Last week, I went for a walk in the cemetery park near my flat.
The heatwave was still very much in session, golden light filtering down softly through the canopy of leaves. As I turned off one of the main paths, a brown and white greyhound trotted up to me, nosing at my dress. His owners were sitting at a bench a few feet away, and I held out my hand for the dog to sniff. His damp nose bumped my knuckle, and he moved away again.
This gesture was something that my dad had taught me to do. I was a very excitable dog-loving child – if I saw one in a pub, I instantly wanted to run over to it and make it love me more than it loved its owners. He had grown up with dogs and loved them too, but he told me I had to wait for a dog to come to me, and to hold out my hand for it to inspect before touching it: a polite gesture of human-canine friendship.
It was a lesson in gentleness, the gesture now itself a gentle reminder of someone gone (readers of this blog will know that my dad died in May 2018).
On the Internet, the gentle reminder is its own subgenre. It is proof that reminders are not always as gentle as advertised – search the phrase on Twitter and in between well-meaning missives about unclenching your jaw and drinking a glass of water you will find chiding posts about remembering that there are x many members in a band, not just the one you like, or that “an unsupportive friend is a hater too”.
In the three years since Dad died I have been learning to navigate reminders of him, and like these tweets, they weren’t always as gentle as they seemed. I’d see someone on the street that looked like him, or search my email inbox for something innocuous and bring up an old email thread, then find myself three days later only just coming up for air after being sunken in a kind of haze.
Sometimes, they weren’t gentle at all. Last year, I was watching a horror movie with my boyfriend (title redacted for the sake of spoilers) and in the final act the distant father who had been trying to protect his daughter throughout sacrificed himself to save her. Suddenly I was loudly sobbing with all the lights on while my boyfriend sat there looking very uncertain about what to do. The funniest part about that story is that it was Father’s Day. The universe! She loves a joke!
The good news, realised only on that sunny day in the park last week, is that the reminders are much gentler now.
Maybe it’s something about passing the two-year or three-year milestone. Maybe it’s that thanks to lockdown I’ve had to do a lot more reflecting and processing than I previously allowed myself to do. I’ve thought a lot about what this process has been like for me, and what I wish I could go back and tell myself, what gentle reminders I would give to myself when I was still in the wilderness of it. And unfortunately, thanks to the situation that brought about lockdown, there are probably a lot more people navigating that wilderness now.
So, here’s a Father’s Day gift from a fatherless writer who won’t shut up. These are the gentle reminders I wish I could go back and give myself, and that you are free to take for yourself, if you want to.
1. A few months – even a year, two years, three – is not a long time.
It might be a long time to go without a haircut or without speaking to a close friend, but to process a death, it’s really nothing. This was very hard for me to see in the beginning.
Once a few months had gone by, I started to feel self-conscious bringing up my Dad in conversation. I didn’t know anyone else close to me who had lost a parent beside my siblings – we even still have a full set of grandparents – so as the emotional triage phase ended and life started to seem like it was going back to normal, I began to question whether I, too, should be starting to forget.
Everyone seemed to expect me to be my normal self, to have normal-sized reactions to things. In hindsight, this was probably a combination of reality and projection, but it felt unrealistic in a way I found hard to articulate at the time.
The way I described it to a friend recently is that in life, you usually have two hands to deal with your problems: two hands to catch an argument before it hits you, to break it down into something less painful. But grieving is a two-hand task, and in the beginning, it’s a crushing one. So, when something comes flying at you, you have two choices: take your hands off the grief and let it crush you, or accept the body blow of whatever it is that’s come up. The shitty part is that most of the time, you end up getting crushed by the grief either way.
All this to say: if you’ve lost someone, and things are crushing you more than they would have before, that’s okay. It’s okay to remind people that you’ve still got your hands full with this difficult thing, and to ask for patience. And if you’re supporting someone who’s grieving, it’s worth giving them that patience. Ask them, every now and then, how they’re doing with it, and let them know that there’s space in the conversation for any answer they might give, even if that’s no answer at all.
