My husband and I watch a television show we’ve grown rather fond of called, The Good Doctor. In a recent episode, one of the young surgeons tragically loses her mom whom she’d just begun to get to know after years of separation. She immediately returns to work and gets on with her life without mourning her loss. Her mother’s ashes remain in the trunk of her car as she gets on with her life.
In this same episode, a patient has a brain disorder causing her to not feel physical or emotional pain. Not feeling physical pain is a problem as her appendix had burst and she did not know it. Not feeling emotional pain became a problem when her husband found out about her condition and tells her, “to love is to feel pain,” and since she cannot feel any pain, physical or emotional, in his mind she cannot love him.
My father died a few years ago after a relatively short illness. Watching this episode of The Good Doctor awakened a nagging fear inside of me of whether or not I know how to feel and care deeply. I’ve known for a long time that I have the ability to shut down my emotions to the degree where I can deal with life no matter what happens without dissolving into hysteria or intense emotion even when others around me do so. It was a survival tool that served me well as a child that I continue to utilize as an adult as intense emotions frighten me. Instead of dealing with them, I go on auto- pilot.
The night before my father’s funeral, my father in law had a heart attack. After the funeral luncheon the next day, my husband and I immediately left to go to the hospital to be with my in laws. I didn’t feel I had the luxury of grieving the loss of my father while his father was in a precarious situation. A year and a half after my father in law’s open heart surgery, my mother in law had open heart surgery. I still had not given myself time or permission to grieve. My father’s ashes were in my trunk, so to speak. I carry within me a litany of recordings spoken throughout my childhood concerning strong emotions: “Stop, no one wants to listen to your crying.” “Stop that crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.” ”If you’re going to cry, go to your room.” How and when do I stop stopping the tears?
Last year on my birthday, I was missing my dad. Most years, he had been the first person to call and wish me happy birthday. Sometimes instead of speaking the words, he’d begin singing them as soon as I’d pick up the phone. He probably never knew how special his birthday greetings and singing made me feel. As I was telling my husband how much I missed those birthday phone calls from my dad, my cell phone rang. It was a number I didn’t recognize but I answered it anyway. A recorded message from a local pharmacy where I get a prescription filled began playing, “Let me be the first to wish you…click” It began again, “Let me be the first to wish you a happy…click.” Obviously there was something wrong with this recording. I’d almost hung up. I’m so thankful I didn’t. Finally, the recording played in full saying, “Let me be the fist to wish you a happy birthday” and then the pharmacy owner began to sing the “Happy Birthday” song. He sang it all the way through. It felt like a hug from my dad sent by God.
I cried tears of sadness mixed with joy as I felt my dad’s nearness and God’s care for me in that moment.
The surgeon on the show finally dispersed her mother’s ashes at an aquarium near the sea lion exhibit. Afterward she begins to sing, Amazing Grace. A drag event is being held at the aquarium that night which is how she and her friend were able to get in after hours. Some of the men in drag draw near and listen as she sings. I felt very emotional as I watched that scene because for me it was a very human picture of God’s amazing grace as he draws near to us in the midst of our sorrow, tragedy, brokenness, and pain.
I long to take my father’s ashes out of the trunk and grieve my loss. I’m not exactly sure what that looks like, or when it will happen. I’m hoping God comes up with some opportunities and creative ideas to open the flood gate and to help me grieve well.
Though she didn’t talk until she was three, Barbara is a lover of words both spoken and written. A rather late bloomer in both learning to speak and in learning to trust her inner voice and in finally feeling comfortable enough to write down her stories, she feels blessed to be making the journey towards healing and wholeness. She’s looking forward to continuing her journey of transferring her thoughts into written form and sharing them with others. She’s thankful to be part of the Red Tent community.
Dear Barbara, your words bring conviction, hope, and healing to my heart this morning. I identify with the emotional shutdown that was survival in childhood but not helpful now. The comparison of the TV doctor’s struggle and your own is powerful. Thank you for writing and for using your voice! It is needed and welcome. Love to you, Christine
Christine, Thank you for your encouraging words. I hope that as you continue your journey that your emotions will feel safe and that you will be able to express them more easily. Blessings to you, Christine.
Hi Barbara. Thank you for sharing your beautiful heart with us. This was powerful and tender – and helpful. Thank you for helping me on my journey towards healing and wholeness.
Thank you Jen. This piece is near and dear to my heart as I’m learning to allow myself to feel my loss and allow the grief that accompanies it.
So much love for this piece.
Hi Sharon – Thank you for that. This one was very special to me as I’m. missing my dad – January was his and my birthday month.
Great piece of writing that reflects the chaos we go through in trying to make sense of grief. We try to contain and control it but eventually it eeks out at odd moments.
Thank you for responding. Sometimes I feel like I have yet to give myself permission to grieve. God knows our hearts and I rest in the fact that He can use the simplest things to help us get to where we need to be.
Beautiful. And brave. And wise. And so gracious toward yourself as you seek His face to set the time and place of your grieving. Thank you for putting your heart on the page. ~ J.
Thank you for responding and for seeing my heart on the page. My father was a complicated man and yet, he was my dad – and I loved him and I miss him.
Thank you for sharing your heart! Often times I go into auto pilot during a crisis and the tears aren’t there. I miss the tears and want to cry with every emotion once more. Instead, I feel the Lord’s peace as He leads me through the situation, which is comforting but those tears would feel good too.
I agree that at times it is best to get through the hard situation and express our emotions later. But tears grief are so healing – so needed – so missed when they do not come. Those are the tears I long for.
Dear Barbara, I love your writing. I am thrilled that you will be writing for Red Tent Living. I have been pondering grief and how unpopular it is and how sometimes I have to hold grief on behalf of my children when they are incapable or unwilling to “go there.” Which even that is awkward. I loved how you weave your life with characters from The Good Doctor. It was exquisite and made your feelings much more real…..How strong you had to be, especially, with your father-in-law. After my father’s funeral we had a weekend fundraiser with the board of The Seattle School. It was agonizing and we all should have had more wisdom, but we didn’t.
Becky – Ahhh, you know some of the feelings of suspended grief as we both got on with life after losing our dads. I’m sorry that is your experience as well. In hindsight I see that I could have, should have, would have done it differently if I hadn’t been going through the motions and doing what I thought was necessary for others without considering what was necessary for my heart. Thank you for your encouraging words and for sharing a part of your story as well.