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The neighbor I never asked for
When we live alongside grief, we have to check in from time to time.
Editor’s Note: Hi, friends! Katie here. Today’s guest essay was written by none other than Rebecca Coates, my dear friend and trusty editor of My Sweet Dumb Brain. Tomorrow marks three years since Becca’s dad died and it’s become somewhat of a tradition—not a necessarily fun one, but a tradition nonetheless!—for her to take over the writing reins around this time and reflect on her experience with grief.
I love what Becca wrote and hope you do too. I’ll see you next week!
When I sat down to start this essay a few nights ago, I had a solid idea of what I was going to write. I wanted to explore how to discuss death with children. It’s something every parent knows they’ll be tasked to do at some point, but dreads the inevitable moment when their child asks, “What does ‘dying’ mean?”
As I started to put my thoughts into words, though, I found myself recounting—in painful and excruciating detail—the events of my dad’s final day: the call with the ICU nurse who confirmed it was time to make end-of-life arrangements and say goodbye; the tear-filled drive to the hospital where he had been for nearly three weeks; and the devastating final hours making heart-wrenching phone calls to loved with news no one wanted to hear.
None of this is what I had planned to discuss, but there it was: Two and a half pages of … well, what? No lessons, no takeaways. It was simply a heavy and emotional overview of a day I didn’t particularly want to relive—and one that I couldn’t see any benefit in sharing with our newsletter readers.
I read and re-read what I had written, feeling confused. I couldn’t understand why my well-thought-out idea, which I had pitched earlier in the week, was so elusive for me to get down on paper. And underlying that confusion was sadness. Not the kind of gut-punching grief that overwhelms all senses, just … sadness.
This surprised me. It had been a while since I had felt this weighty kind of sad—one that falls somewhere in between those brief, quickly passing pangs of longing and the walloping, unrelenting waves of full-blown grief.
People often say you come to live with grief. I find this to be true. Though three years isn’t a long time—considering that death is forever—it has been long enough for me to feel accustomed to life without my dad. My grief has become a neighbor. I’ll wave to it from over the fence, acknowledge it in passing. That night, though, sitting with that weighty, in-between sadness felt more like an awkward encounter with my grief. Like I had run into it at the store and was caught off-guard because I almost didn’t recognize it.
Filled with a mixture of confusion, frustration, and sadness, I set my writing aside and went to bed anxious I wouldn’t be able to deliver the essay I had promised.
The next morning, I sat in my therapist’s office. It was at the end of one of those weeks that kills your soul a little. My Monday started with hot coffee spilled all over me from a fall that twisted my ankle and ended with finding lice on both of my kids. The rest of the week was maddening and monotonous: Lice bombing, hair combing, stripping bed linens, washing, working, washing, washing, washing. Vacuuming. Folding laundry. Lice bombing again, hair combing again, working some more, folding some more. Kids complaining, me complaining, kids crying, me crying.
By the time Friday rolled around, I felt frazzled and defeated—usually the perfect time for a therapy pick-me-up. Yet on that morning, I didn’t want to be there; I didn’t want to talk to anyone; I didn’t want to do anything! On the drive to my appointment, I contemplated instead heading further north toward the mountains, then finding a forest to get lost in for a few days, or a week, or forever.
But, as always happens in those fight-or-flight scenarios, my duty-bound brain won out. I made it to therapy and shared about my frustrating, exhausting week in lice-eradication hell. I complained about how it felt unending—if it wasn’t lice, it was a random cold or stomach bug, or an overly busy work week, or clutter taking over the house. I fretted over my ability as an adult, much less as a parent, to handle each new catastrophe without crumbling under the weight.
At some point during the conversation, I brought up my dad’s approaching death anniversary as just one more thing I was having to contend with during an already shitty week. My therapist then dropped a truth-bomb I wasn’t expecting.
“You’re spiraling. And now you’re choosing to feed it by using this grief anniversary as an excuse.”
That stopped me in my tracks. I was completely taken aback and, honestly, a little offended! It was fair to say that I had been spiraling, but that was due to the overwhelm from our pesky pest infestation—not because I was thinking about the anniversary. But as I slowed down my racing, spiraling thoughts and actually considered her words, I realized there was some truth to what she said.
“It’s easy to use death anniversaries as fuel for negative thought patterns,” she explained. “But what if instead of making it part of this ‘victim of life’-story you’re telling yourself, you make this upcoming anniversary about his life and the person he was? Take it as an opportunity to celebrate your dad and the times you had together.”
My therapist had unknowingly just solved my writing problem—why I kept getting stuck on retelling the circumstances around my father’s passing instead of my original concept of how we talk to children about death. And she did so, ironically, by applying the same concepts I’ve used with my own children during those conversations: reframing death as part a natural part of life, one that deserves reverence and healthy acknowledgment rather than dread and avoidance.
The anniversary effect was subconsciously sucking me into reliving the trauma of my dad’s final day. Instead of writing about the meaningful insights I’ve discovered over these last three years, I auto-piloted into rehashing my own grief-fueled narrative.
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This was supposed to be a piece about discussing death with children (a topic that deserves a full, singularly-dedicated essay); it almost became a trigger-filled account of my Dad’s final day (which wasn’t even about him at all, but my own traumatic experience); now, it’s about the unexpected and important reminder I needed.
Time changes our understanding of what grief looks like in our lives and how it manifests. It takes a subtle, but permanent residence in our minds once the initial shock of loss has worn away. It lives quietly and, gratefully, in relative peace alongside our other day-to-day thoughts. Anniversaries and other milestones may awaken its fire, but as we grow older, the grief mellows, too.
That’s not to say we will never again have moments of gut-wrenching angst when reminded of older, more distant losses. Eventually, though, as my therapist keenly pointed out to me, we become accustomed to grief being a permanent resident in our emotional neighborhoods.
Tomorrow, on my dad’s death anniversary, I intend to visit my old neighbor, grief. I’ll see what it has been up to nowadays—what it’s looking like, how it’s settling in, and ways we can reestablish more consistent and deliberate communication going forward. It will be an opportunity, too, to catch up on what’s been going on with me—to reflect on all I’ve learned and experienced these past three years.
I will celebrate the meaningful ways I’ve connected with my children in helping them understand and accept one of life’s hardest concepts. I will cherish memories of my dad—the silly songs he would sing about me and my sister when we were small; camping in the Sierra Nevada foothills, a place very special to his soul; how he loved to regale friends, family, and strangers alike with the tales of his rambunctious youth. I will remember the kind, charming man he was, and I’ll share my love for him in honor of his memory.
I will choose to meet grief where it lives. Not simply to acknowledge it, but to embrace it as it deserves. Giving it respect, time, and attention, because, well, it’s just the neighborly thing to do.