The lie of grieving well

Ten years, a decade.

Grief is such an ever-changing experience. Each year a different facet of that gem shines bright in my eyes around the anniversary of my dad’s passing, and most years it is so bright that I cannot ignore it. Years 7 and 8 were the exception. The anniversary came and went and I looked at photos of Dad and spent time with my sister, but mostly they were days dotted with guilt for not feeling more. Then last year came around with its existential angst while sitting at my friend’s birthday party, and I wondered what year 10 would bring. I had hoped it would finally feel like some kind of heroic “grieving well” threshold.

When my Dad died, I was a mess, of course. I was angry and depressed, and wore it loudly. I perceived the rest of my family to be more together: my mother and stepfather took care of the family, and my sister built a little shrine to Dad. They cried at the funeral, but, from my moody perspective, they were “grieving well.” I, on the other hand, was disruptive. A wave of ache would hit me and I’d run out of the room. I spent nights after family dinner drinking wine and painting at the kitchen table, glaring at anyone who would try to talk to me. I went back to college and used the shock of my dad’s suicide as a barrier to keep people away. It wasn’t the kind of quiet, steady grief that I perceived to be the right way to grieve. It wasn’t hidden, curated, or polite. It is only now, ten years later, that I realize it was the perfect response from me to my father.

Bob Scoville was the most manicured, put-together person I’ve ever known. A single hair was rarely out of place, his polo shirts perfectly tucked into his ironed jeans, with a small plastic holster in his belt for his flip cellphone. He frequented the same restaurants weekly and made sure to know everyone’s name and a detail about their life, so when he’d walk in for a meal he could say “Hey Bill! How’s that International Studies degree going?” He was kind and generous, but I never knew how much was for performance, and how much was sincere concern. He did kind acts in private too — feeding the local cat by his office, letting my friend who was having a hard time at home stay with us for a night, etc. But the desire to always seem together was his downfall. He hid so much from everyone — that I still to this day fantasize about finding his journal so I could finally understand what was beneath the veneer. He didn’t keep a journal though, and I only know the major events of his life, as told to me by others. I knew he lost his dad when he was baby, that after high school he was a Marine on the ground in the Vietnam War who killed and saved lives, and he had three marriages end. And he never sought out help. It was a lot to keep to himself. But the car was always shining, he daily went to the gym, and often had some beautiful woman to take out to dinner. The only times I saw him cry were at funerals and watching war films. And he never wanted to talk about it. He asked great questions and listened carefully, but couldn’t handle that kind of examination turned on him.

And we butted heads. A lot. Mostly for fun, jousting and roasting each other over dinner. I took the counterargument for the sake of being contrarian. He’d laugh when I’d zing him, and insist I was going to law school. I refused. There were real fights too when he tried to control me and I’d resist.

And despite my constant rebellion against my father, in life and now after, I am my father’s daughter. There is a part of my that deeply cares how I appear to others. I want to seem like I have it together. Even with this decade-aversary, I wanted to be “grieving well.” To host a party where I show photos of my father and share only the good stories. The reality, though, is this last week or so, with increasing magnitude to today, I felt messy. I listened to Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees” on repeat yesterday. My emotions were scattered and bled into other aspects of life. There was nothing heroic or polite about it.

A wiser part of myself knows that grieving looks different for each person, and different for the same person over time. I know it’s better to create space for letting whatever comes up come and being with it today. I realize now that I’ve been chasing after a lie that tells me there’s a manicured, easy-to-digest way to honor someone’s memory. But there is only honesty — at least, if I truly want to learn from and honor my father’s memory.

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