How My Understanding of Grief Has Evolved

Ayliesh Chaplin
Young woman with hat at sunset

The sad reality of life is we will all experience loss in one way or another — may it be a family member, friend, pet or otherwise. Despite the inevitability of death, no one is prepared on how to deal with it mentally, physically and at times, even financially.

On May 1, 2020, it was the first anniversary of my father’s death. I used to think my father would live forever. I believed he could take on everyone and everything, whether it be the monsters under my bed or the boy who broke my heart. Sometimes I even believed he could even take down the strongest creature in the world, because he was my dad and that was his job.

As I got older, the relationship between my father and I became more strained than ever. I eventually cut ties with him after he promised to be at my graduation and never turned up. I remember looking into the audience, hoping with all my heart that he would be there. But he wasn’t and my heart shattered to pieces. It wasn’t the first time this had happened; he missed shows I was in, birthday meals and on some occasions forgot to turn up to planned meet-ups.

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I had so much pent up anger I didn’t allow myself to patch things up with him before he died, no matter how many times people lectured me. Little did he know, I would regularly call his house phone, just to make sure he was alive and safe. I would check his Facebook page and active status. I always asked about him. I even walked past his home to see if the lights were on sometimes.

I wanted to convince myself that I hated him, when in reality it was the opposite. I had the opportunity to see how much of a great man he was years prior. He had pulled himself out of the pits of hell after he and my stepmother got divorced. Despite many depressive episodes, he continued to thrive. I visited him often and we talked for hours about everything and anything. At one point, he was my favorite person in the world. I desperately wanted that side of him back, but he had fallen too deep this time, and I couldn’t save him.

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I had never experienced death like this before. I lost grandparents when I was younger, but as an adult I think it hits us more as we are more aware of the finality of death.

Grief is a process we aren’t taught enough about. While everyone else around me seemed to be grieving “properly,” I became totally numb and detached. I wanted so desperately to grieve my father’s loss the way my siblings were, but I couldn’t feel anything. My heart was hurting just as much as anyone else’s, but my body would not co-operate the way I wanted it to.

Every time I closed my eyes to sleep, the image of my father was there. My mind constantly replayed the night he died. Most nights involved panic attacks or waking up sweating as if I had run 10 marathons. The dreams I had were morbid and some were so bad I had to rush to the bathroom to vomit. I tried to sleep during the day when the people in my household were awake, so I could feel safer. But even then, the nightmares continued.

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I often tried to avoid situations where I would be seen in public to avoid people approaching me about my father. Every bald guy resembled my father and my heart dropped a couple times thinking it was him. My mind was constantly playing tricks on me and I felt like I was going “crazy.” I could be completely fine one moment, but as soon as I saw someone with a similar body type or even shirt he wore, it all came rushing back. It felt like I had been winded over and over again.

Everything got so bad that I eventually had to leave my master’s course at university. I struggled with attendance due to the anxiety keeping me home, and although I was going to my doctors for help, they often told me there was nothing they could do, because “it is just the process of grief.” I had my own concerns as to whether I had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but each time I spoke to a doctor about it, it was shut down and forgotten about.

If it weren’t for one of the attendance officers at my university who used her own experience with grief to help me, I think I would still be at rock bottom, struggling to comprehend anything. She made me realize it was OK to grieve in my own time, and that I hadn’t allowed myself to grieve properly as I was too concerned with trying to pick up the pieces in terms of the family drama that came with his death.

Eventually, the nightmares began to lessen and I found better ways to deal with my anxiety. They say time heals all wounds, but the truth is, sometimes people grieve for their loved ones for the rest of their lives; maybe because they thought they would live forever, like I did. Although I wasn’t grieving the way everyone else was, I was still grieving, but in my own way. I began to learn the different ways in which people grieve, and many people do in fact become totally numb.

I am still healing and I don’t think my grief will ever end, but I have become more aware of it and am finding different ways to cope with it. The nightmares have not stopped completely, and I still get days where I feel as if I am back at square one. I have spent many nights sobbing for my father and allowing myself to feel sad over his death. I felt unworthy of being able to grieve, because I said some nasty things to him when he was alive that I never got to apologize for. I grieved for my father’s absence before he died, and now I am grieving his death.

There is no textbook that will tell you how to grieve (trust me, I’ve looked), but knowing that there is no right or wrong way to grieve certainly helps. Grief is nightmares, numbness, physical pain, heart break, sadness, confusion, anger and so much more.

One year on and I still have a long way to go in terms of grieving. Even while writing this, my heart hurts as I wonder how he was spending his last days this time last year and how lonely he must have been. I have days when I completely shut myself off to the world, but I am lucky enough that my partner has supported me every step of the way.

One emotion I often struggle within my grieving process is anger. There are days when I am angry at the world, angry at myself and even angry at my father. I’ve learned that anger stems from sadness or even fear, and learning to address those emotions first makes it slightly easier to deal with.

Grief is something we will all have to face at one point in our lives, yet we aren’t taught anything about it. The death of a loved one carries such a heavy weight that it almost seems like nothing will ever be good again. But eventually the good memories outlive the bad and talking about it won’t hurt as much anymore.

I wish there was a magic antidote that could make grieving easier, but grief is subjective and affects everyone differently. Whether the loss occurred recently or years ago, please know that your grief is valid. Your emotions are valid, and with time, it truly does get easier. Grief is often a lonely struggle and some of us may never get over the loss of a loved one, but the more you talk about it and share your experiences, the more we can understand such a complex thing.

Read more stories like this on The Mighty:

The Grief That Comes With Learning More About a Parent You Idolized and Then Lost

What Happens to My Grief When the Rest of the World Stops

When Grief Changes the World as You Know it

Why There’s No Such Thing as Loving Your Child ‘Too Much’