Content warning: this piece contains death.
Imagine packing up your entire life and moving back into your childhood home just one week after sitting beside your dad in a hospital bed, hooked up to more machines than you can count, and watching him die while choking on his own vomit.
Now imagine that house is filled with your family members, each coping with grief in their own way.
When you think of your dad or the father figure in your life, what do you see?
A little over a year ago, I could picture my dad watching me graduate, helping me pick out my first car, and congratulating me on my first big-girl job. I could see him walking me down the aisle and holding my newborn children. I could picture him growing old with my mother and retiring on the island of Barbados, sipping vodka sodas and basking in the sun.
What I didn’t see was a cancer diagnosis, and his death two short weeks after finding out.
I never imagined not being able to say goodbye.
There are five stages of grief , according to the theory developed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. These stages supposedly come in waves — one crashing into the next until the final wave of acceptance washes over you.
In this first stage, the brain suppresses the intense emotions you’re feeling – a defence mechanism. By denying that this is happening, you buy time before having to deal with your loss.
Anger is not only a common way to mask pain, but also a way to release pent-up emotions, like a pressure release valve. It can disguise itself as resentment, passive-aggressiveness, or bitterness.
Another stage that buys you time. Even after death, you may beg and plead to God, Buddha, or any other religious figure to spare your loved one. Those dealing with grief after they’ve already lost their person may try to pretend everything is normal. Some bloggers say this is the most challenging stage of grief.
This is a period of mourning; you may feel as though time is standing still, and you have no energy left to deny, be angry, or bargain.
You finally accept your reality – your new normal. A new type of everyday life with some sense of normality.
In a book published by David Kessler and Kübler-Ross one year after her death, Kübler-Ross herself stated these stages are not always linear – although they can be. They also aren’t bound by a certain length of time.
Even still, I think these five stages are bullshit.
December 15, 2019
I decided to walk around the corner from my Corydon apartment to my favourite vintage store to find a new outfit for the holidays. I’ve always loved the holidays.
I lounged in the dressing room with a sequined dress draped over my body. My phone buzzes on the pink chair that matches the rose-coloured room, and my heart sinks to the floor as I read a text message preview from my mom:
“Dad’s in an ambulance on his way to the hospital. He collapsed this morning.”
With panic and bile rising in my throat, I was suddenly reminded of the previous Sunday when I was asked to visit my parents for a family meeting.
My dad awkwardly lounged on the white leather chaise that he had bought my mom years ago for her birthday. He looked uncomfortable as he sat there; his frail-looking body twisted in an odd position, so he could manage the pain shooting through his spine. He had lost a noticeable amount of weight since I had seen him last.
“It’s cancer,” he said matter-of-factly after making small talk for about half an hour. “It started in my kidneys and spread to my spine, pancreas, and God knows where else.”
Why do I think the five stages of grief are bullshit?
And it’s not because therapists have debunked this theory.
For me, it’s because there is no mention of how to deal with yourself during your own stages of grief while also navigating the stages of grief of those around you. It wasn’t just me who lost her father; my mom lost her husband and my sisters lost their father. How is it possible to deal with almost all of the stages at the same time?
Me: Living With Guilt
Every single day since my dad died, I have had a twinge of guilt in the pit of my stomach. I feel guilty for yelling at him when he wouldn’t let me see my friends, for telling him he wasn’t my “real dad” after we got into arguments when I was a bratty preteen, and for not calling an ambulance after I got the first sinking feeling that he was seriously sick.
During my research on grief, I learned that as humans, we need order and a sense of control in our lives. Studies show not only is control desirable to humans, but it’s also almost considered a psychological and biological necessity.
When we lose somebody or go through a traumatic experience, it’s no surprise we feel like our control is ripped from our hands. Without something or someone to blame, we are faced with the harsh reality that the universe is a chaotic, unpredictable labyrinth with no clear direction.
By blaming ourselves, we trick ourselves into thinking we could have controlled the outcome if we did something different. As we hold onto our guilt, we hold onto hope that we could have changed things.
I blame myself daily. I remember getting text messages and phone calls from my mom about his well-being. On the bad days, I would desperately beg her to take him to emergency or even get angry and threaten to call the ambulance myself.
I never did.
Maybe if I had made that call weeks prior, he would have gotten the care he needed.
Maybe he would have survived.
