and not be stuck at home alone with my own thoughts.
I’m being forced to face this loss and grief now. I don’t have a choice. Pre-coronavirus me would have fled those feelings faster than anything.
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” C.S. Lewis
However, the universe isn’t on my side. I am currently living all of those cliche metaphors we casually toss around whenever someone experiences loss. Waves of grief and loss hit me again and again. One minute I’m fine, the next I’m not. Sometimes I feel like I’m drowning. Sometimes I feel almost normal. Then I feel guilty for feeling normal, and I get sad again. Fuck.
I don’t even know what happened the week after I got the news. For example, I know I didn’t shower for a week, mostly puttering around in the same sweats, napping, crying, calling my mom, and picking fights with my partner. I don’t think I was even alive, utterly consumed by my emotions, memories, and grief.
Whenever I wake up or come back to my thoughts, I’m slapped in the face again and again with the realization of what has happened. It’s almost like reliving the trauma of receiving the news again, again, and again.
My world, my reality has changed forever, and now I have to figure out how to navigate this new world I wasn’t ready to face yet.
Besides, the world, as I knew it was already changing dramatically. In some ways, I lost my old life, mourning along with everyone else. Now I have a real, tangible, prickly grief on top of that too. Pretty fucking unfair if you ask me.
My first real loss is a doozy. Someone on Instagram messaged me last week saying, “Welcome to the club nobody wants to be a part of,” and boy oh boy does that ring true. Now I get it. And it’s awful. I wish I didn’t get it. For those of you who have lost a parent, or any prominent figure in your life, I’m so sorry. So tremendously sorry. I see you, and I hear you, and I am hugging you.
I know that time will bring understanding and even meaning to this, but I also know I’m not ready yet. I’m still in the muck, in the dirty, painful, icky, and black process of grief and loss. It has me by the throat. Going through it all to get to the other side is vital, but my god, it hurts. I just wasn’t ready. I can’t even look at photos of my stepdad yet or even say his name.
In the beginning, I suppose grief and loss are like that. An open wound that hurts and seeps blood. Eventually, it’ll heal into a scar, reminding you of your loss, but it’s always there. It’ll never go away. Your world is now changed forever, and you have no control over your situation, only your reaction.
Meanwhile, my reaction right currently teeters between sobbing like a toddler and screaming like a teenager. This is all. So. Fucking. Unfair.
On the other hand, I guess that’s the funny thing about grief and loss. You have no say in it whatsoever. You can try and fight it, you can pretend you’re okay, you can distract yourself, but it’ll seep out of you anyway. It’s impossible to master, like cupping water in your hands. Grief will spill over no matter what, and you can either fight it or surrender. But the pain, oh god, the pain. It’s unimaginable. Just make it stop.
These hot, sticky emotions have trapped me. Stuck in New Zealand, a world away from my mom and family, the guilt eats away at me every minute of every day. In short, I would have flown back to Virginia in a heartbeat, but I can’t. I literally can’t.
Experiencing loss during a pandemic that has brought the world to a standstill is just another knife in the heart. It’s undoubtedly made trying to cope with the sudden loss of a parent even crueler.
How do you cope with loss? Tell me, how do you endure this pain? And above all, how the fuck do you move on?