Shocked Into Functioning

(Originally posted on old blog on Sunday, November 29, 2009)

I have attended a few wakes and funerals since my dad’s in February. People I know aren’t necessarily dying more frequently than they did before, but I now know how important it is to attend these events, having been on the other side of the receiving line and taking such comfort in the people who turned out to acknowledge the bookend of my father’s life.

Everyone offered condolences, most shared a remembrance, but there were a few whose eyes conveyed such empathy, such compassion, such knowing, and I didn’t understand then, but I do now because I am among those few: We know.

We know the pain unique to losing a parent. Some of us know the particular heartache that comes with losing a parent so close to you or so young or so suddenly…or all three. We know that when people leave the services and remark with surprise about how well you’re doing that, in fact, you aren’t doing well at all and you are in such shock that you don’t even know you’re not doing well. We know that it won’t be until much later when you look back on the events that you’ll wonder how you even functioned at a high enough level to bathe and dress yourself in those first few days after the death.

In her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion admits she used to be one of those people who marveled over how family members carried themselves after the death of a loved one, but once she lost her husband unexpectedly, she recognized that those people aren’t as “together” as she thought – they suddenly seemed so very “raw” to her that they shouldn’t be out in public.

She knows.

My father was pronounced dead around 4 am. Four hours later, we were talking to the priest about the potential readings for the funeral. Six hours later, we were meeting with the funeral home director to pick out caskets and go over the particulars that would be my father’s final farewell. Seven hours later, I was writing his obituary, trying to strike that perfect balance of humility and pride while keeping the length to a respectable – but not showy – 350 words. Less than 24 hours after that, I started on his eulogy, which I delivered without shedding a tear a couple days later.

Some people plan for these things well in advance, but the rest of us – the majority of us – are left to make these weighty decisions and accomplish these Herculean tasks when we are at our most vulnerable – emotional, sleep-deprived, empty-stomached.

How do we do it?

Shock. Magical thinking.

There were several moments during my father’s 4-hour wake that I know my eyes got wide because I simply could not process that the whole thing was real. At his funeral, knowing that I had to deliver his eulogy and wanting to keep it together enough that I could do so without sobbing uncontrollably so people could understand me, I consciously removed myself from the situation. It was the closest thing I’ve ever had to an out-of-body experience where I was both the speaker and the audience, watching myself read the tribute.

It makes no sense – remember that irrational thinking I talked about before? – but I thought that if we just “played along” and went through the requisite motions, in a day or two, this would all be over and life would be back to normal. He would be alive again.

I still have moments when I think this way.

If we just plan a good birthday party…

If we just appreciate the impact he had on us…

If we just get through the holiday season…

We think like this in order to carry on, to give ourselves mental breaks from the agony of everyday grief.

Though I am not a morning person, my favorite part of the day is right when my alarm clock goes off because in that brief moment between sleeping and waking, I can trick myself into believing the past 9 and a half months didn’t really happen – that it was all just a terribly realistic nightmare. Unfortunately, this trick gets harder to play on myself as time goes by. I used to be able to pull it off everyday, but now it might only be once a week, if that.

A couple weeks after my father died, I had to have surgery. When I woke up in the recovery room, I am told I asked my husband if he called my parents to let them know I came out okay.

He replied, “I called your mom.”

I asked, “Did you call me dad?”

He said no.

I asked, “Is he still dead?”

He reminded me of my reality. I cried and drifted back into my anesthetized world where my dad was still alive and well.

If only it were still that easy.

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