Life, Grief, & 2016
It is almost a universal truth that 2016 was a shitty year. And for many people, it began on shaky ground. After all, David Bowie and Alan Rickman were lost almost out of the gate. Indeed, 2016 is listed on a staggering number of celebrity headstones as the date of death, and we still have four full days to go.
The year was never going to be a good one for me. My father died on January 2. Writing that sentence, thinking those words, saying them aloud, still feels wrong. Not strange, but wrong. One of the things I learned right away is that parents die every day. Losing your parents is a part of life, such to the point that when we hear, “So-and-so’s mother/father died,” we feel a pang of empathy but can’t really understand.
Here’s the thing, though. Other people’s mothers and fathers die every day. You only lose yours once.
It’s almost been a year and I am nowhere near mourned out. I don’t see the crying jags ending anytime soon. I don’t see the pain of not being able to hear his voice or see his face or watch him laugh or roll his eyes or any of the million things that made my dad who he was fading.
The thing about grief is there is no way to prepare for it. Even for people like me, who have suffered from depression and anxiety all their life. There's the shadowy gloom and then there's the true dark. Grief is the true dark. Actor/writer Patton Oswalt has always been open about his struggle with depression, and succinctly summarized why it’s shitty practice for grief after he lost his wife.
This is what spoke to me:
Thanks for making depression look like the buzzing little bully it always was. Depression is the tallest kid in the 4th grade, dinging rubber bands off the back of your head and feeling safe on the playground, knowing that no teacher is coming to help you.
But grief? Grief is Jason Statham holding that 4th grade bully's head in a toilet and then fucking the teacher you've got a crush on in front of the class. Grief makes depression cower behind you and apologize for being such a dick.
Losing someone you love is something none of us get to avoid, and it does things to your head. My first reaction to the world mourning David Bowie was anger and irritation. David Bowie died just eight days after my father. My world had been up-ended. I was in a place darker than any I’d been before—everything was raw and terrible and a part of me is still convinced it didn’t happen because how could it? And then everyone started publicly grieving someone who was not nearly as important as my father—he just happened to be more famous.
I was angry, but I bit my tongue because I knew my emotions weren’t rational.
A few days later when Alan Rickman died. It was January 14, just twelve days after I said goodbye to my father for the last time. And while I did feel something when I learned of his death, my primary reaction was still anger. The thought of anyone mourning the loss of a celebrity when I had lost one of the most important people in my world seemed insulting. It felt like a big fuck you.
Again, not a rational thought, but an honest one. I don’t regret feeling the way I did because I couldn’t help it. I was hurting and everything made it worse.
I stopped responding with anger the further we got from January, which was good because trying to explain to others why my response was IDGAF was exhausting and made me feel bad for feeling the way I felt when I had zero control over any of it. The more time I had to process what I’d gone through, the better I became. When I first started going to my grief support group in March, I mentioned my anger about the reaction the celebrity deaths and was met with understanding. It was the only place I didn’t have to explain or clarify what I was feeling because everyone in that room could relate. And later I learned I didn’t have to explain or justify because I was allowed to feel what I felt. Knowing you are thinking or feeling something irrational doesn’t make the thought or feeling go away—it just makes things worse.
Fast forward to today.
Leia Organa was one of the first female role models in my life that didn’t wait to be rescued. Who rolled her eyes at any male trying to play hero, who snagged blasters from her savior’s hands and fired shots herself. Leia, brought spectacularly to life by Carrie Fisher, had a profound influence not only on my writing, but my views on women and how they navigate a world dominated and frequently fucked up by men.
More than that, she helped shape my view of romance in itself, because Han and Leia were the first couple I fell in love with. She helped shape my philosophy of relationships built on equality, mutual respect and compromise. Leia has been a fixture of my world since I was a kid.
Understandably, Carrie wasn’t Leia. She was just responsible for bringing Leia to life. No, as awesome as Leia is, Carrie herself is a thousand times that. Because she was real. Because she spoke openly about her struggles with addiction, depression, and mental illness. Because she didn’t shy from topics others found unseemly for women, especially of a certain age. Because she was open about how body-shamers hurt her and open about how she would fight back. Because she was awesome and the world is a little less so for not having her in it.
Yeah. This one hurts.
But the hurt is fleeting. It’s one I will feel for a while, but not for years. This time next year, even as the new Star Wars installment comes out, I doubt I’ll be thinking too much about how I loved Carrie Fisher. Instead, I’ll be fixating on surviving a second Christmas without my father and dreading the date January 2 as it nears.
But the fact that this hurts, that I had to fight back tears when I got the news, shows me that I have taken strides toward healing. My therapist has told me that it takes anywhere from 3-5 years to process a significant loss. I'm just now getting to the end of year one. There's still miles to go before I sleep.
That said, I don’t begrudge the people who don’t care about Carrie Fisher’s passing—or anyone’s—because they lost someone they love. Who look at Facebook or Twitter and see millions mourning a woman most of us never met and respond with anger. Because death is always horrible, but nothing can compare to losing someone in your world.
2016 was objectively terrible. It felt, at times, like a sentient thing that had a genuine vendetta against everything good. Even the fact that the Chicago Cubs won the World Series was bittersweet because that victory came exactly 10 months to the day after they lost their biggest fan.
My personal world stands to be better in 2017, though it will be a while before I can call anything good. Good without my dad doesn’t exist, and anyone who has lost anyone they love can understand why. Still, we need to remember that things like the calendar year don’t actually have agency. 2016 didn’t set out to be anyone’s worst year ever. All the shit that has happened this year is just a side effect of life. And life will continue beyond midnight on New Year’s Eve. Which means shit will keep hitting.
That’s perhaps the hardest thing to take away.