The Cyclical Nature of Grief

After a core loss in one’s life, grief is an embedded part of one’s identity.

Apr 07, 2024

The Cyclical Nature of Grief

My dad would’ve been 65 years old in March. This year he’ll be gone for 15 years. Longer than the age my brother was when he died. Soon, he’ll be gone longer than the age I was. So much has changed since he left, and I know he would’ve also changed so much over the last 15 years. Throughout the years, the gap between waves of grief have distanced, but grief never truly disappears. It morphs and shifts until it finally settles into the very framework of oneself.

This year, my dad would’ve begun to worryingly consider retirement because the hot summers would’ve become unbearable. “Worryingly” because, like most people of his generation, being a hard worker was a proud part of his identity. My dad had worked since he was 9 years old. Even as a child, work was a regular part of his life. The adult version I knew rarely took sick days and vacation days were even less likely.

In retirement, my dad would’ve finally had the time to work on his 1984 CJ-7 and drink Smirnoff Ices in the garage until the crickets emerged in the orange glow of streetlights. After these projects were done, he’d probably fall into part-time handyman work at first because he enjoyed helping and had the time, but it would quickly become full-time work because he liked talking to people and keeping himself busy.

In moments like these where my imagination begins to mix the past and the what-could-have-been, the grief returns, and its weight forces me to sit with it. No breathwork or exercise can work it away like anxiety or anger. It requires me to again acknowledge that this emptiness is a permanent part of me. There is nowhere for these feelings to go, only a temporary dulling before they resurface. The dull period has progressed from daily to weekly to monthly, and now it’s triggered periodically. Triggered this time by dad’s would-be 65th birthday.

On his 50th birthday, a few months before he died, I baked him a strawberry cake with lemon frosting and placed a candle emblazoned with “Over the Hill.” I have no idea why I chose that specific combination of tastes or if even he liked the cake, but he ate the whole thing after a begruntled laugh at the over-the-hill candle. It’s one thing to be semi-aware of the tenuousness of life, epitomized by the “Over the Hill” candle, and a whole other thing to be confronted with the reality of loss and its permanence.

It's strange that even now I have brief moments of amnesia that my dad’s gone before the reality of his loss reoccurs. Grief often feels like a cycle of reliving the loss and coping with its reality time after time. Reliving the loss becomes especially pronounced with the small reminders of everything my dad will never be a part of: The lives of my nieces and nephews, knowing my partner, watching my life expand, buying my own car, living on my own, getting wrinkles, perhaps knowing children of my own. There are also many moments I won’t get to experience with my dad: His greying hair, his retirement, his daily joy in all the things that he’s now missing. Grief is made up of these small could-have-beens, new moments of loss that grow as I do.

Life stops for no one. This desert was once a lake. This body was once a child. This life was once “whole.” Death is perhaps life’s maximum entropy. Once one’s life has been ruptured, there’s no way to contain its disorder. At these moments of rupture, we must figure out what to do from here. A typical one-step-at-a-time moment until it’s been a year, five years, a decade. Now after 15 years, I have regained a sense of low entropy, an unsettled relationship with grief, and a deeper understanding that death is where we all go from here.