Tips For Getting Over the Death of your Dysfunctional Father

Date: 2005-12-19

It's been 10 years since my father died outside the Navajo Res in Arizona, in the back of an ambulance. Given that I have run into stories of dead dads and dying dads from good friends and new friends lately, I've been kind of inspired to look back on my decade and do a sort of postmortem postmortem. I guess this is kind of for you, anonymous person dealing with dad issues I can't name here, and for Jake, not as anonymous person dealing with dad issues. Actually, it's for me, but with any luck maybe it can do double duty.

I will lead out with the only good advice I ever got for dealing with the death of a parent or someone like a parent: The pain never goes away, but you learn to live with it. I can't convey how many levels you will assimilate that information over the years. I can remember when at first I learned to function with the constant dull ache, like a slipped disk somewhere in my hippocampus. I can remember pulling off the road a few years ago, and thinking, this is it- I'm this damaged person for life. This is never going to get better, because he's never going to be alive again. But I had to start the car again and keep driving, because I hadn't gotten to my destination. That's just how it goes. Mostly these days it doesn't feel like pain, more like a nerve gone dead, a bit of damage I've learned to work around. Sometimes I hit it more directly, and I get that shocking pain for a few moments, but mostly, he's just gone. Standard caveat applies: take what you like and leave the rest.

1) I id'd my father's body. It was a bit gruesome, but I recommend it. Do something to verify he's dead, or some part of you will always be waiting for him to walk back in and say "Ha! That was just a big really bad multi year practical joke." Maybe that part of me is still waiting anyhow, my father generally had no clue when a joke went too far.

2) You don't get through those first few weeks. Other people carry you. Just let them. 10 years on, some nights they still have to carry me.

3) That dream where you finally get to say goodbye? Not as helpful as you thought it would be. Turns out at the end he's still dead and you still never got to sort out all the dysfunctional shit.

4) I was warned he'd get a song. I tried to pick the song, but it didn't stick. Eventually I had the dream mentioned above, which ended in "Fire and Rain". I don't even like "Fire and Rain," but apparently I always thought that I'd see him again.

5) If you want to think he's in a better place, sure, have fun with that. It's not going to do what you hope it is. This is awful, it hurts, and that just doesn't make it ok. The longer you look for the upside, the longer it takes to just learn that this is the new you. I mean, I think that's probably true even if you *do* believe he's in a better place. He's not in this place anymore, and frankly, you want your daddy.

6) There will be a moment when you think of him, and you can't remember exactly what he looked like. I'm sorry for this. It doesn't make you a bad person, It happens to us all.

7) The first time you don't hurt, don't feel guilty or ashamed. No one can hurt all the time, no matter how much you loved him.

8) People that haven't been there don't get it. They can comfort, they can support, but they can't understand. People that have carry a certain scar you come to recognize. Seek out the company of both as needed. Try and forgive the pontifications of the the first group- they are only trying to help.

9) Give him something and let that something go. I gave him Marin County, which was handy since I wasn't going to use it anyway.

10) You're going to want to make up for it with other people. For instance, if you failed to save your father from addiction, poverty, mental illness or PTSD, you're going to start trying to save other people to make up for it. This will be trouble. For whatever reason, you didn't manage, and you're not going to. Turns out in the awful twist ending of the universe, you actually can't love people well.

11) Sometimes being completely silent helps.

12) This is who you are now. Dad's part of you, his death is part of you, being a bit broken is part of you. The pain recedes, becomes less crippling, but you're different now. You're never going to be better again, but you can learn to be other things. I don't know if they are better or worse things to be, I know they are what you have open to you.

13) When you're 10 years on you'll look back on the first couple of years and all the stories and problems and strange stand out events, and realize they were about him. All those people you tried to relate to and couldn't, it was about hurting over him, wanting to be with him, wanting to make things better.

It's unfair. I'm sorry, I really am. Like it or not, and sometimes you won't, life goes on. Whether it has a happy ending or not entirely depends on where you stop telling the story. If this isn't such a good point, just keep telling.