I knew my dad was sick before that family meeting ever happened. I had moved out years ago when I was 17, but I remained close with my parents and we spoke almost every day.
“Oh, dad isn’t feeling well. The doctor said he’s having a Crohn’s flare-up,” my mom would tell me and my sisters when he couldn’t attend family gatherings, or when we weren’t allowed to come to visit. This had been going on for almost two months before his death.
One thing you need to know is my dad was stubborn — incredibly stubborn. He thought he was invincible. He was strong in spirit. He could tackle anything. While my sisters and I begged my mom to take him to the hospital, he begged her not to. He had beaten Crohn’s before, so he could do it again, right?
Mom: Living with Fear
After my dad died, my two sisters (Jordan, 28, and Marquesa, 25) and I packed up our apartments and moved into our childhood home so my mom wouldn’t be alone. To us, it would be a no-brainer to be there for her. What we didn’t realize is that we would all be forced into a house full of people, each grieving in their own ways.
Living with my mom was difficult. Immediately after leaving the hospital the night he died, she lost the spark I knew and loved ever since I was a child. It was hard to see her in that state. I watched the woman who gave me life and raised me begin to seemingly waste away. Her weight dropped until I could see her collarbones through her t-shirt, and the sparkle in her eyes dulled and faded.
My mom is plagued by fear and guilt. She did everything with my dad, and she still struggles to do daily tasks on her own. She couldn’t make cremation arrangements without me and my sisters by her side because she couldn’t get a word out without breaking down. She can’t even decide what she wants to eat when we order food. For my mom, basic human tasks feel scary and unfamiliar.
“I still feel like there was something I could have done,” said my mom. “When the ambulance came, I had to talk to the paramedics. I didn’t know this was the last time I had the chance to talk to him or hold his hand. He was probably so scared, and I should have been there for him.”
Soon, my sisters and I were taking care of her. I would cook her dinner, remind her to take lunch to work, and make sure she showered regularly.
My sister, Marquesa, let her anger get the best of her. She would scream at my mom for her indecisiveness, which would cause my mom to crumble as if she were an old house that’s stood the test of time, her support beams finally starting to deteriorate. Often, after an explosive argument with my sister, I would find her laying on the floor of her closet. I would sit beside her as her chest heaved up and down with heavy, earth-shattering sobs. I would pat her hair and tell her everything was going to be alright. Seeing her that way felt like cement slabs were being placed on my chest, one by one.
I couldn’t blame her; I knew why she was hurting: she felt lost, scared, and alone.
I knew sleeping in the bed she shared with her husband of 20 years suddenly felt cold and empty. I knew there was a person-shaped dent in his side of the bed that she avoids rolling over into in fear that she’ll change the shape of the mattress that is so perfectly moulded to his body. I’ve seen her flinch when she gets close to it. I’ve seen her eyes shudder when someone looks like they’re about to sit down on his side of the bed.
“I just feel like I’m just floating through life,” she said.
December 15, 2019
I ripped the sequin dress from my body in a panicked state and ran back to the apartment I shared with Marquesa. When I walked in the front door, she was sitting on her bed with her elbows propped up on her knees to hold the weight of her head in her hands. She was sobbing.
“Get up, let’s go,” I said to her as I stood in the doorway of her bedroom, unable to get any closer. I had to keep moving in fear of completely shutting down.
When we arrived at St. Boniface Hospital, we met my teary-eyed mother outside the doors to the emergency entrance.
I was not prepared for what I was about to walk into. I hadn’t thought to ask my mom if he was conscious. I expected to step in and make a joke to lighten his spirits.
When we got into the room, he was lying unconscious on a tiny hospital bed with a long tube trailing out of his open mouth. There were two IVs connected to the crook of his arm and the top of his hand. I was frozen; I never expected to see him in this state. He was indestructible. He was the strongest person I knew.
Jordan arrived as we waited to hear from the doctors. We all huddled together as the doctor came in and told us that cancer had completely taken over his body. My dad needed to be hooked up to various machines just to survive. We were faced with the difficult decision to keep him on life support or pull the plug.
I held his hand as he passed away at 11:55 p.m. With one final breath of air, he forced out the last word I would ever hear him say.
Jordan: Living with Denial
It is entirely incomprehensible to me that everybody can experience grief in the same way.
Stuck between denial and bargaining, Jordan still imagines scenarios of how my dad could still be alive.
