This article was written for Performant Mental Health, The Series.
I remember the exact place that I was standing when my entire life changed forever.
It was a cold, dreary winter afternoon in New York. My mom and I were standing in the JFK parking lot. I had just flown home from China for Chinese New Year to visit my family before starting an incredible new job in Shanghai. You see, in the last four years of my back-and-forth to China, my dad never missed an airport pickup or drop off. Ever.
I’m from a small town in upstate New York that is about a 5-hour round trip from the airport. This was also before cell phones and Google maps. This was when you had to print out Mapquest or actually, dare I say, look at a paper map. My dad didn’t want my mom to have to drive alone (truth be told, it’s a miserable drive) but also, he had a hard time saying goodbye to me and I know that he was always super excited when I came home.
I was truly blessed and sheltered growing up. I was almost cursed in how little I truly understood about real pain. In that moment, in that JFK parking lot, on that dreary October wintery day, I demanded to know where dad was. It had to be incredibly serious if he was going to miss an airport pickup. It was.
They found a huge mass in his brain and he was being hospitalized for testing. They were optimistic that it could potentially be a treatable infection.
My entire world shattered in that moment. Dad was sick? Dad could die? What? My brain couldn’t fathom a world without him in it. Time stopped and all sense of feelings stopped for me.
You see, grief is very real. I didn’t have the language or understanding back then that I now do, but I was in full shock and anticipatory grief. In the coming weeks, I could barely function.
It was confirmed. It was a glioblastoma multiforme, a nasty aggressive brain tumor that wreaked havoc on my dad’s brain.
Back in China, while he was in full treatment, again the doctor’s were naively optimistic, I threw myself into work. I had to run to the bathroom and bawl my eyes out and sometimes wouldn’t’ make it and would sit at my desk and cry. No one knew what to do with or how to support me. I didn’t know what to do with me or how to support me.I suffered openly and felt invisible.
Then that awful phone call came that said, you better get on the next flight and fast. You see, I was still a 23 year old that wanted to party in China and not sit and watch my father die on my birthday. But, I flew home a few days before my 24th birthday - thanks goodness I did. His last words were ‘happy birthday’ and he died hours after my birthday ended.
Grief, like depression and anxiety has a lot of stigma attached to it. I didn’t understand that grief takes many forms. I didn’t understand that grief doesn’t just come from death. My grief started the second I learned about my dad’s death sentence.
It took me over a decade lost in my grief maze to find inner peace. In the early days, as I sat fumbling for air, I promised myself that when I found my way, I would devote my life to helping others do the same. A few years ago, I was finally able to keep that promise.
I explored every modality I could find from alcohol to therapy to journaling to meditation. I worked crazy hours, exercised like a fiend and traveled the world. Throughout my exploration, I kept learning more about what I needed most and how to express and ask for what I needed.
A few of the many, many things that I wish I knew a decade ago:
- Grief hurts like hell. And it hurts differently for all of us. It looks different on all of us. And it’s completely okay. It’s so important to not judge self or others how they grieve. We all have our own non-linear grief journey.
- Grief is normal and natural. Crying is normal and natural. Laughing is normal and natural. Being totally and utterly pissed off is normal and natural. The point I am trying to make is that having strong overwhelming feelings is totally normal.
- There are NO shoulds in grief. None.
- Actually, there is just one and that is to drink water. Crying can cause dehydration. If you can’t bring yourself to eat, that’s fine. But, please drink water.
- People oftentimes do not know what to do when you are crying. Yours tears can sometimes activate their own grief and inner fears about their own mortality and loved ones.
- I cannot tell you how many of my dad’s male friends (including doctor friends and religious clergy) and my own grandpa were not able to deal with my tears. They were nasty to me and it hurt a lot. I did not understand that it was not ABOUT ME. It was about them and their pain. Please do not take other people’s inability to process their own emotions personally. I know it’s easier said than done.
- There are no timelines on grief. There are no end dates on grief. Grief is a non-linear journey that ebbs and flows. It’s your unique journey and no one gets to tell you how to act or how it should look. That is both a blessing and a curse.
On the eve of my dad’s ten year anniversary and 7 months before my wedding, I was introduced to the Grief Recovery Method. It was a missing piece in my non-linear grief journey. I got certified on my dad’s ten year anniversary in the building that was across the street from my current place of employment. I couldn’t think of a more powerful way to honor my dad and spend his anniversary. It was as if the Universe said, ‘now is your time to keep that promise that you made to your 24-year old self to help others and you don’t even need to travel far.” It was really powerful being in a room with other healers and being able to completely fall apart and lovingly be put back together, powerfully, and as a force to help others heal.
I founded my practice, The Non-Linear Journey, named in honor of my father who, in his dying days, always said, “time is non-linear, I’ll always be with you.” I have been able to start to keep my promise and help others navigate their own grief maze. To learn more about my story and work, please visit http://bit.ly/GriefRecoverywithilana.
Truth be told, I still do my own work. I still get triggered. I still miss him. But the huge gift that I have is that I get to cherish my memories. I love to talk about him. I love to share stories about him. And I love being able to help others get to that place as well.
Grief, and life, are both non-linear journeys and it’s so important to remember that we aren’t alone - even when we feel like it - and that feelings are normal and natural and that it’s totally more than okay to not be okay for as long as you need.
–Ilana Shapiro Yahdav, MPA, ACGRS
To read more stories written for everyday people by everyday people, visit Performant Mental Health, Part 5.