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"My Year of Grieving for Dad'
[Another fatherless daughter due to COVID-19.]
Today is the one-year anniversary of the day my life changed forever. Granted, I tend to be slightly melodramatic. But – nothing can ever prepare you for the total upheaval of life experienced once you lose such a pivotal figure. My life was turned upside down, dramatization aside.
March 27th, 2020
Four days after the UK Government legally brought lockdown measures into force, my sister and I were at my flat having a lazy Friday night - like every other night the past two weeks - stuffing our faces with takeaway and binge-watching Keeping Up With The Kardashians. Our mum called my sister (from my mum’s subsequent marriage) and we decided we would call her back after the episode. The phone rang out. Mum called again. This time my sister answered and put the phone on loudspeaker.
In a state of hysteria, our mum cried down the phone, “I am outside, do not tell your sister I am here yet, just come down now”. Hearing this, alongside the panic in my mum’s voice, I ran out of my flat and down the building stairs where I found her barely standing. I begged her to explain to me what was happening, and she just kept pointing up the stairs to my flat. She couldn’t get any words out. The strongest person I have ever known was at my feet, speechless and in pieces. And there I was, standing with not a clue in the world as to what was going on. Mum’s phone started ringing and she anxiously picked up. All it took was one second and she dropped the phone to the floor and looked at me. Without a word coming out of her mouth, the look in her eyes said it all.
My mum had been at home and received a call from my dad’s sister saying dad couldn’t breathe and the paramedics were at his house, the prognosis was not good. My mum jumped in her car to drive the seven minutes to my flat and before she could open her mouth to explain the situation to me, dad was dead.
I couldn’t move. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t process.
My mum and my sister were staring at me waiting for something to come out. I was in shock. I needed to get to dad’s house now to go help him. This wasn’t happening. Not to me. Not now.
COVID-19 was spreading, and dad had been in bed beyond exhausted that week, but I knew he wasn’t infected – he was just tired and overworked. He was okay yesterday; he was starting to recover. At this point all I knew is that we needed to leave as fast as we could, we needed to go see daddy.
We got in mum’s car and started driving. The words ‘dad is dead’ were spinning around and around in my head as if I could actually feel them moving. This is when the nausea started. Mum had to pull over on the side of the main road so I could be sick. She started panicking because we were getting stopped by every red light. All I could think was, why? Why are you panicking now? Dad is dead and my life is over, what difference does it make?
We pulled up to dad’s house and it was as if we were in a scene from a horror movie. There were ambulances outside, empty, and with no intention of rushing to the hospital. My dad’s sisters and their children were already there, parked in their respective cars and told not to come out. We were told to do the same.
How can you tell a 25-year-old girl that her dad has just dropped dead and then tell her to remain locked inside a metal box watching everything transpire? There was zero chance I was staying in that car. I jumped out and started running towards dad’s front door, only to be greeted by paramedics in full hazmat suits. They informed me that as a result of dad being asthmatic with pre-existing lung conditions and overweight, his symptoms were consistent with those at highest risk with COVID-19. Therefore, pending the test result, which they were adamant would come back positive in the next day or so, dad had been killed by COVID-19.
The next thing I knew I was fighting with the paramedics to get inside; I didn’t care about the risk of contracting COVID-19. My dad was lying there on the floor, dead. All I wanted was to see that it was true and, in that case, have a final horrible goodbye with my daddy. At this moment, my family saw the struggle and my aunty ran over and told me I could not go in. I could not have that image burned in my brain for the rest of my life. I will never be able to thank her enough for that as I am unsure if I would have ever been able to recover. The mind has its own way of creating images you have never seen; my brain didn’t need the additional material to terrorize me. It was doing a good enough job already.
As I walked away from dad’s doorstep, the nausea was back, and I had to run behind a car to be sick again. There wasn’t much in my stomach at this point, just bile. And it was painful. I stood up to see my whole family standing there behind me. Everyone except my grandparents who we couldn’t allow out of the car for the fear that they would get sick.
I just stood there. On the other side of the car window. Staring at my grandparents. My grandparents staring back at me. There was no need for words. What could words do? How could words explain this feeling? The feeling that everything and nothing is happening all at once? The feeling that you aren’t actually in your body? This is a bad dream, surely? My dad was gone, but so was their son.
The rest of the evening was a blur as we waited hours for the police to arrive. The next thing I knew I was suddenly standing in the shower and the nausea was back. I lay on the floor in front of the toilet throwing up with nothing left in my stomach. The pain was building up again. My mum gave me something to help me sleep and I got into my sister’s bed and I just lay there. Eventually my body gave up and fell asleep. The next thing I knew, I was choking, and I had woken up halfway through a panic attack and I couldn’t get myself to calm down. My mum spoke to the doctor and he prescribed me some sedatives to help me get through the next few days as my anxiety (something I have been dealing with since I was around 15) had already returned with a vengeance.