“There were certain times where I would make up crazy stories in my head about dad dying,” Jordan said with an embarrassed smile. “He was living but just fooled us all. He faked his death, and he was some secret agent who worked with the MI6 or the CIA and needed us to think he was dead to work on an important mission. In my head, he would be coming back.”
She’d find an old sweatshirt of his and say it was his way of communicating with her. She would even forget he had died and would tell us she was going to give him a call.
This was jarring for all of us. It would cause a chain reaction, one that happened so often it almost started to feel normal.
Again, and again, like water circling the drain.
These moments of forgetting your loved one is dead are labelled disbelieving aftershocks by some grief bloggers. They give your brain a small intermission from the brutal reality that your loved one is gone. It’s not uncommon; it’s your brain’s way of slowly getting yourself used to your new reality.
Slowly, she got these moments less and less, but they never fully went away.
“There comes a time where you’re forced to realize that no matter what you do or say, you’re not getting them back,” said Jordan.
“They just aren’t coming back.”
After his death, time felt like it stood still, and yet, moved far too quickly. During the remainder of my holiday break, it was crunch time to find someone to sublet me and Marquesa’s apartment and move everything into my mom’s house. We had to; my mom could not afford the mortgage on her own.
Moving back home was strange. I had moved out five years prior but visited monthly for Sunday dinners.
On moving day, I sluggishly climbed the stairs up to my childhood bedroom with a garbage bag full of clothes and laid down on a twin mattress on the floor. I scoured the room and thought to myself – no one has ever felt a pain quite like this.
Then things got worse.
I couldn’t sit at the dining room table without hearing his booming laughter echo throughout the house.
I couldn’t take a shower without smelling the musky scent of his shower gel, which sat untouched on the lip of the tub for over a year after his death.
I couldn’t last a single day in that house without feeling my heart shatter into a million tiny pieces.
My mom slowly became more and more dependent on me and my sisters, and eventually, it started to feel like we were raising a child of our own. Except it wasn’t a child, it was our mom.
We started to feel like we didn’t lose just one parent; we lost both of them.
The house became a personal prison. My only escape were the days I went to class.
Marquesa: Living with Anger
Marquesa felt one stage of grief more than the others: Anger. She had terrible fights with my mom and would resort to passive aggression if something didn’t go her way. She didn’t pick fights with just our mom. She would pick fights with coworkers, customers, her boyfriend, me.
It was all a result of her feeling like she didn’t have any control.
I could see it in her face, her eyebrows knit together with a look of panic deep in her eyes. I didn’t blame my sister for being angry; I saw how much she was hurting.
“I would be at work and see a dad and a daughter shopping together, and it would set me off,” said Marquesa. “Why couldn’t I have that? Why couldn’t my family be whole again?”
It got to the point where we would purposely avoid her around the house because we never knew what kind of mood she would be in. Sometimes we saw flashes of the fun, adventurous, silly girl that we all knew, and other times she was an enormous ball of rage.
It was hard to be around her – she would make small digs at you and say things that she knew would hurt you. My family and I would theorize that it was her way of externalizing the way she felt inside.
To this day, she won’t talk about our dad’s death with us. And we don’t pry.
“I’m still learning how to manage the anger. Some days you’re fine, and others…” she trailed off.
Three months after moving in, COVID-19 hit Winnipeg and kept us inside the house that haunted us.
I had gone to class as a way to escape. My sisters visited with friends and partied. My mom went to work. All of that ended.
When the province shut things down, closed schools, limited gatherings, we were suddenly trapped in the house that held so many memories, with each other.
Tension rose between us. There wasn’t one spot you could visit that didn’t remind us of him in this house. And on top of that, we couldn’t afford it.
We sat my mom down in December of 2020, one year after my dad died.
“We can’t do this anymore,” Marquesa said, breaking down.
The look of relief that flashed in my mom’s eyes said enough; it was time to move on and start fresh.
After many offers from interested buyers, one couple stood out. They had recently lost their young son.
The mother was hesitant to make an offer, but the father insisted they needed a change of scenery.
We accepted the offer immediately and signed the paperwork.
The house that meant so much to us was going to a new family. As much as it may hurt, leaving the memories behind and creating new ones would be good for us. This house will now be a home for a new couple, leaving their beautiful memories behind to create new ones.
With a welcoming hello to this house, this couple can start a new chapter of healing.
With a bittersweet goodbye to this house, we can start our new chapter of healing.