I always knew my dad would die during my early 20s. What I didn’t know was that I’d still be grieving 10 years later.
Ever since I was young - somewhere in that confusing expanse of adolescence - I've always known that I was going to be someone who lost their father at an early age.
This wasn’t because of some pessimistic morbidity - it was just mathematics. First of all, my parents had a 20-year age difference between them, which meant that when I was 15 years old, my father - a Lebanese man with a blend of Iraqi, Palestinian, and Armenian roots who had had me when he was 56 years old - was already 71.
Second, my Taiwanese mum, with her matter-of-fact practicality that was almost fatalistic at times, had been warning me that this would happen for years. “We’re not going to be around forever, you know,” or “I’m getting older and sicker all the time; when I die, you’ll need to x, y, and z,” she would say (and still does now). My friends were shocked by how blunt she was, not realizing that this direct honesty was just an inherent part of our culture - and in many ways, a sign of respect. Yet even when her words sometimes stung me, I appreciated it since it was the truth.
Knowing I was going to lose someone I loved sooner rather than later forced me to learn the value of each moment, to tell people that I love them and how I really feel, and to adopt the concept of never going to bed or saying goodbye angry (in case it’s the last time) earlier than I might have otherwise. It also meant that I could get a head-start on the process of grieving, through that first step of acceptance: understanding that this person would be leaving my life and not coming back. But little did I realize at the time that no matter how prepared you think you are, the death of a loved one will always catch you off-guard.
I’d never really thought of my father as old, either - firstly, because his mind was always so sharp that he was just as on-the-ball as everyone else’s dad. What happened to the stereotypes of older people becoming more adorably absent-minded? My Baba was always almost scarily perceptive until the very end, which was why when his memory failed him and he didn’t recognize me for pockets of time, my smiles finally began to crack at the edges. Those stories are cute when regarded in jest; in reality, the memory loss that can come with aging and illness is utterly devastating. Secondly, he’d always had that white-haired look typically associated with old people for as long as I could remember. I was used to it. My dad’s entire head of hair had turned snowy white when he was just 28 years old - it was a genetic thing, apparently, and I started noticing an exceptionally high number of white hairs growing on my own head since the age of 18. “I’m a woman so it won’t happen to me - but if it does, I’ll just own it - I’ll be like Storm from X-Men,” I decided. “Just think of how much fun - and how cheap - it will be to dye my hair any color I want if it happens,” I consoled myself.
It happened in the afternoon, while my sister and I were sitting in her apartment in the Dubai Marina. We’d needed a break from the heavy sense of disconsolateness that lingered around the hospital. I knew, when we left that day, that that might be my last goodbye. Our 30-minute drive down Sheikh Zayed Road and back to the hospital was loaded with awkward conversation and nervous tension. Sometimes I still feel like a coward for the relief that I feel at not having been in the room when it happened, but ultimately, I’m glad it occurred this way. I think the universe knew that standing there and watching over him during the moment his soul left his body would have been the straw that broke this warrior’s back, and I needed to remain fighting.
One of the things people don’t tell you about losing a parent in your early 20’s is how challenging the bureaucracy of death can be. Especially for an expatriate family, the paperwork that can come with handling everything from bank accounts to funeral bookings can be an unmitigated nightmare. Would they freeze our family bank accounts? Was his will clear enough to be legally recognized, or would it be overridden by the default Shari’a laws, and how would that affect inheritance? How many visits to the courts did we need, and what documents did we need translated? Did we want him cremated or buried, and if so then where? It was all a bit much for a 23-year-old girl, even one gritting her teeth through it with steely determination.
They also don’t tell you how much time and effort you’ll have to put into trying to normalize the experience for other people who haven’t yet experienced death: Some people were offended by how insensitive I seemed to be about it (in their eyes, anyway), given what I’d been through. Their offense irritated me - it felt unmerited and even appropriated, somehow - but I now realize that they simply weren’t sensitive to the fact that everyone handles grief differently, and that we each have our own ways of processing it, whatever that may look like. My methods - be that my matter-of-fact bluntness about it, or the ability to laugh 30 minutes after reading my eulogy (which I’d cried while writing) at my dad’s funeral - made them uncomfortable because it didn’t fit into their pre-packaged idea of what I was meant to do. I guess until you’ve experienced it yourself, it can be hard to understand what a deeply personal experience grief can be, and how much the myriad of complex emotions surrounding it can fluctuate and evolve. On the surface, I was so fine that even I believed it. On the inside, I was lost, and after the funeral was over, I withdrew from my social circle for almost a year. I was going to be ok, but I was also not going to be ok. I was consolable, but also inconsolable.
