Saying Goodbye in Chapters: How I Learned Grief Is a Never-Ending Story

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Photo: Courtesy of Paolo Nicolello

I’d always known that I was going to be someone who lost their father at a young age.

This wasn’t because of some pessimistic morbidity – it was just mathematics. First of all, there was a 20-year age gap between my parents. When I was 15 years old, my father – a Lebanese man with Iraqi and Armenian roots who had me when he was 56 years old – was already 71.

Second, my Taiwanese mum, with her matter-of-fact practicality that is almost fatalistic at times, had been warning me that this would happen for years. “We’re not going to be around forever, you know?” My friends were often taken aback by her bluntness, not realizing that this direct honesty was just an inherent part of our culture – and, in many ways, a sign of respect. Even when her words sometimes stung me, I appreciated them as the truth.

Knowing I was going to lose someone I loved sooner rather than later forced me to learn the value of each moment, to tell people that I love them and how I really feel, and to adopt the concept of never going to bed or saying goodbye angry earlier than I might have otherwise. It also meant that I could get a head-start on the process of grieving through acceptance, through coming to terms with the idea that this person would be leaving my life and not coming back. What I didn’t realize at the time, however, was that no matter how prepared you think you are, the death of a loved one will always catch you off guard.

No matter how prepared you think you are, the death of a loved one will always catch you off guard.

I had never really thought of my father as being old. His mind was always so sharp that he was just as on-the-ball as everyone else’s dad. Forget stereotypes of older people becoming more adorably absent-minded; my Baba was always almost scarily perceptive until the very end. So, when his memory began to fail him and he didn’t recognize me for pockets of time, my smile finally began to crack at the edges. Some of those episodes can seem almost funny when remembered in jest. In reality, however, the memory loss that can come with aging and illness is utterly devastating. What’s more, he’d always had that white-haired look typically associated with old people for as long as I could remember. I was used to it. My dad’s entire head of hair had turned snowy white when he was just 28 years old. It was a genetic thing, apparently. I myself had started noticing an exceptionally high number of white hairs growing on my own head from the age of 18. “I’m a woman so it won’t happen to me, but if it does, I’ll just own it. I’ll be like Storm from X-Men,” I consoled myself.

It happened while my sister and I were sitting in her apartment in Dubai Marina. We’d needed a break from the heavy sense of disconsolateness that lingered around the hospital. I knew, when we left him that day, that it might be my last goodbye. Our 30-minute drive down Sheikh Zayed Road back to the hospital was loaded with awkward conversation and nervous tension. Sometimes, I still feel like a coward for the relief of not having been in the room when it happened, but ultimately, I’m glad it occurred this way. I think the universe knew that standing there and watching over him as his soul left his body would have been the straw that broke this warrior’s back, and I needed to remain fighting.

I was going to be okay, but I was also not going to be okay. I was consolable but also inconsolable.

One of the things people don’t tell you about losing a parent in your early 20s is how challenging the bureaucracy of death can be. Especially for an expatriate family, the paperwork that can come with handling everything from bank accounts to funereal bookings can be an unmitigated nightmare. Would they freeze our family bank accounts? Was his will clear enough to be legally recognized, or would it be overridden by the default Sharia laws, and how would that affect inheritance? How many visits to the courts did we need, and what documents did we need translated? Did we want him cremated or buried, and, if so, then where? It was all a bit much for a 23-year-old girl, even one gritting her teeth through it all with steely determination.

They also don’t tell you how much time and effort you’ll have to put into trying to normalize the experience for other people who haven’t yet experienced death. Some people were offended by how insensitive I seemed to be about it, given what I’d been through. They irritated me, but I now realize they simply weren’t sensitive to the fact that everyone handles grief differently, and that we each have our own ways of processing it, whatever that may look like. My methods – be that my matter-of-fact bluntness or the ability to laugh 30 minutes after reading my eulogy (which I’d cried while writing) at my dad’s funeral – made them uncomfortable because it didn’t fit into their preconceived ideas of what it meant to grieve. I suppose that, until you’ve experienced it yourself, it can be hard to understand what a deeply personal experience grief can be and how much the myriad of complex emotions surrounding it can fluctuate and evolve. On the surface, I was so fine that even I believed it. On the inside, I was lost and, after the funeral was over, I withdrew from my social circle for almost a year. I was going to be okay, but I was also not going to be okay. I was consolable but also inconsolable.

