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The Many Layers of Grief - Losing a Parent

Jul 20, 2022
ripple in water

By Ilana Shapiro Yahdav

Think of when a rock is thrown into a lake, there is a definite ripple effect. If you were standing further from where the rock went into the pond, you may only see the outer ripples and not realize that the rock caused it. 

When we have a grieving experience, there are many layers of loss that accompany it. Oftentimes, we may not even equate a certain peripheral experience with that of our loss. However, it is all connected. Our subconscious is aware of all, even when our conscious is not. We may tell ourselves that it’s not related, but deep down, our body always knows. 

It can be a very powerful and freeing realization to build awareness of how it all is connected. 

When my dad was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, I didn’t recognize that I was already grieving. I didn’t have that vocabulary or knowledge. I was a distraught emotional mess and didn’t know what to do with myself other than throw myself into work, partying, and distracting myself in any way that I could. 

When my dad died, 6-months after his diagnosis, the day after my 24th birthday, my world shattered. In the immediate months after my dad died, I felt like I was a total zombie.

  • My dad, my hero, was gone. The person who knew how to talk to me, who pushed me to pursue my dream of being in China. My "wogging" (walk/jog) buddy. My medical advisor. 
  • I felt that I was now a broken person - who could possibly love such a damaged person? How could I learn to love myself again and not see myself as such a broken soul? 
  • How would I find my soulmate husband? Who could possibly love such a broken puddle of emotions? If I did find my husband, who would walk me down the aisle? Who would do the first dance with me? 
  • How could I possibly smile and be happy again?
  • I left China with no real idea of when I’d return. I took a leave of absence from my job in Shanghai. I moved back in with my mom. Here I was at the start of my career, and I felt that I reverted back, defeated. So much self-guilt but also an awareness that I needed that time with my mom, to be home with her, to be stateside. 
  • It was a whole shift in my already changing identity. I was no longer the competent, tenacious girl who lived and worked in Shanghai. I was no longer the girl who loved having conversations with new people and was not afraid to try new things.  I now was the girl with a dead dad who was not working and living at home, trying to remember how to breathe again, trying to figure out how to talk to people again without melting into a puddle of tears. I was the girl who was angry with the sun for continuing to rise and with all the people that surrounded us in the early days of his death and who now had the audacity to go back to their daily lives. 
  • Grown men, close to my family, lashed out at me. They were nasty. This set me into an even worse tailspin. 
  • I started dating someone who, at the time, was just as emotionally broken as me, but for different reasons. We clung to each other in a way that may not have been healthy for either of us. 
  • "Well-meaning" family and friends started pressuring me that I needed to go back to China and back to work. I could barely formulate a coherent sentence, never mind go back to the other side of the world. 
  • My relationship with my immediate family was hard. My older brother and I struggled with our relationship for many years. He kindly wanted to swoop in and take care of me, and I wanted no part of that. My little brother did not want anyone to know that our father died. He had totally shut down. My mom was trying to hold all of us, and herself, together.

You see, what I know now is that all of that was grief. All of my feelings were/are valid and normal. I was not being overly dramatic. I was not overly emotional. I was a girl who lost her father. I was grieving. My family and friends were grieving. 

Six months after my dad’s death, I went back to China. 

  • A lot had changed. I had a tight social network that had shifted. There were new people and some had left. That was hard for me at first.
  • My job had changed. New colleagues that took some time to warm up to me. Being the only non-Chinese in the office, they took a little bit to welcome me into their circle. They did eventually, but the process was so draining to my already drained self.
  • I met a guy who swept me off my feet. He was what I now call "emotionally anorexic" and we were not a good match. This started a 2+ year toxic, up and down, roller coaster, cross-global relationship. Parts of it were so glamorous and wonderful and for a long while seemed to overshadow the dark parts. I was barely hanging on by a thread so once he became part of my world, for a long time, no matter what happened, I couldn’t bear ending it. I was hurting so much that I just needed and wanted comfort, even when it often had thorns. 
  • I worked- a lot. Part of work was happy hours. I went to a lot of happy hours. I was not healthy. I ate poorly. I drank like a fish. I barely exercised. My sleep was abysmal. My energy was non-existent. My brain was foggy. 
  • I found an English-speaking therapist who I began seeing for a few months. I felt that I was starting to start to feel a bit more like myself. Then, she had to leave China abruptly which sent me into another tailspin. The little stability was being yanked out. She recommended me to another person, who in our first session told me her mother was dying. I never went back. I couldn’t. Back to the happy hours for support.
  • My confidence was nonexistent both personally and professionally. Maybe if you saw me, you might not have really known that, but holy smokes was I a mess. I remember walking home from work aimlessly and just sitting on a bench staring at the cars. I also remember that finally being the point that I realized it was time for me to make a change (this was a year or so later).
  • Leaving China was another hugely emotional experience for me. It was such a huge part of my identity. I didn’t really know who I was without my job and life in Shanghai. But I’m going to pause here for now.

This was all part of grief. All my relationships were affected. My personal life was affected. My professional life was affected. I didn't know how to get the support I needed. Heck, I didn’t even know what support I needed. My friends didn’t know how to support me other than dragging me out and then dealing with the aftermath of the evening. 

I share all of the above to illustrate how grief can affect many facets of our life. It’s not bad. This is not critiquing. It’s building awareness. Because when we are aware of our feelings and emotions, we can start to get our emotional power back. In retrospect, knowing what I know now, there is a lot that I could have done differently. But, we can’t change the past.

I think back on that girl with compassion and love, and let her fuel me to do all in my power to help others like her. 

Now, you could ask, what does struggling professionally and personally have to do with the loss of my dad? 

Everything. 

The loss changes you. It changes how you relate to the world and others. 

And for me, I forgot how to love myself for a long time and internalized that others also couldn’t love a broken girl. 

It also made me a much more compassionate, empathetic, and kind person. While I was broken and drowning for many years, I was also slowly rebuilding into a stronger, kinder, and better person. 

Would I rather have my dad back? In a heartbeat. No question there.

And I’m not going to say that we must look for all the silver linings, or that we have to be grateful, blah blah blah. No.

But, I am going to say that as a result of my dad’s death, there have been many things that may not have happened if he was alive. I use this to fuel me, honor his memory, and live my life. 

There is a lot of healing in recognizing the different ways that grief can show up in our life. Knowing why our brain may feel foggy, or why we’re constantly feeling exhausted or out of the moment, is very powerful. It is with this new awareness that we can begin to see where we may need help or changes we can make in how we move through grief.

We have a very powerful, simple tool called the Emotional Inventory, that will help you to do just that. We encourage you to take some time to download it and work through it. 

After working through the Emotional Inventory, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how it may have affected your perception of your loss and other happenings in your life. 

For me, it was/is the grief for my father, and also the grief I had for all the ripple effects I shared here. All of it is valid. And you are not alone. 

Remember all of your grief is valid.


 

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