Thursday, September 27, 2018

A New Normal

Everyone says that firsts are hard.  After experiencing a second Yom Kippur, I think that seconds can arguably be worse.  First occasions: holidays, birthdays, milestones truly are difficult to weather with a missing loved one.  But by the time the second one comes around, it’s the beginning of a new routine. The distraction provided the initial outpouring of sympathy is mostly gone and you are left alone with the reality that your loved one really isn't coming back. And that realization can be just as hard, if not harder.  It's a different kind of pain - less acute and raw and more of a subtle dull throbbing.

It niggles underneath all of the other mundane thoughts: How can we move on when our loved one is not with us?

And now I’m beginning to wonder if I just imagined it all to begin with… has the father I remember become a figment of my imagination?

I know this may sound crazy to some, but for me, this whole experience is tinged with an element of disbelief.  Initially, I felt a sense of unreality because my father died so suddenly, with no warning or preparation or closure.  At the funeral, I felt like a character in an alternate reality: in the “real” or “parallel story,” my father lived a full life, celebrated his children’s weddings and had the opportunity to dote on and enjoy his grandchildren.  In this fictional narrative, the pallbearers are his grandsons and great-grandsons, instead of only loving nephews. In the harsher world of reality, my brother and I both planned our weddings during the year of mourning, and instead of playing with him, my father's grandchildren will bear his name.

Now that my wedding is approaching in a couple of months, this element of disbelief continues.  How can my father not be here to walk me down the aisle?! How can I get married without him?!  And how is it possible that my wonderful fiance, who had to comfort me through a year of Kaddish and endless stories, never got to meet him in real life?

How can this be?

In the beginning, it just felt strange, knowing my father was not going to be present for holidays and milestones.  Now, reality is setting in, with a rough introduction to the concept of “never.” It’s the start of a new normal, and I don’t like it at all.  

But like most things in life, I don’t get a choice.  A year of Kaddish was a logistical challenge, but also cathartic. It was a bit like summer camp, with the crazy schedule and socialization born of repeat encounters with fellow minyanaires. Not to mention, thrice daily opportunities to reflect and cry and miss my father in a real, palpable way.

Now that the first year has passed, I cannot continue to maintain the frenetic pace of barrelling down the street before shacharit, interrupting client sessions to catch mincha, and finding maariv after 9 or 10 PM. Moving forward is hard, but it doesn’t mean I love my father less or that I won’t miss him during all kinds of moments big and small.  I don’t have to like it, but I do have to live it, even if the reality stinks. Surreal or not, this is the hand I've been dealt and there are beautiful occasions coming that deserve my attention, energy and emotions. My father would want me to embrace them and his memory deserves nothing less.

Which leaves me getting used to a new normal - and to an even newer understanding of what that means compared to when I first wrote about the concept a year ago. The thing that helps the most, I've found, is the support of my friends, family, and community. It was hard to look forward to getting married without my father, until a friend started singing Od Yishama over the phone in response to news of our engagement. It didn't begin to feel real until my fiance's extended family started kilili-ing in our honor. And when the year ended and my cousins surprised me with a bridal shower (in my own home!!!), it finally became possible for me to start to get excited about the wedding. Shopping expeditions post-mourning have been a proactive way to help me prepare for upcoming events and start feeling fresh and pretty again with a new wardrobe. But most importantly, friends reaching out, asking about the wedding, making plans to be present and celebrate at the out of town event itself or during sheva berachot... these have been important and necessary steps in helping me bridge the gap between grief and living.

I don’t want to feel my father's loss any less, but I cannot hold onto such an acute hurt forever. I know I can see the thestrals, but I don't have to stand alone when I do. If I have learned anything from this experience, it is that real, human interactions, connections and relationships can add a much-needed cushion to the pain of loss and grief. It's a different reality to the one I envisioned at the funeral, but it has its own inherent beauty that I can't and won't ignore. I count myself lucky that I have been blessed, not only with happy occasions to look forward to, but to friends I can truly count on to see me through the hard times and help me celebrate the good times that are coming.

May we all merit to see only simchas!

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I am an educator who is trained to reflect, not a rabbi or any type of halachic authority. These writings are in no way binding, and may not represent all approaches to and experiences in navigating grief. In fact, there will likely be those who disagree with me or can offer additional suggestions and reflections. For this reason, I am leaving the comments section open so that together as a community, we can broaden the scope of this blog to include a majority of human experience.

One important request: Please be respectful in posting your comments and be sure to frame your tips in the most positive phrasing possible. I reserve the right to delete any unkind comments and plan to update the original posts occasionally to include additional insights and reflections from our combined experience.

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