In The Grieving: Confessions of a Mourning Son
"Grief is not a problem to be solved; it is an experience to be carried."
– Megan Devine, It's OK That You're Not OK
It all starts, oddly enough, with a PDF.
On the morning of September 3, 2021, I opened my laptop and revisited a digital document that was minimized to the bottom corner of my screen. I left it there the night before, a reminder of the new reality I was about to experience, a world in which my father would no longer be with us. I was asked to sign this PDF so that my father could be removed from his hospital room and begin hospice care after suffering a massive stroke one month earlier, which was one month after he lived through through a heart attack. It was a simple piece of paper that held so much power over me.
Four days later, at 5:30 AM on September 7, my mother and I received the dreaded call, one of those Worst Phone Calls Ever you always hear about. My father had passed minutes earlier.
Those previous four days were heavy with an emotional weight I had never felt before. There weren't enough thoughts and prayers to ease us from the inevitable. And I don't know which is worse – the waiting period during which you watch your father slowly drift away, or the aftermath, when it finally happens. Using the word "relief" doesn't feel appropriate because that would imply a release of stress, a weight lifted, something to get over. I will never get over this.
After seeing countless others lose a parent as you get older, you brace yourself for what it may feel like when it happens to you. Now, for the first time in my life, I have become a member of a club that no one ever wants to join. I truly know what a heavy heart feels like.
The man who emigrated from Japan in 1977 to start a new life at the age of 25 – the man who lived and breathed golf, who taught me how to ride a bike and ice skate, who inadvertently introduced me to the novels of Dean Koontz and instilled in me an adventurous appetite and palate – was physically no longer with us. It hurt. It sucked. It was surreal.
I've heard many things about grief, and they're all true. There's so much nuance to it, so many dimensions to it, and for a while, I have felt the need to articulate this miserable, chaotic, and numbing experience in the best way possible so that some people can understand it a bit more while others can feel like they're not going crazy when faced with such an emotionally (and physically) draining hardship.
Of course, the process is different for different people. Like snowflakes, those sensitive drops of precipitation, no two are alike. I can only describe what it was like for me. And now, having had two years to sit with my feelings and thoughts and everything else that comes with losing a parent, this is what I have found...
There is an immediate numbness when it happens. The morning we said our final goodbye to my father, my mother and I left the hospital and stopped for breakfast at a diner. We barely spoke as we waited for our plates of pancakes. I didn't know what the rest of our day was supposed to look like, what we were supposed to do. I remember looking around the restaurant, watching other families enjoy their meals, smiling, chatting, casually going about their morning. A part of me wanted to go up to their tables and politely ask them tone down their happiness. "Excuse me, but my father just died, and I would love it if you could acknowledge my misery, finish your bacon, and shut the fuck up."
Then, soon after, your life doesn't resemble your life anymore. The grief is so raw, so present, you don't know what anything means anymore.
There is a list of tasks you're suddenly faced with. I went into "worker mode," knowing there was probably more to prepare and accomplish than we anticipated. In hindsight, I think it was a way to distract myself, keeping myself busy with items I had to cross off my to-do list. Family had to be notified, both here in the States and across the Pacific in Japan. Then, credit card companies had to be called. Financial accounts had to be updated. Subscriptions had to be cancelled. This was just the tip of the Grief Iceberg.
My thoughts turned dark. I thought about him, particularly his body, cold and alone in a morgue, not treated like a person but some kind of empty vessel. My thoughts turned bitter. I hated the world; a glance at any given news headline told me that it was quickly swirling down the drain, that humans should give up on a future for this planet.
Then there are the inappropriate thoughts. What if I were to take a selfie with the urn? I asked myself when I pulled up to the crematorium where I picked up his ashes that had been shoveled into a clear plastic bag, placed in a black plastic urn (a starter urn, if you will), and packaged in a cardboard shipping box. The death certificate was folded into an envelope, taped to the box. Sixty-nine years of a life relegated to this.
I placed the box on the passenger seat, and before heading back to my mother's house (I no longer call it my parents' house), I drove myself to the nearest AMC theater to catch a matinee of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. (I will forever associate this Marvel movie with the day I picked up my father's cremains.) I thought about bringing him in with me, placing him on the seat next to me, because I have so many memories of my father taking me to weekend matinees as a kid in New York, but that would have been too weird. I went in alone and attempted to escape into a superhero fantasy for two-and-a-half hours, wondering if he would have enjoyed the movie. Then the credits rolled, and I walked into the humid Florida air and into a new reality I dreaded.
Then there is guilt, arriving in relentless questions: Am I grieving enough? Should I be crying every day for the first two weeks? Should I be doing more? Is it okay that I treat myself to a day at an art museum or another matinee? What will happen if I go a day without thinking about him? Will I ever experience such a day?
But soon, as the days wear on, there is also gratitude. After feeling overwhelmed by the love and support that came through calls, texts, and social media comments, my tears of grief turned into tears of gratitude.
My next visitor is doubt, a cousin of guilt. I think about the hospital where he breathed his last breath. I am suddenly inundated with an avalanche of more questions. Did the doctors and nurses do everything they could? Did he really get the help and treatment and attention he should've received? Did I have enough quality time with him this year? Should I have gone to Florida sooner? Could my presence have made a difference?
