Why can’t I remember dad before he got ill?
In the ebb and flow of grief, the unexpected new stages amaze me. I didn’t anticipate this third Christmas without dad to be so hard. I dreaded the first and was surprised by the relative ease with which I got through it. Even the second Christmas did not have the all-consuming grief and depression of this one. Maybe it’s because the first two Christmases I was worried about mom. I grieved for her, even more than for myself.
This year was different. It felt like mom turned a corner when she wanted to host Thanksgiving. That was “our” holiday and for the first time, she was willing to renew old traditions without her husband. Did my heart and mind find permission to grieve once mom seemed to be doing better, or is it simply part of my personal grief journey?
Truthfully, the why of it doesn’t matter. Right now, grief isn’t about missing his physical presence and missing our talks. It’s about having a hard time remembering him before he got ill. When I can’t bring up memories of happy times, of the father I had for 57 years, it makes me feel like I’m losing dad all over again.
I don’t know if this is a typical stage of grief, or just weirdly mine. A friend recently mentioned that intense experiences often imprint themselves on our memories in an acute way. She wondered if dad’s illness did the same for me.
And it turns out, there is validity to her idea. Dr. John Medina, in Brain Rules says “Emotionally charged events are better remembered – for longer, and with more accuracy – than neutral events. It makes sense to me that emotional intensity is linked to how memories are prioritized and stored.
In the article “The Paradoxes of Mourning: Part 3 of 3” Alan D. Wolfelt, PH.D. states ‘that in grief we have to go backward before we can go forward.’ He talks about the relationship of memory with your loved one, and a need for us to look through the lens of our memory, to talk or write about our favorite memories as part of our grief process.
So here I am, during this difficult time, deliberately remembering the father I knew and loved before he got sick: his humor, his compassion, and his passion for life. As I walk the dog, as I drive, I deliberately bring forth the good memories with as much emotional intensity as I can to prioritize them and store them at the forefront of my memory.
Memories of dad:
Dad was known for his humor, jokes and story telling ability. This is one of my favorite stories: “When Laura was leaving the other day, she pointed out what looked like aphids (or something) on the bushes in front of the house. The next day, I put examples from the bushes into two baggies and brought them to the Cooperative Extension Service. The agricultural guy took them into the back room and was gone for like 15 minutes. Finally he comes back out with the two baggies. Puts one on the counter and says, ‘These are aphids and this is what you can do about it. Then he pushes the other one towards me and says: But this sir, appears to be oatmeal.’ Your mother finally admitted that she took an old box of oatmeal, opened the front door and threw it onto the lawn. At least she tried to hit the lawn, but most of it landed on the bushes.”
Dad was smart, thoughtful and kind, so it was no surprise to me that my friends would seek his advice. I remember sitting at the dining room table while friends outlined their thoughts about attending graduate school, taking a job, or buying a house. When asked his opinion, dad would carefully outline his thoughts, weigh the pros and cons and leave them with deeper clarity to make a decision.
At one-point dad and I both worked for the same consulting firm. He was in sales and I was in training. We would make calls together to sell services and upon introductions, people would get a funny look when they realized we both had the same last name. Dad would say, “It’s nepotism at its best. My daughter got me this job.” And it was true.
Once, two of my friends from college were at our house over a snowy weekend. With nothing else to do, we played around with makeup, manicures and our hair. When it came time for dinner, dad who had been working down the basement, came to dinner unshaved, tattered clothes and wearing his Elks bowtie. He told us we looked so beautiful, he needed to get dressed up for dinner.
Disclaimer: The material in this blog is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to replace, nor does it replace, consulting with a physician, lawyer, accountant, financial planner or other qualified professional.