Crossing from New Year’s Eve to the inaugural day of a calendar year, my first thought is automatic. “Oh, another set of dates without my dad in them.”
He died when I was fourteen. At nearly twenty-three, I still count the years backwards. It’s been nine years since… This will be the ninth Christmas without… soon we’ll be at the ten year anniversary of… can you believe how much has changed in nine years…
I celebrate milestones, as far as he’s concerned, retroactively.
My January birthday is days away, and of course I’m making plans. This year, I might catch a drink with friends at a glitzy bar downtown, or hop to Chicago to visit my sister and the art museum. Or I might do absolutely nothing, which sounds marvelous too. When I turned twenty, however, I happened to be studying in Northern Ireland for a Calvin Interim trip, where I was surrounded by blue-gray seas, sheep-dotted cliffs, and cities overgrown with moss and music. I visited a traditional Irish pub to celebrate, and I was in love with Belfast, but my eyes still watered, remembering that my dad only knew me as a teenager, not a twenty-something, and that he would not be there to listen to all my Irish adventures when I got home.
I don’t consider myself stuck in the past. Quite the opposite, actually. I’ve been to therapy. I’ve been honest with friends and trusted ones. I’ve moved states, leaving behind the house and town where I lived with my dad, and I’ve jumped feet-first into spaces and communities where no one knows his name. I don’t hold onto his clothes, bird-identification books, bug collections, ball caps, or any other item that was dear to his identity.
Not that I have anything to prove, and not that there’s a universal standard that bereaved people have to achieve in order to say they’ve “moved on.” The truth is you don’t move on, after you lose a loved one. You just take your loss with you. Grief docks in your life like a sail in a harbor.
It’s present, but—after some time—not overwhelming at all. It’s a misconception that people who lose a loved one are sad all their lives. I’m not.
When my sister’s high school soccer team won the regional championship, I cheered her on, even as I regretted that Dad wouldn’t see her holding the trophy. At my college graduation, I felt pride when I received my diploma, and I blinked away tears remembering that Dad never knew that the girl-who-read-books-while-she-walked-down-stairs did eventually graduate magna cum laude in English. If I ever get married, I hope my wedding will be the happiest day of my life, but I know that I’ll get a little weepy when I don’t have anyone to walk me down the aisle.
But I still cheered. I still beamed with pride. I’m still looking forward to more celebrations.
Grief doesn’t get in the way of joy. It’s not like depression, which detracts from the abundance of life, or anxiety, which distracts from the peace of life. I can fully and deeply experience wonder, delight, pride, and happiness at holidays, birthdays, and other celebrations while paying attention to the reality that my Dad is gone.
To grieve is to hold joy in one hand and sorrow in the other.
Hannah Riffell has landed in Lansing, Michigan twenty-three years after she was born there, nineteen years after she moved to Mississippi, seven years after she moved to Northern Michigan, and two years after she graduated from a university in Grand Rapids. You probably can’t find her because she’s either exploring the state, wandering around her city, or just lost in her own head.