You always hear about the five stages of grief. First there is denial – well I was certainly in shock and disbelief. Even now as I am writing this, I am struggling to believe that these words are coming from me. The initial couple of days after dad passed I was unable to speak. The throwing up had not stopped and I wasn’t able to eat or drink without something coming back up. We received the test results, and the paramedics were correct, dad was positive for COVID-19. I still couldn’t believe it. I knew my daddy was in a coronavirus morgue, yet I still could not get my brain to believe that he was gone. I was never going to hear his voice again, hold his hand again, see him again. It is a lot for the brain to handle and sometimes it just can’t – this is what I was experiencing. I couldn’t process the chain of events and my brain felt like it had completely turned off. When I thought things couldn’t get any more surreal my family told me they had been able to secure a funeral slot providing the morgue released my dad’s body on April 1st. I couldn’t help but laugh. April fool’s day? As if this joke could not get any crueler? When is the torture going to end? The denial stage is real, and it is difficult because as a form of self-protection we do not want to believe that the worst has happened even when in our heart of hearts, we know it has. I don’t view the stages as a process where you complete one stage and progress onto the next (as many perceive them to be). I still find myself moving back and forth between the stages, regularly returning to strong feelings of denial, even a year on. I still wake up every day with the same thought; I can’t believe Dad isn’t here anymore.
The second stage is anger – obviously I’m angry. Does this even need an explanation? The constant thought of – what did I do to deserve this? What did my dad do to deserve this? My dad was a great person, why him? I found it incredibly difficult to process the idea that my dad died due to a global pandemic stemming from thousands of miles away. My dad’s death was unnecessary and unfair and something that should have been avoided. Would he still be here today if COVID-19 didn’t exist? Probably. It is hard not to be angry about something so wildly unfair and unpredictable. I am still angry today and I suspect I will be for a long time.
The third stage of grief is bargaining, and boy did I try and bargain. I would have stupid thoughts in my head like, ‘if I can cross the road with five seconds to spare before the man turns red this is all a mistake’, ‘please let me wake up tomorrow and something will be wrong with me, but dad will be back’, ‘if I manage to keep my food down today this will all have been a bad dream.’ Understandably nothing works, but that didn’t stop me trying. It’s hard to imagine the lengths your mind can go to when you are in the depths of despair. I think this was the briefest stage for me, mostly because my anxiety was telling me every day that no matter what bargaining chip I tried to use – I deserved this and there was nothing I could do or say to change it.
This brings me to the fourth stage. Depression. For months I didn’t really see the point in doing anything or making any effort. What was the point? Why should I be here able to enjoy my life when that opportunity was taken away from my dad? Why should I be happy when my grandparents have lost their eldest child? When my aunties have lost their big brother? When my dad’s wife has lost her husband? When my daddy was taken away from me? What was the point? I still have these thoughts every so often, but each time I have them it takes slightly less time for them to pass.
After this you are meant to have reached the final stage, acceptance. Well, I call BS on this one. I don’t think as humans we are wired to accept the fact that someone is no longer with us, we just adapt as we always have done, don’t we?
This is where my main issue arises – lets go back to stage four, depression. In this context depression is thought of as a deep sadness with an expiration date on it – just one more stage to complete, right? This is wildly untrue. I struggle to understand how when referring to a topic as debilitating as grief, only a fifth is attributed to one’s mental health. Of course, the assumption is that you lose a loved one and experience deep levels of sadness, but I was never prepared for the all-consuming and pervasive nature of my thoughts. I always considered myself a happy and positive person, but that is not enough. I am incredibly lucky and grateful for the support system that I have around me. If it wasn’t for the support of my family and friends I don’t know if I would have survived my thoughts.
I believe having a strong support system around me has been key to helping me process my grief and is the reason I am able to write this today. A year ago, I could never have imagined being able to write about my feelings, let alone the feelings I have about my dad’s death. And even more, I was able to make it through without having a breakdown, without even shedding a tear. This has proven to me, that despite struggling daily, I have in fact made tremendous progress. I, however, am one of the fortunate. I’ve had every resource available to help me through my grief, but what about the people that don’t have this type of access? What about those that don’t have the support bubble around them? That don’t have the financial means to access grief counselling or therapy? If anything, this experience has taught me that we need to create a community to help those less fortunate than I am who are experiencing the same debilitating struggles on a daily basis. If I can take anything positive out of my dad’s death it is that I have discovered my life’s purpose - to help people survive the hardest loss imaginable, the loss of a loved one.
No one warns you that grieving turns your entire life upside down.
No one told me that there was a possibility after losing my dad that I would experience anxiety so incapacitating that I would be throwing up every day for two months, even though I was barely eating. No one told me I would damage my stomach from all the throwing up that I couldn’t prevent. No one told me that because my dad’s weight contributed to his death that I would develop a fear of food and gaining weight. No one told me that I would live every moment of every day panicking that someone else I hold close to my heart may suddenly be taken away from me. No one told me I would be paralyzed with fear about how the rest of my family were coping or how I would be scared to discuss my feelings in case I set them off too.
No one warns you about grief, because no one talks about grief. Grief has become taboo. People are scared to hurt. Scared to come across as weak. Loved ones are scared to offend. Both are scared to open up.
March 27th, 2021
Well, finally a year later I have been able to see that despite still being in a lot of pain, I am not weak. I am human and I am strong. I am going through the worst thing that has ever happened to me, but I am going to be okay. That’s what my daddy would have wanted.
To pursue my goal of helping people through grief I have set up an Instagram account @____empath____ (yes, that is 4 underscores either side!) with the aim of building an open conversation for those grieving and for those helping close ones through the grieving process. Alongside this, to commemorate the one-year anniversary of my dad’s death, my aunts have set up the Stephen Okrent Shared Grief Foundation and are now fundraising in his honor. They are doing this in conjunction with the amazing charity Grief Encounter and have raised over £114,000 in a week.
By Alex Okrent