The Call That Changed It All
“You don’t know the power of words until they deliver the message of an unexpected death. Words can change you. Words arranged in different ways can send you to the floor; they can make you lose yourself in a moment. I got the call while I was at work. The restaurant’s phone rang, and I answered the way I would any other call, ‘Thank you for calling Pizza Nea, how can I help you?’ My mother on the other end answered with one word, ‘Emily…’
The tone of the word alone—my name—sent the blood out of my face, ‘Your dad is dead.’ ‘What? What happened? How? Please. No.’ I don’t remember much else beyond those words and my legs giving in. Those words sent me into a mental fog that took me years to make my way out of; a mental fog that still makes its way back into my life, 6 years later. I was in the middle of my first year of graduate school when my dad died, and suddenly, everything somehow halted and spun out of control at the very same time. Among my very first thoughts I had was that I needed to come home immediately to help take care of my brother, Matt.
My dad was the full-time caregiver to Matty, who is autistic and non-speaking. Matty’s sensory needs are high; he often becomes dysregulated and loses control of his feelings/actions, resulting in episodes that can be physically, mentally, and emotionally harmful to himself and those around him. My little brother’s needs became the primary focus of my dad’s life. Since we were young, I have had a deep and extremely close relationship with Matty, which is why taking care of him primarily fell to me when my dad died. Days meshed into nights; my sister, mother, and I rarely slept, as we were all operating at the mercy of Matt’s restless schedule.
Reading The Signs
I remember nighttime being the most difficult. When it was dark and Matt was calm, I suddenly could feel the void of my dad’s presence. In the silence of an otherwise deafening house, my thoughts began to clamor. I was catapulted into a fervent search for signs; signs that my dad was communicating with us in his death, signs showing us that this was inevitable, signs that this hurt I was feeling could somehow be a part of some plan that was far too complex for my small human brain to comprehend. During those endless nights, I was able to see so many signs.
1. While I was in undergrad, I rarely called home—once every few weeks at most. But once I moved to Minneapolis for grad school, the last few months of my dad’s life, I called every day.
2. The weekend before he died he left my mom alone with Matt for an entire weekend—something he hadn’t done in years—so he could finally come see my apartment in Minneapolis. He had been trying to come visit me for months and it was never the right time and then my car randomly broke down and he had to come to help me to buy a new one and I saw him. I saw him the week before he died when prior to this I would go months without seeing him. My car broke so that I could see my dad one last time, right?
3. My sister had recently started dating someone who lived in Chicago and when she would drive from Madison to visit him she would always stop home. She stopped home the night before he died.
4. The last thing he said to me was in a text message hours before he passed: ‘Goodnight sweet princess.’
There had to be a reason behind the pain.
After he died more signs came. Birds hovering outside of our windows, objects falling, weather being incredibly unpredictable. I heard the disdain in others’ voices when I would say, ‘Something else strange happened.’ I felt myself desperately reaching for anything that would confirm that he was still there in some way. I was grasping for signs like someone who is drowning gasps for air because how could he just be gone?
There were spaces of time when I would catch my breath when I would let silence set in. He was gone. No rhyme or reason, no signs, no plan; he was just gone. There was something in me that would fight those thoughts because only a week ago he was right here; his boisterous laugh ringing through our home, his life advice, his wisdom, and experiences; how can an entire life just cease to exist? I thought I had so much more time with my mentor, role model, and best friend— it felt unnatural. I still needed him.
Grief In The Long Run
Life went on like that for about 2 months, which was how long it took us to find a group home that would accept Matty as a resident. Those 2 months contained some of the most surreal moments of my life. How could it be that at the same moment I was attempting to calm my brother down from an aggressive meltdown, trying to be as tender as I could, knowing that this meltdown was the result of the same grief for my dad that I was attempting to understand myself? While all of this was happening, my friends and family were posting on social media about the service at some restaurant or about how outraged they were about a grade on a test.
This surreal feeling didn’t leave me when I eventually returned to Minneapolis. The isolation I felt from the rest of the world led to some of the darker times of my life thus far. After the chaos of it all had begun to settle and after people stopped checking in, I struggled more and more. There were nights when there was so much hurt in me that I couldn’t conceive what to do with it all. I couldn’t fall asleep, and going through the motions of each day felt impossible. I missed everything he was to me. I sat awake at night actively missing his laugh, the noises unique to him that he used to make, his facial expressions, I missed the way he would greet me on the phone. I missed the way he knew exactly what to say in any situation to both challenge me and comfort me.
It was inconceivable that life was just happening without him. The hurt felt so real, so tangible. It was different from the depression I had felt in the past. This hurt was raw—like an open wound that I just had to pretend wasn’t there so I could go to work and get my assignments in on time. All I wanted to do was scream; the expectation to continue interacting with the world as if I was not experiencing the most emotional pain I had ever had was unbearable.
