Grief Shamed and Buried

If only I had known that none of this was my fault and thus my responsibility to somehow fix.

Within the first year of Mom and Dad’s divorce, all of the loss became too much to bear. Unable to withstand the pressure any longer, my strong façade collapsed. Baring my soul to Dad—to anyone—for the first time, I expected to receive understanding, compassion, and Dad’s trademark bear hug and kisses. Instead, Dad stood frozen in the middle of the living room, his black eyes blazing as the dam of my pent-up grief burst in a torrent of words and tears.  

“You can sit around on your dead ass feeling sorry for yourself, or you can decide to make something of yourself! This is weakness.” Dad’s face contorted with disgust. “And I hate weakness.”

My stomach clenched as if he’d punched me in the gut. Shocked to composure, tears I dared not shed lodged in my throat, as I stared at this stranger before me. Dad had never shamed me for expressing my feelings before. He was the one I could talk to about anything. But it was now clear that that was no longer the case. I’m bad for crying, for making Dad upset. I shouldn’t have said anything, I thought to myself. I had broken my vow to myself the night Mom left with Stevie to not burden Dad with my pain or problems.

Wary, I kept my eyes fixed on Dad as I wiped my face dry with the back of my hand, determining to never again express my pain over the divorce, or any forbidden feeling, to Dad. But how was I to know which ones were forbidden?

I need to make something of myself. Whatever that meant. But I’d figure it out. I had to. I believed that my survival depended on pleasing Dad so he would still love me and not leave. Aside from that, I adored Dad and wanted to please him and make him proud of me. My desire to please Dad and my sense that my survival depended on doing so entangled together like Silly String. This moment heralded the decades of my hiding behind an unflappable, competent, smiling mask, disguising the ever-present terror, confusion, loneliness, and grief that swirled inside me.

From that point on, I grieved only when alone, the last time when I was about fourteen. While walking home from school one day, I saw a childhood friend laughing and chatting with her mother as they drove up Main Street. Although Mom and I had never shared a close connection, I longed for one. I barely made it home before breaking down. Consumed by grief and not expecting Dad home for another four hours from work, I didn’t hear him come into the house. His appearance in the doorway to my bedroom jolted me back to my senses but too late to hide my tears. Genuine concern registered in his warm, cocker spaniel black eyes.

“What’s wrong, honey bun?”

Recognizing pre-divorce Dad, I felt safe telling him the truth. “I wish I had a relationship with Mom like other girls have with their mothers.” A fresh stream of tears ran down my face. I felt so relieved to let everything out, to finally be heard.

But Dad’s black eyes now glittered like an angry Doberman pinscher. “There’s no point bawling over something that neither one of us can do anything about!” His roar filled the tiny room. He then spun on his heel and stormed away.

In hindsight, I now see that Dad, too, was drowning in grief over the divorce, and that his response to his pain was work, work, and more work—hence, the “make something of yourself” declaration—in an attempt to fill the gaping black hole he carried inside. I suspect that my unhindered expression of grief triggered Dad’s grief, along with his powerlessness to fix or change the situation, both of which he was trying so hard to keep a tight lid on, resulting in his rage.

But my fourteen-year-old self didn’t have that awareness. I stared, frozen, at the empty doorway as the undeniable reality stared back at me: I had nowhere to go with my grief. I didn’t dare alienate Dad. He was all I felt I had left in the world.

If only my fourteen-year-old self had known that Dad wasn’t all I had left in the world and that I wasn’t alone in my grief. If only my fourteen-year-old self had known that God was with me every single second and that I could pour out my grief to Him at anytime, without restriction or reservation.

If only my fourteen-year-old self had known that none of this—Mom’s rejection, Dad’s pain and rage—was my fault and thus my responsibility to somehow fix.

But I didn’t know any of that. So, while Dad was burying his grief with work, I buried mine through pleasing and taking care of Dad, Stevie, and, as time went on, everyone else around me. However, in doing so, I was abandoning myself.

I didn’t know that either.

Confessions of a Recovering Runner

I ran every day of my life since July 1973, just two months short of my twelfth birthday. And I didn’t stop running until September 2016, when I was 55. For 43 years I ran–and I was good at it. So good that had I not stopped running when I did, it would have destroyed me.

I’m not referring to marathon running or even daily jogging. My body is simply not wired for that, which I discovered after graduating from high school. The thud-thud-thud of each jarring footfall on the pavement rattled rather than soothed my already jangled psyche, and I suffered from horrendous shin splints no matter how much I stretched or paced myself or what kind of shoes I wore. But my running was just as debilitating, even more so, except the effects weren’t obvious for four decades, which made it potentially more lethal.

You see, I was running from my grief. Fast and hard.

On a steamy summer night in July 1973, at 2:00 a.m., my mom, recently divorced from my dad, showed up to get my two-year-old brother, Stevie, of whom she was granted custody. Peeking around the corner, I saw her pick up the sleeping bundle from his crib. Clutching his beloved “ToTo,” a drooled-on, puked-on, gnawed-on, now fur-less stuffed Tony the Tiger, Stevie’s heavy head bobbed on Mom’s shoulder as she strode past Dad, who stood frozen and mute, to the front door. From my bedroom, I heard my little brother’s sleepy voice.

“Bye, Daddy.”

“Bye, Son,” Dad said, his voice cracking.

I crept down the hall and peered around the corner as the storm door swung shut. Dad, still as stone, watched Mom and Stevie drive away until the red taillights disappeared around the corner. Closing the front door, he turned the latch and locked it. I tiptoed back to my bedroom, slipped into bed, and pulled the covers up to my nose.

The hall light, which had served as Stevie’s night-light, switched off, and Dad’s shadowy figure drifted past my door into his bedroom. Seconds later, I heard his bed squeak as he crawled into it.

The silent stillness echoed like a death knell. Unable to breathe or swallow, my heart hammering in my chest and ears, I stared into the darkness, clutching my pillow, as I listened to Dad cry himself to sleep. To this day, 47 years later, Elvis Presley’s song “Don’t Cry Daddy” takes me back to that night. Only within the past few years can I get through that song without sobbing. But my eyes still fill with tears and lodge like a grapefruit in the back of my throat.

In shock over what I had witnessed and overwhelmed by my own pain and Dad’s that was palpable through the walls and the thick darkness, I vowed that I would not burden Dad with my pain and problems. With Mom now gone, I would take care of him, and Stevie, too, when he came to visit on the weekends. It never occurred to me to wonder who would take care of me.

My running had begun.

“I was running from my grief. Fast and hard.”