Being confronted with loss wasn’t new to me, but nothing could have prepared me for just how long and complicated of a process mourning my dad would be. I’d always thought that grief was something that could be overcome in five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. That’s what we’re taught, anyway. In reality, however, it’s not so simple. Instead, I’ve learned that grief is more like a backpack of emotions that you carry around for eternity, even if you’re sometimes able to shift it from shoulder to shoulder or set it down for a minute to lessen the load. It also never stops being awkward when you say your dad died, no matter how much time has passed. I still don’t know how to respond appropriately when people say, “I’m sorry.” I can’t bring myself to politely reply that it’s okay, because although I am okay, it will never really be.

 I’ve learned that grief is more like a backpack of emotions that you carry around for eternity, even if you’re sometimes able to shift it from shoulder to shoulder or set it down for a minute to lessen the load.

It’s been ten years now since my father died, and it’s only a decade on that I’ve realized how many obstacles the tragedy had built for me. When it happened, I’d been on the cusp of growing from a girl to a woman. I had been on my way to adulthood, but I hadn’t quite arrived yet when my life was dismantled, and I didn’t realize how many years I’d spend putting it back together again. If only I’d realized this earlier, perhaps I would not have left parts of me lingering in my trauma for years. You see, I was stuck somewhere between independence and not yet having forged a structure for my adult life that I could commit myself to. I was responsible when it came to my finances, but never to the point where I’d be able to gain genuine autonomy. I had fancy job titles that I’d earned through skill and experience, but a part of me still felt like a child playing dress-up. I got involved in serious relationships, but always fled when the concept of marriage presented itself.

A specific incident comes to mind of an unexpected breakdown at the RTA. After hours of mishaps, a kind, older manager asked me, “Why did you let this get so complicated when it could have been easily avoided? Didn’t your father show you how to do this?” I bit back through the tears, “No, he died before he could.” The manager looked at me and smiled at me in the way a father would before saying, “It’s okay, it’s simple to fix. I will help you and teach you how for next time.” I realize now that all of it was my way of holding on to my dad somehow; a part of me believed that, if I didn’t grow up fully, I’d still always be Daddy’s Little Girl.

Over the past ten years, I’ve tried many different ways of dealing with that grief. I threw myself into my fitness routine, using the exercise as a healthy distraction that soon became an uncontrollable obsession. I buried myself in my work, always moving the goalposts further and further.

I became involved in relationships with men I knew weren’t right for me. I acted in ways that weren’t true to myself in an attempt to be “normal”. Funnily enough, it turns out the only man I’ve ever really loved bore a surprising number of similarities to my father. I rejected the Arab half that I’d inherited from my father, then I embraced it at the expense of my Taiwanese roots before finding a peaceful middle ground. I took a DNA test to find out more about where I came from. I turned to Ayahuasca to help me rediscover myself and my path, and I embraced spiritual healing to finally rehabilitate those wounds.

Every now and then, it knocks the wind out of me, while other times, it’s quietly throbbing in the background.

It was the right way, because it was my way. I know that now. In many ways, it still hasn’t quite sunk in: I am aware of it, but I still haven’t quite grasped the reality of the fact that my father will never be there on my wedding day, or to see me raise a family of my own, or to even meet the man I’ll marry someday. Every now and then, it knocks the wind out of me, while other times, it’s quietly throbbing in the background. It comes with me when I fill in paperwork at the bank, and chides me with a genial disapproval when I get a new tattoo. It’s a lump in my throat when my friends post photos with their living, breathing dads each Father’s Day, and it’s a fraught current of woe when I argue with my mother or my siblings. It holds my hand when I see my boyfriend’s family bonding over the dinner table at holidays, and tells me that I’ve got this when I walk into an intimidating job interview.

And it’s okay. It’s not a ghost of the past so much as it is a shadow – one that I can never see – that’s always following me in both the light and the dark to make sure it has my back. You see, I’ve now finally figured out that grief is a never-ending journey. I’ll be saying goodbye again and again, in different ways, throughout the different chapters of my life, and that’s okay because what I now finally understand is that I don’t have to move on as long as I keep moving forward.

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