When I was a kid, about 4-5 years old, I figured out you could die in your sleep. I was at my grandparents house and I was almost asleep when, for some unknown reason, I held my breath and I fully woke up with a start with the realization that you could die sleeping. I have no recollection of ever figuring out the other ways a person could die and maybe that’s because I picked up stories about car crashes and drug overdoses etc. from the news my parents religiously watched. The news never reports that Joe Smith died in his sleep. I tried a few more experiments with this realization and it upset me so much that I started crying because I was afraid to go to sleep. My grandma came in and asked me what was wrong and I said I missed my mom, which was a bold-faced lie because I never got home sick or missed my family (this isn’t an indication that I didn’t love them; just that I was fiercely independent even from a young age). I distinctly remember not wanting to tell my grandma the real reason I was upset because maybe she didn’t know. Of course she knew, but I didn’t know that at that age.
Flash forward twenty years or so and I get a phone call from my mom that my dad had died in his sleep. He wasn’t sick with cancer or had a terminal illness. He just went to sleep and never woke up. If you think about how you want your loved ones to go or how you want to die, dying peacefully in your sleep is the best case scenario. He didn’t suffer. He just never woke up again. I have friends who have lost parents to cancer and they had to watch them slowly die and I do feel some peace at the fact that he didn’t suffer. But then, I never had a chance to say goodbye or to tell him that I loved him. The last time I saw him, which was six days before he died, I barely talked to him because he was in a bad mood and tired from having worked outside all day.
All of this fresh to me right now, even though it’s been over 13 years since he died, because I woke up Thursday morning having dreamt of my dad the night before. In my dream, he had divorced my mom and that’s the reason he was never at her house when I visited. I woke Thursday morning and for a brief second I thought his death was the nightmare, but no, he was really dead and I was living the nightmare. All of the memories of that phone call and the days that followed came rushing back to me.
This isn’t the first time I have dreamt of my dad and most likely won’t be the last. Some of you may know that I am a very vivid dreamer. I have had mornings of confusion because my dreams are so real that it can take me a few seconds to sort out what’s real and what’s not…even for me to sort out where I am. One time I had a dream that I was telling someone that I had been pregnant at a young age and gave the baby up for adoption. I woke up with a sense of loss for this child and it took me a few seconds to realize that I had never been pregnant in my life. I have had many dreams that my dad is alive – ones where my parents are divorced (just like the one I had last Thursday) or ones where I know he is dead and everyone in my family, including him, are telling me “No, no. He’s alive. He’s right here.” Right as I am convinced that he is alive, I wake up and I go through the memories and pain all over again. Those dreams are my nightmares, not monsters and things jumping out at me. Those I can handle.
Everyone always says that “time heals” or “it will get better with time” and I think that is incredibly false. Grief doesn’t get easier with time. If anything, it gets harder because you start to forget or memories change. It took about two months for me to forget the sound of his voice or his laugh. I would do anything to hear him talk and laugh again. Time just makes it easier to push all of this pain away. That’s what time gives you. It doesn’t give healing…just time for you to figure out mechanisms to push it from the front of your thoughts. When I have a dream like the one on Thursday, it disrupts these mechanisms I have in place and then I am in a melancholy-funk until I can get the mechanisms up and running again.
I love that metaphor about grief coming in waves. You are in an ocean and the waves (grief) keep hitting you. Soon the waves will lessen in frequency until you get hit by one every once in awhile. Well, I just got hit by a big wave. My head is above water and I’m treading in the water but I am still trying to catch my breath.
Your fellow traveler,