This is the part when we are all wanting the story to shift. There’s been a couple of paragraphs containing sh*t that’s pretty heavy, and now we are sorely craving the part where I talk about how things got better, or I got stronger, or that time healed these wounds. But, that’s the part of grief that we get wrong. It’s part of our survival instincts to see the bright side of things, but this mindset can also be incredibly harmful. I was extremely depressed for a very long time. Visions of driving off the highway came to me frequently. I didn’t feel stronger or better off because of my pain, although I certainly tried to feed myself that narrative, along with the rest of my friends and family who just wanted me to be better.
While I don’t necessarily feel that my grief has improved, I do think that it has evolved; not better, not worse, just different. As the anniversary of my dad’s death approaches each year, I always relive the events leading up to his death through both his eyes and mine; I need to be reminded of what it was like to have my best friend with me again. As each year comes, I often feel farther and farther from him. As if I’m beginning to forget all of the things that made him who he was. The sound of his voice over the phone. The way he said, ‘My sweeeeeet.’ The way he spoke to Matty. How terrible his teeth were…
I have obsessed over death my whole life. I have meticulously and purposefully savored every moment. I constantly reflect. I reflect as a moment is happening. I think about what color an experience will be in my memory many years from now. I’ve done this for as long as I can remember and it still didn’t prepare me for losing my dad. Savoring every moment doesn’t ease the pain of not having it anymore. I remember so vividly the feeling I had within the first year after my dad died; the feeling of trying with all of my might to savor that I remembered what it felt like to be near him. As years passed, my life began to look nothing like it did when he was alive, yet another dead end to his existence. But, somewhere along the line, I began to reframe my grief. I realized that while it is healthy and necessary to miss all that he was, it is just as healthy and necessary to sit with the idea of what his form is now.
There are countless interpretations for what that may mean to you, but to me, it means that the spark that made my dad feel so mountainous, is everywhere. The memories of him are not all that are left. There will always be a part of me that misses who I remember him to be, but I am learning to love him not just for what he was, but for what he is to me now. He is everything that he loved. He is every first sip of coffee, every song he would turn the volume all the way up for, every line in a movie that made him laugh, every thunderstorm, every moment spent in nature. He is every person he loved.
Two months ago marked 6 years since my dad’s death. Over the last 5 anniversaries, my sister, my mom, and I have always found a way to be with one another. Usually, I make my way down to Kenosha, where they both live. We go on hikes and drink whiskey; things my dad loved to do, and of course, we go to see Matty in Milwaukee, where we found a home that is an incredible fit for him.
This year we decided to take a trip to Nashville. We spent an entire weekend dancing and laughing together. We spent the actual anniversary of his death bar hopping down Broadway, starting on the dance floor at each bar we entered. Amid the hustle and bustle of that day, I was hit with a moment of guilt. I thought of my dad and began to feel terrible that we hadn’t been actively thinking of him on that day, that we were not setting aside time to feel grief or sadness, or how much we missed him. I thought about it for a second more, watching my mom and sister dancing across the room, and I realized that we were living exactly how my dad would want us to be living– fully.
By being fully present with one another, enjoying each moment that we were all together, we were also there with him. We celebrated his life by spending that day being full of passion, and silliness and sharing so much laughter. And I felt one of those feelings; one of the signs that 6 years prior I was so desperately grasping for: he was there. There are few feelings more joyous than when something in your gut tells you that your lost loved one is with you in some way. There are times that I can feel his presence more than others, and there are moments that I feel the same shock I did when I received the call, there are still times that I cry myself to sleep over how much I miss him, and there are times that I think of him and smile. One year, six years, twenty years; I expect to feel the whole gamut for the rest of my life.
Grief is elusive; it never resolves, there is no remedy, and time does not heal its wounds. It simply changes; or rather, you change around it. You go through different stages of your life, just as you would if you weren’t grieving, and the different versions of yourself form ever-evolving relationships with the same grief that was born at the point of your loss. After experiencing periods of extreme grief, there is a drive to move forward, seemingly away from the grief. But when I characterize grief in this way, it helps me realize there is no moving backward.
Grief becomes a worry stone in your pocket. There are days or weeks or months that you know it is there, but it doesn’t bother you. There are times that you can’t stop thinking about the feeling of its presence against your skin. There are times you choose to take it out and feel it fully. Grief is unchanging, but with each new day you will find a new way to hold it; as a result of your inevitable growth, the way you perceive it will change. I take my worry stone out a lot less now than I did 5 years ago. And as this version of myself interacts with my worry stone, more often than not I feel a loving tenderness for all that I had, rather than the lofty sadness from what I’ve lost. I can’t say what tomorrow will bring, but I will celebrate that loving tenderness today.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Emily Knezz of Minneapolis, MN. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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