When my father died in 2009, I knew what to expect. I’d been a psychotherapist for decades, and helped countless patients through deaths of loved ones. I figured my appetite would turn strange, and my sleep would go haywire. I’d be sad and tearful (though always at appropriate moments, since my professional expertise would allow me to plan ahead). I reminded myself of the writings of Kubler-Ross, and was quite familiar with the stages of grief. I was ready, and I knew what was coming.
I was wrong.
I confounded myself with my grieving process, taking myself by surprise at every turn. I cried when I knew I’d be fine. I was calm when I knew I’d break down. I was exhausted after sleeping, and alert when I should have been wiped out. Suddenly, my favorite activity was laundry; I loved the soothing rhythm of the cycles, sometimes reading quietly on the floor, comfortably nestled against the washing machine. I couldn’t attend Oakland A’s baseball games — an activity my family enjoyed together — because the sounds of the crowd literally made me jump. My appetite wasn’t strange; it was alien. Even water tasted different. As for Kubler-Ross — I was Angry when I should have been in Denial, serene in Acceptance when I should have been Bargaining. Someone had dumped my orderly Stages of Mourning into a blender.
But my biggest problem was Tabasco Sauce. My three children liked Ketchup. My husband and I liked hot mustard. In my favorite neighborhood market, to get from Ketchup to mustard, I needed to walk past Tabasco Sauce. My father loved Tabasco Sauce, poured it on everything except ice cream. For months after he died, I couldn’t shop for condiments without breaking into tears.
As I stumbled through months of grieving, my husband offered to take over my usual household tasks. But retaining a semblance of normalcy felt steadying, so I insisted on continuing my routine. It worked well…except for the market. On that, he stepped in, so I wouldn’t have to look Tabasco Sauce in the eye.
Each morning I’d steel myself to face the day. I’d open my eyes and whisper, “This is my first (…second…thirty-fifth…) day without a father.” Then I’d buck up and get up — my new morning ritual.
When a friend’s father recently died, I thought carefully, searching for words of comfort and wisdom. But what I ended up telling her was not from a book or an article. What I said had nothing to do with years of professional experience as a psychotherapist. Instead, I offered the most heartfelt support I knew – from my own muddling through.
I told her that she could plow through every psychiatric treatise written on How-To-Travel-The-Path-Of-Healthy-Mourning — but bottom line: the experience would be spectacularly weird. I advised her to shelve dignity temporarily, because something as ridiculous as Tabasco Sauce might become the core of her grieving process. I said that the one thing she could count on was the unexpected. I explained that no matter how old the parent, no matter what medical conditions were on board, the finality of death would be an absolute shock. I said that whatever her level of eloquence under normal circumstances, the pain would be so searing it would defy language. I prepared her that no matter her age, she’d feel like an orphan.
But I also comforted her with the truth: Although at first she’d feel anything but lucky, in fact she was, as was I – we both lost our fathers well into our adulthood. One morning, for no clear reason, she’d stop counting her days without a father. Even though she’d initially feel broken, somewhere down the road, she’d think of her dad with warmth, not pain.
And she’d know when the deepest healing was in place, because she’d pull a bottle of Tabasco Sauce off the shelf, toss it in her cart and move forward, steady and strong.
Amy Kaufman Burk is a therapist-turned-author. Amy’s first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, deals with homophobic bullying in high school, racial and economic diversity, and the power of friendship. Her second novel, Tightwire, follows a fictional psychotherapy from three perspectives — the rookie therapist scrambling to build a treatment — the patient struggling to heal — the supervisor working to guide the young therapist through the complex emotional terrain of her first case.
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