Which brings me to my next reminder.
2. You don’t have to talk about it all the time, to whoever asks.
You might find that you do anyway, and that’s fine. I’ve had my fair share of parties and work drinks where I blurted out “Well, my dad died” to blank looks or nervous laughter – but it’s not compulsory.
Sometimes, it can be helpful to talk about it. To a friend, or a family member, or even a total stranger who has similar experiences to you. Some of the most healing and helpful conversations I’ve had have been with people I don’t know well at all, but who have also lost someone close to them.
But sometimes, it can feel terrible. I always think having an unproductive conversation about grief feels a bit like someone seeing you puke on yourself – you feel like you’ve embarrassed yourself by letting them see all that undigested mess. In the worst cases it feels like they just want to see it out of curiosity. I’m willing to bet we all have those conversations at some point or another, and it’s okay to decline the opportunity if you see it coming.
Maybe there’s no one you can talk to or want to talk to about it. Maybe you don’t know anyone who’s gone through something similar, or at least, nobody you see often or feel comfortable reaching out to. For me, what helped was listening to The Griefcast: a podcast of comedians talking about death. I would probably not recommend this if you’re in that horrible first year, but it totally transformed my relationship to this loss after the second anniversary. It is also a perfect example of an ungentle reminder becoming gentler over time – after the first few episodes I had to stop and take a break, because it was weighing so heavily on me, but now listening to the show is a relief.
3. Finally, forgiveness is key.
I know I sound like Gwyneth Paltrow trying to rope you into a kind of Grief Goop, but listen: I’ve learned more about forgiveness in the last three years than I had in the previous twenty-three. Its different shapes, its different uses.
Not everyone is going to know what to say to you, and that will hurt sometimes. You will pick up awkward interactions like souvenirs and exchange them with other people you meet who’ve been through the same thing – the time someone was callous, or flippant, or cruel in a way that is hilarious now despite being apocalyptically upsetting at the time.
You yourself might be a bit shit. A bomb’s just gone off in your life and everything feels different now. You might act erratically or say or do things you’re not proud of. Maybe you’ve spent a lot of lockdown torturing yourself with the memory of every bad thing you’ve ever done (or maybe that’s just me).
And, of course, there’s the person who’s gone. They walked out in the middle of a conversation, and even if you thought that conversation was going nowhere, or had lost the capacity to change direction or become productive, that sudden silence can be infuriating.
I can only speak to my own experience here, and that is very much still a work in progress, but working out what forgiveness might look like in relation to each of these things has been important to me. I mean forgiveness here as a kind of bloodletting, a siphoning-off of the resentment and anger I didn’t realise had built up until it was overwhelming. Asking yourself what you need to get rid of it – do you need an apology? From who? Are they able to give it? What can you do with an apology that you can’t do without one?
Forgiving doesn’t have to mean forgetting all the bad things, or pretending they never happened. It doesn’t mean letting yourself or someone else off the hook, and it doesn’t mean flattening your feelings down to an unrealistically compact solution so that you can never be tripped up by it again. I just mean whatever kindness you can do to yourself, to set down some of the weight you’re carrying.
I’m not sure if these reminders will be helpful for anyone. I’m not even sure if they’d have been helpful for me – it’s one thing to be reminded of something, and another to internalise it the way you learn from a mistake. But I hope they do help. And even if they don’t, I hope that someday soon you’ll be walking through a park in summer, and you’ll get a gentle reminder that this grief doesn’t always have to feel so heavy. There are good things among the bad, even if that good thing is just you. As I love to say, life is a mixed bag. You take the reminder, and you keep on walking.
It took me a long time to understand the phrase “distant regard,”
but I am grateful for it now,
and I am grateful for my heart,
that turned out to be good, after all,
and grateful for my mind,
to which, in retrospect, I can see
I have never been sufficiently kind.— Tony Hoagland, “Distant Regard”