Another year has gone by—my dad died 21 years ago now—and what have I learned?
What I’ve learned or finally internalized and accepted: we all deal with parent death. It comes too soon or around the more natural, expected time. It’s either this or that we go first.
When I was a child, I thought, “At least my story is unique. All these kids running around at school? They don’t know what the death of their dad is like. I’m unique. I know loss. They know nothing.” You comfort yourself as you can. That’s human psychology for you. It’s a little ugly if you say it out loud.
So I thought I was unique. It helped, too, that my dad died in a plane crash in Alaska. “Ooo, magical,” I believed the kids I confided in thought. “Alaskaaaa,” they’d whisper in awe, as if Alaska is the same as Narnia, which to kids in Florida, where I grew up, I suppose it is.
While my story and the ultimate loss of a parent did change me, did shape me to a large degree, I was not unique. I did need something to cling to though—something positive to believe in out of this tragedy. I was the complex, special protagonist in the book of my life after all!
And yet: aren’t we all?
If we’re all and only human, then we all carry our losses, our regrets, our grief and our pain. We are unique, sort of, but the effects of this baggage we carry in our bodies all our lives are the same. Our specific experiences are different, sort of. It’s our coping of this baggage, this weight that we can feel physically if we pay attention, that differs, sort of. Even there, there is a finite list of options we have to deal. Some are healthy; some are not.
As a crisis therapist, a major goal with a client who is suicidal is to help them to decrease their use of unhealthy coping skills and to adopt and practice using healthy ones. This sounds too simple and rudimentary because it is. To do so is not as easy as that sentence was to write.
As a child after my dad died, I turned to God/Christianity, playing instruments, and writing. People can turn to these things or maybe drugs and less helpful avenues. I was lucky to have a mom who instilled the value of education and set the bar high. I was given goals to achieve. I had future-orientation. The death of my dad would not be the death of me.
Others don’t have that. I see that in my work. Many of my clients have dead parents. And these parents didn’t die in military mistakes and accidental plane crashes. They overdosed. They were murdered. Or maybe we don’t know where they are.
My clients are children and teenagers. Some of them have seen more than I’ve seen. Their baggage is very heavy. They’re indifferent about life, and I only hope I can help them find some reason to live—to redirect the conversation to finding some future-orientation, so that their baggage will not become the death of them.
We all lose and we all have loss. I don’t want them to lose their own lives before their lives really begin.
I get it now–that our experiences can only be so unique or unusual. It’s all been seen before and that doesn’t make our story matter any less.
I am the protagonist of my life, and I will have a pity party today. Perhaps you will, too. And after we’re done acknowledging our baggage, I hope we both pick ourselves up and carry on. We have lives to live.