The whole grieving process feels like a movie. You make the calls to clients, employers, friends. “My dad passed away last night.” “Oh, I’m so sorry, I’ll be praying for you.” Each time it seems a little ridiculous. You wonder if any minute someone will call your bluff.
“You’re 20 — did your dad really die or are you just trying to get out of work?”
Maybe both, I thought. It all felt weirder with a parent I wasn’t close to. Well, we were close for about fifteen years before things got bad. Did five years of a rocky relationship negate the first fifteen? Did it mean I should grieve less, or just differently? Did I even deserve to take time off from work?
After I made every call I just laid in the middle of my floor for a while. What movies don’t prepare you for are the moments without any action, when you’re alone and grieving and there’s nothing to direct it all towards.
I cleaned my kitchen. I don’t know why. I just did.
What felt most surreal was returning home. I live in Colorado now, but my family’s from Wyoming. Only a four-hour drive, but it felt like another world.
I was the protagonist of a feel-good film — a city slicker returning to her rural home to grieve her estranged father; a writer in a family of roughnecks and blue-collar workers. I wore a black skirt suit and everyone else wore jeans and cowboy boots to the funeral. All I was missing was a black umbrella and a veil to complete the look.
It was a perfect sunny day. I stood in the entryway of the chapel and watched them practice folding the flag — folding, unfolding, folding. The chaplain told me to make myself comfortable, do whatever I needed to do.
So I watched the flag — folding, unfolding, folding once more.
When people started showing up I, in good spirits, made my way to the front with the rest of the family. Older sister, brother-in-law, cousin, grandparents. I kept cracking jokes. I liked to believe we were all getting together for something else entirely.
I broke at the urn.
Easy to find images of online because, bless my grandma’s heart, she got it on sale at Hobby Lobby. Dad would’ve loved that.
Up until then I didn’t really think it was a funeral, y’know. No one had to tell me “your dad is in that jar like dried basil” for me to know that’s exactly what I was seeing.
The first cry hit me so hard it echoed.
I punched my sister in the leg.
“I lose the bet — You were supposed to cry first.”
And I laughed, because it hurt too much to be sad right then.
Just before the service began they brought all the family to the back to pray. The chaplain’s words were of little comfort to me, the lone atheist.
Was God walking with me on this day? Would He really comfort me?
I felt sorely alone.
After the funeral — flag-folding and all — everyone gathered at the local VFW for sandwiches. The place smelled like smoke and all the tables were those white plastic ones that get all scuffed up and old real easy.
Someone shoved a plate in my hand.
“You need to eat,” my cousin said.
“I… wouldn’t like to do that,” I mustered.
She dragged me through the line, grabbing finger sandwiches and chips before walking me back to the table where the rest of my family sat.
I picked at my food.
Every few minutes someone came over to talk to me. Half the time, I had to politely explain that they’d confused me for my sister.
Normally the awkwardness would’ve killed me, but I didn’t care. Fuck ’em, I thought. It’s my day to be sad. It’s their day to deal with it.
People said their goodbyes and filed out. They packed their little bit of grief into their purse or back pocket left, forgetting about it until the next time someone uttered my dad’s name.
And good for them.
But me? My sister? My grandparents, who should never have had to bury their own son?
We never get to set that grief down.
We still find it in old boxes filled with letters Dad wrote to Grandma while he was in the army. We find it shoved between the pages of Dad’s AA workbook. We find it in his Bible, the beer steins he brought back from Germany, his clothes.
It seems like the surreality never ends.
When I went back to Wyoming for Thanksgiving, I visited his grave for the first time.
Standing in the bitter Wyoming cold, with snow circling our ankles and hats pulled low over our brows, my sister and I stood there. I told her that it feels like losing Dad was Day 1. I can’t remember life before it. My worldview has been so fundamentally shifted that I don’t relate to the woman I used to be.
This is the new normal now. It feels like something out of a movie, and I think it always will.
If our toes hadn’t gone numb from the cold, I think we could’ve stood there all day, just waiting for the credits to roll.