If I close my eyes, I can still feel the wind being knocked out of me as I fell to the floor on Sept. 12, 2001. I was 15 years old, and I had just learned of my father’s death. I was told that he died the day before, helping victims of the attack on the World Trade Center, which sounded just like my dad.
A recovered substance abuser, my father had turned to his faith to help reform his life. He spent years preaching about the importance of showing kindness to strangers, and he didn’t just talk about it, he lived it. When I was 13, he invited a homeless man into his apartment for a shower, clean clothes and some food. I remember being scared of the stranger, but my father had taught me that everyone deserved respect and kindness.
After his death, I was distraught, but I was proud of his heroism. A few months later, though, I discovered that my father had not died a hero. Rather, he died from a drug overdose. A published report said he was found in a hotel near Ground Zero, covered in the dust from the collapse of the Twin Towers. Learning this left me confused and bitter. I was angry at my father, at the way he died, but I also felt guilty for feeling angry.
As a lonely 15-year-old girl, I felt hollow, powerless and scared. I had to learn to live in a new reality without my father, but it took me years to come to terms with his death. Eventually, by sharing my experience with others, I was able to reconcile my pain and anger. It took a long time but the scars of loss gradually became less noticeable. And one thing I have learned is that I’m proud of the person he was — I am proud to call him my father and to have known him for 15 years of my life.
Now, more than a decade later, I still wonder how much of my decision to become a social worker was related to my father’s choices, in life and in death. After many years of struggling with an array of emotions, I am happy to say that I’m now at peace with my life. Below are a few of the tips I learned in my struggle with grief, tips that I believe are helpful for someone going through the painful and disorienting process:
- What to expect: Grief cannot be easily defined. After experiencing the death of a loved one, people can often feel so many emotions that they do not know how to put them into words. They can experience different stages of grief simultaneously. They may feel numb one minute and overwhelmed with emotions the next. There is no prescribed way to grieve and no one can tell you how to feel. Grief is a process, but recovery from grief is possible, and emotions that may feel overwhelming in the beginning do become more manageable over time.
- There is no healing without forgiveness: Healing from loss takes time and, above all, forgiveness. For me, it took forgiveness of my father’s actions that caused his death, forgiveness of others around me who didn’t know how to handle my pain, and forgiveness of myself. I had to forgive myself for my rage, my guilt and my emptiness. The only way I was able to start redefining my world without my father was to forgive myself.
- Understand there is no right or wrong way to grieve: In the same way two people can see the same movie and have completely different opinions of it, there is no right or wrong way to grieve. Even people in the same family can experience grief differently. A common myth is that grief should end after a year. This is a complete misconception, especially among children. As children age, they go through different developmental and emotional stages. During these changes, children who have experienced a loss will often relive some of the symptoms of grief as they try to figure out how to fit the reality of the death into their increased awareness of the world.
- Seek out support from others who understand: When I was 15, I didn’t know any other person my age that had experienced the death of a loved one. This increased my feelings of isolation and loss, and made it even more difficult to reach out for help when I needed it most. I now understand that sharing feelings associated with grief has a profound impact on the acceptance of death. Whether support comes through a bereavement group, support from a community or religious organization, consultation with a trained therapist, or a trusted social circle or designated friend, it is extremely helpful to share feelings of grief in order to promote healing and preserve memories.
- It is possible to move forward from grief: The most important lesson I have learned, in both my professional and personal lives, is that with time, self-care and forgiveness, it is possible to lessen the feelings of pain that accompany grief. At first I hurt all the time. After a while, the pain began to diminish and I started to have days when I actually felt good again. Over time, I learned that if I continued to share my experience with my support network, I would be able to make sense of the loss and subsequently make sense of the world again.
I will never forget my father. Now, instead of mourning him, I have learned to celebrate his life through the way I live. For many of the grieving people I work with, the pain does seem unbearable at times. But with sharing and support, I guarantee the pain does eventually fade, and survivors are able to move on with hope instead of hurt.
Amy Ford is a Clinical Social Worker at Family Centers, Inc. in Stamford, CT. She is also the activities coordinator for the Den for Grieving Kids in Greenwich, CT, which offers free, confidential bereavement support to children aged 3-18 and their parents. For more information about Family Centers or the Den for Grieving Kids, please visit www.familycenters.org.