Being confronted with loss wasn’t new to me, but nothing could have prepared me for just how long and complicated of a progression that mourning my dad would be. I’d always thought that grief was a process that could be overcome in five stages: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. That’s what we’re taught, anyway. Except in reality, it’s not so simple - instead, I’ve learned that grief is more like a backpack of emotions that we can be carrying around for eternity, even if we're sometimes able to shift it from shoulder to shoulder, or set it down for a minute to lessen the load. It also never stops being awkward when you say your dad died, no matter how much time has passed: I still don’t know how to respond appropriately when people say, “I’m sorry.” I can’t say the regular polite response of, “It’s ok,” because although I am ok, it never really will be.
By the time I was 33, it had been 10 years since my father died, and it was only a decade later when I truly realized how many obstacles the tragedy - and my ensuing grief - had built for me. When it happened, I’d been on the cusp of growing from a girl to a woman - I had been on my way to adulthood, but I hadn’t quite arrived yet when my life had been dismantled, and I didn’t realize how many years I’d spend putting it back together again. If only I’d realized this earlier, perhaps I’d not have left parts of me lingering in my trauma for years. I was frozen in a limbo of possessing my independence, but without having forged a structure for my adult life that I could commit myself to. I was responsible with my finances, but never to the point where I’d be able to gain genuine autonomy. I had fancy job titles that I’d earned through skill and experience, but a part of me still felt like a child playing dress-up. I got involved in serious relationships, but always fled when the concept of marriage or a “grown-up family” presented itself.
I remember a day at the RTA when a simple question prompted an abrupt breakdown: after hours of mishaps with paperwork, a kind older manager asked me, “Why did you leave this so late, so it became so complicated when it was easily avoided? Didn’t your father show you how to do this?”. Ridden with feelings of stupidity, embarrassment, and shame, I bit back through unexpected tears: “No, he died before he could.” The man smiled in a fatherly fashion: “It’s ok, it’s simple to fix. I will help you and teach you how for next time.” I realize now that it was my way of holding on to my dad somehow; I think a part of me thought that if I hadn’t grown up fully, I’d still always be Daddy’s Little Girl.
Over the past ten years, I’ve gone through many different ways of dealing with that grief. I threw myself into my fitness routine, using the exercise as an initially healthy distraction that transformed into an obsessive mission. I buried myself in my work, constantly moving the goalposts to new, bigger dreams every time I successfully achieved anything. I became involved in relationships with men I knew weren’t right for me, or acting in ways that weren’t true to myself because I thought it’s what “normal” people did. "If I do those things, I'll be a normal girl too", I figured. I opened my eyes to this pattern, and then realized that the only two men I’d ever really loved bore a shocking amount of similarities to the better qualities my father had. I rejected the Arab half that I’d inherited from my father, then I embraced it excessively at the expense of my Taiwanese half before finally finding a peaceful middle ground. I took a DNA test to find out more about where I’d come from. I enlisted the help of a holistic therapist. I turned to Ayahuasca to help me rediscover myself and my path, and I embraced spiritual healing to finally rehabilitate those wounds.
It was the right way, since it was my way. I know that now. In many ways, it still hasn’t quite sunk in: I am aware of it, but I still haven’t quite grasped the reality of the fact that my father will never be there on my wedding day, or to see me raise a family of my own, or to ever meet the man I’ll marry someday. Every now and then, it knocks the wind out of me, while other times, it’s quietly throbbing in the background: It comes with me when I fill in paperwork at the bank, and chides me with a genial disapproval when I get a new tattoo. It’s a lump in my throat when my friends post photos with their living, breathing dads each father’s day, and it’s a fraught current of woe when I argue with my mother or my siblings. It holds my hand when I see my boyfriend’s family bonding over the dinner table at holidays, and it tells me that I’ve got this when I walk into an intimidating job interview. And it’s ok. It’s not a ghost of the past as much as it is a shadow that’s always following me in the light as well as the dark, to make sure it has my back - I just forgot that this is one shadow I can’t see so clearly when the sun shines, that’s all.
You see, I’ve now finally figured out that grief is a never-ending journey. I’ll be saying goodbye again and again, in different ways throughout the different chapters of my life, and that’s ok. Because what I now finally understand is that I don’t have to move on, as long as I keep moving forward.