Sunday, June 11, 2017

Mourning death vs. Celebrating life

People all over the world process loss differently. Every culture all over the world has a different way to approach death and its aftermath. 

In some cultures there is a designated mourning time. Like in Hinduist, Islamic, Catholic and Jewish traditions. Elsewhere in the world people have traditions that center around celebrating life. Consider a fairly new development in South Africa: an 'after tears party' which is held after the funeral, when friends and family get together to drink, joke, focus on comforting each other and remembering the deceased with fondness. A similar tradition is found in Irish culture. 

I do not think that the way mourning happens in the Netherlands, where I am from, is necessarily based on a religion or specific tradition. It is just something that is rooted in the attitude of the Dutch and in my family also based on mere practicality. But recently someone I care about made me question the way loss is approached. 

By the time I was 16 I had lost both my grandfathers, an uncle and my (at the time) best friend's mom. My family was well experienced in this department and when it came to loss and crisis mode we'd all become a well oiled machine. But to say that after a life changing event like the passing of a beloved we would get together and celebrate life? That's a different story. Maybe it has something to do with the circumstances or the age at which these dearly beloved passed away. Could be, I'm not sure. Maybe it's a cultural thing? Also couldn't say that for certain. 

For you to understand why I am broaching this subject, I know I have to give you some back story. Which in this case means that I have to get personal. Most people in my immediate circle of friends and acquaintances here in California know that I lost my father at a relatively young age (I was 16). What they don't know however, is what that meant to me. I don't talk about it. Because it hurts. Still, to this day, I have difficulty talking about what his loss meant to me. 

I say this with all due respect to my mother, but her and I have a different kind of bond. My dad was my everything, as I was his. There are many many reasons why and I'm sure popular psychology has you convinced that it was just a simple case of a daughter feeling closer to her father. But to us it was so much more than that. People used to joke about it, on the outside I am most like my mom. But the inside, that was all my dad. My character, my mindset, my mischief, my temper (wouldn't be honest if I left that out), I was and am still an exact internal copy of him. I realize that even after describing this to you, that doesn't sound anything out of the ordinary. But there is more. 

My parents had been married for 18 years, for which most of them trying to have kids. My dad had always invisioned having a large family. Years later I remember him talking about if he'd have had his way I would have been one of five. Sadly things didn't go as planned. I will spare you the details. Long story short, after 18 years of trying to have kids I was finally born. And I remained the only child. So I was all they would ever have and all they had ever wanted. With both of my parents around 40 years old, I was born healthy. Against the odds medicine gave them at the time. Their little miracle. That's how they would tell the story and that's what they called me. 

Maybe now you can better understand why I was so special to my parents. And why I was (and am) so so lucky with the both of them. They'd saved up all the love they had for me for 18 years and made sure I felt that every moment of every day. 

I definitely was a daddy's girl all my life. I would spend every second I could with him. He would take me to his job sights from as early as I can remember. All his coworkers, bosses and later subordinates knew me. Not just knew of me, no he would take me with him. I wanted to do everything he did and go everywhere he went. Like I said before, he was my everything and I was his. His "Kleine Meisje" (his little girl). 

But on June Fourth 2004, now thirteen years ago, my world fell apart. My heart completely shattered. Life as I knew it blown to shards. When I look back to life before that day it's like I was living in a perfect bible, protected from hurt and protected from life. I remember that entire day as if it were yesterday. As if life before that faded away and when I think about it it's as if all memories since become vague. Because I've never felt that way. 

It was a Friday. I was sitting in my fourth period Biology class. I wasn't really paying attention and when I looked out the class window into the hallway my fourth year coordinator walked by. I saw the expression on her face and her eyes search the classroom until they rested on me. I knew. I knew in that very moment why she was there. I knew what she was coming to tell me. She told the teacher she wanted me to come with her, so I followed her out of the classroom to the principals office. She explained that my mom had asked her not to say anything. She didn't have to. I knew. I waked through the hallway and as I saw my mom and aunt coming out of the principals office I remember my heart sinking. I saw it on my moms face, he was gone. He would never come home again. 

That night all the family came over to our house. All aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, acquaintances, neighbors. Everyone was in crisis mode. His death was unexpected. There were things to take care of. The funeral, the hospital bill, other bills. All things that I never knew about. Things that adults took care of, not for children's ears intended. But that day, that night, I stopped being a child. Just like that, I grew up. 
And when it became too much for my 16 year old brain to handle I walked out of the room. I sat down on my mothers bed, looking in the mirror. Not recognizing the person staring back at me. Not knowing who I was anymore. I now was the girl without a father. The girl without her father. My dad, gone. I sat there looking at myself while thinking never agains. I know, how very Poe of me. 

Never again will I sit at the front window at 5 o'clockwaiting for my dad to come home.
Never again will he come home at 5. 
Never again will I see how much he loves my mom by the way he greets her after coming home from work.
Never again will I sit down with him on the couch and snuggle up against him.
Never again will I spend the whole weekend following him around and helping him in the garden. 
Never again will I complain about his 'crappy old school music' 
Never again will he half heartedly complain about the 'crappy noisy music' I listened to.
Never again will he make fun of me for liking a boy. 
Never again will he celebrate my birthday with him.
Never again will I celebrate his. 
Never again will we be together as a whole family to celebrate any holiday. 
Never will he meet my future husband.
Never will he be able to wake me down the aisle and see me get married.
Never will he become a grandfather. 

And I remember feeling so heartbroken and so lost that I wondered if I could ever feel happy again. If I would even ever be able to love anyone as much as I loved him. 

It's been thirteen years since then. I graduated high school, went to college, graduated college, met my husband, got married, all without him. I healed. My broken heart mended over lots and lots of time. But some days, days like my birthday, his birthday, holidays and especially June fourth, I end up reliving those memories. And ever so slightly and for a day or two the heartbreak returns. I think of all of the things he missed since then and all of the beautiful memories I made without him. I loved him so much. He was my everything. In a way he still is. Because I was his. I was him. Still am and still do. But life goes on. 

When I was going through these emotions last weekend someone asked me when I would be ready to start celebrating my fathers life in stead of mourning his death. 

As it's been thirteen years, and it still hurts... I can't help but wonder, when does this feeling ever truly pass? When will I be ready to stop mourning his loss and celebrate his life? The truth is, I'd say about 350 days out of the year I do celebrate his life. I am thankful for all of the beautiful memories we did make together. For all the amazing time we did get to spend together. 

But those other 16 days? They're still a real pain.