There is frustration. I don't need to be told that this "happened for a reason" and that I will come through this as a better person. I didn't need this. I didn't need to be reminded about how precious life is. I didn't need this life lesson to help me transform into a more caring person. I'm already caring and loving goddamit. I already knew that pain like this existed in the world, that we live in a random universe filled with injustices. I already knew all of this.
The frustration evolves into anger. I ask myself, "Why does my mother need this additional suffering after enduring eighteen months of a global pandemic and all the emotional and physical hardships that came with it?" Why the fuck did this have to happen? I'm angry at random strangers on the street; I see them lining up for Starbucks and want them to feel my pain as they reach for their cold brews and step into the sunshine. I'm angry at the one friend who never reached out or reacted to my posts about my father – not even a simple response with an emoticon. I'm angry and sink deeper, reliving the heartbreak I experienced after being dumped just days before lockdown, isolating me into a single, loveless quarantine bubble, and even though it was a while ago, it left me with feelings of utter loneliness. I'm angry at the assholes who didn't wear a mask in the supermarket after seeing the ER at my father's hospital overrun with unvaccinated COVID patients. I'm angry at the lack of empathy and the rise of stupidity and entitlement in this country. I'm angry that I'm angry.
But with that anger and frustration comes understanding. I understand that we as a culture and society do not know how to manage and talk about this kind of pain and grief. I understand that it can be uncomfortable for my friends to talk to me about what I am going through, especially those who have not lost a parent, because it forces them to think about the pain and heartache they will have to face at some point in their lives. I understand that my pain will never go away, that there is no such thing as "stages of grief." Grief is not something to be ended or cured; I will carry it with me, and while most days will be good, some will be not good.
There is a hyperawareness. With my father's death came the births of several babies within my family and my circle of friends. I only thought this happened in movies and TV shows, a dramatic narrative device used to demonstrate the irony or dichotomy of the human condition. I get it. I see it. Life goes on, blah, blah, blah...
There is exhaustion. There are only so many times I can answer the question "How are you doing?" I was already answering this question as we were coming out the pandemic, but now I have to add another layer to this response. While I appreciate the sentiment and the check-ins, perhaps I'll send a link to what I've written here to cover all ground. I am also generally tired. Sometimes getting out of bed is an achievement I treat with the same fervor as walking three miles.
And with this exhaustion comes neglect. I neglected to start sorting through my father's things, his clothes, his golf equipment, all of his papers and items that have been relegated to an assortment of boxes, folders, and drawers. What will we do with all of it? It involves so much research, packing, and effort. No one ever talks about processing all of the minutiae of a life that is no longer a life.
I neglected to keep up with my pop cultural duties, something people have come to expect from me. I missed jumping on the Squid Game bandwagon. I didn't know when I would get to finish the last James Bond movie. (My father loved the franchise and would hum the theme song whenever he spotted an Aston Martin on the road.) I neglected to write more chapters of my novel. I neglected to eat well – there isn't a flavor of potato chip I haven't inhaled while driving home from the supermarket.
There is an onslaught of nostalgia in the form of old photos my father kept hidden away in drawers in his den, the old home videos we dig out of boxes that were never unpacked when my parents moved to Florida six years ago, and the golf shirts that remain on hangers in his closet. The memories sometimes come out of nowhere. I brush my teeth, and I am randomly reminded of the time he took me to see The Hand That Rocks The Cradle on a cold Saturday afternoon in the Bronx when I was eleven, sparking my obsession with psychological thrillers. I stop to fill up the gas tank in his 2014 Honda CR-V that I inherited and brought back with me to LA (after losing my own car in a freak accident), and my mind flashes to the time he took me ice skating at the Hommocks Rink in Mamaroneck, New York. There are so many triggers. A Spotify playlist shuffles to Mary J. Blige's "Everything," and I am transported to the weekend we drove through upstate New York to tour colleges in his white Toyota Camry, its multi-disc player loaded with the CD single I bought for the trip.
Then there is something called "anticipatory grief." I now look at my mother, who must deal with her own health issues, and I try to mentally brace myself for another round of inevitability, try to manage my feelings as I resist the idea of a world in which I will no longer be called someone's son, especially as an only child. It is an emotional quicksand I find myself falling into every now and then. But I have Lore, the grief counselor I met in Florida who has been a much-needed source of support. She is one of several angels at the Tidewell Family Grief Center who tirelessly work to help those grieving navigate a world that has been forever changed for them. And there are so many who grieve every day. There is so much pain out there.
With all of the above, there is finally a renewed sense of purpose. I know my mother and I will get through this. I know I will cherish every moment I still have with her. I know I will laugh again – that's what old sitcoms from my youth are for. I know I will continue to surround myself with loved ones, hang out with friends, enjoy their company, and have a good time. I know I will emerge from these last two years a little bit stronger, more patient, and more understanding. I know I will continue to appreciate, be thankful for, and bask in the love I have finally found when I least expected it (Happy Anniversary, babe).
And I know I will keeping honoring my grief, because it is, someone once told me, the emotional state of unexpressed love.
Which means I'll need to make sure I express that love more. And I hope, after you've read this, you will too.