The Day My Grief Finally Lifted

by Christine Burke

As the sun set over the horizon, I remember taking a deep breath and relaxing into the view. My husband and I were attending a fancy function for his job and the organizers had brought in a Ferris wheel for the festivities. The evening was an over-the-top event and I had looked forward to our big night for months. The warm sunlight kissed my face and the wind rustled my party dress as my husband kissed me at the top of the wheel. I leaned into his embrace and I allowed myself to forget for a moment that my dad was dying of cancer.

My father’s diagnosis had come with a crushing blow from out of nowhere. Terminal, the doctor said. Chemotherapy will prolong the inevitable and will provide him with pain relief, the doctor gently explained. My family wandered through the next few months, bewildered and scared, unable to process the enormity of his diagnosis. As a nurse, I had witnessed firsthand what patients go through as cancer slowly strips them of their dignity and sucks the life out of their once vibrant souls. My life became a harried jumble of phone calls, visits home to help care for my dad, and all-encompassing worry. And I felt grief, thick and murky, slowly take hold around my heart.

I was grieving my father’s loss long before he passed away, and it was exhausting.

Almost overnight, I watched my father become “a cancer patient.” Hair loss, anemia that made him pale as a ghost, and fatigue slowly whittled my once strapping, bigger-than-life father into a brittle frail shell I barely recognized. I longed for the days when our conversations didn’t revolve around scans, lab reports, and emergency trips to the hospital. I rarely allowed myself nights out on the town or coffee dates with friends because I couldn’t handle the thought that my dad was dying while I was out living the life of a non-cancer patient. Mostly, I was a scared little girl terrified of losing her father.

And so, that night on the Ferris wheel, the height and the perspective from above allowed me a brief reprieve. As the wheel slowly spun, I laughed and put the business of a father dying aside and I leaned into my exhilaration. I had a blast that night as I danced with our friends and sipped cocktails under the stars. When I look back on that night, I realize it was a gift. My dad unexpectedly passed away three days later, and I descended into pure unadulterated grief.

In the months that followed my father’s death, my grief threatened to chew me up and swallow me whole. There were days when I got out of bed merely because my two children needed their mother to actually feed them. I couldn’t think straight on the good days and I sobbed uncontrollably on the bad days. Everywhere I went, any conversation I had was overshadowed by the darkness that encompassed my heart.

I was pretty sure in those first few months that I’d never be whole again because the pain and sadness ran deep into my bones. I was often reminded of the scene in Sex and the City when Miranda consoled Carrie after Mr. Big abandoned her at the altar by telling her she’d laugh again, someday, when something was really, really funny. I clung to that notion as I spiraled in my hellish unending hurt.

Just as it had pained me to see my dad’s cancer-ridden body, I know my father would have hated to see me in the mire of my grief. I knew he’d have wanted me to move on, to find joy again, but I carried my grief because it was all I had left of my dad. To allow myself to let go, just as I did on the Ferris wheel before his death, seemed disrespectful to his memory. I would do my duty and grieve. I accepted that grief would be a part of my heart forever and I made peace with the notion that feeling broken was my new normal.

Much to my surprise, in accepting my grief, I started to heal. I realized that grief wasn’t an emotion to ignore and by examining my feelings and being open with those around me, I felt unburdened by its all-encompassing nature.

As I made peace with the sadness, I set boundaries for grief’s ugly clutches. I made room for the days when I needed to cry under a blanket, but I also stubbornly stared back at my grief when joy was slowly starting to flood back into my heart. I relinquished the guilt I felt when I caught myself smiling and singing along to a favorite song or when I belly laughed so hard tears rolled down my cheeks. It was if I could feel my dad giving me a gentle push back into the land of the living and telling me it was okay to miss him and yet still feel vibrantly alive.

My grief has become part of the fabric of who I am these days. It’s been four years since my dad passed and the pain of grieving has lessened to an almost undetectable pinch, much like a splinter stuck in the remote corner of my heart. Every so often though, the splinter throbs and threatens to swell into the joy-filled areas of my heart. Most days, I am able to soothe the pain with a fond memory. But I’ll never pull that splinter out with tweezers because I never want to forget how far I’ve come since my dad died.

On a warm summer night last August, I sat atop a Ferris wheel with my family. My daughter excitedly pointed at the view and said, “We are so close to heaven up here! Do you think Poppy can see us?” My eyes filled with tears and I smiled at her. When I gazed back at the horizon, I could almost see my dad smiling back at me.