The English Oxford Dictionary (OED) defines grief as “a very sad feeling, especially when someone dies.” Featuring up to six hundred thousand words and a rich thousand-year history, the OED is universally reputed as the established guide to the English language. But that doesn’t mean there is only one definition assigned to every word. Every person interprets the meaning of a word based on how it applies to their own life. I define grief as the mental suffering and distress caused by losing a loved one.
This is my story of how grief surreptitiously crept its way into my life.
I throw my cluttered worksheets and flashcards onto the dining table and lay out my highlighters, Sharpie markers, and pens. I plug in my MacBook Air and immediately start studying for my grade ten English exam. I grab a flashcard and start writing. Pathos. A quality that evokes pity or sadness. Climax. The most intense and important part of a story. I continue doing this for about seven minutes until an urgent feeling of distress takes over my being, my gut aching in pain. My hand shivers and instantly I forget how to hold my pen. The pen drops on the card. I burst into tears.
My father has been sleeping in the ICU for seven days. I was told by the doctors that his gastric bypass surgery would run smoothly; the risk of complications would be low. He’d spent months preparing for this procedure. However, this was not the case. Somehow, he contracted an infection in his chest and the next thing I knew, he had several tubes attached to his cold body.
I give up on the flashcards and push them away to the other end of the table. I call my mom to ask her if she can drive me to the hospital. She is already there and tells me that my father’s friend is on his way to pick up me and my younger sister. She sounds anxious. I order my sister to get dressed, then I prepare an overnight bag, in case my mom will finally let me spend the night with her at the hospital.
Before we leave, I give my textbook to my classmate who lives on the eleventh floor, seven floors below me.
“I might not make it to the exam tomorrow, so can you give this to Mr. McNaughton just in case?”
“Sure,” she responds, “how’s your dad?” I shrug and tell her I am on my way to see him. There is an awkward pause; neither of us know what to say. I stare at the ground and tell her I must get going. I thank her and meet my sister in the lobby. After a few minutes, we spot Mr. Naser’s Toyota Corolla and morosely make our way inside. He looks hopeless.
It takes an hour to drive to Toronto General Hospital. No one mutters a word the entire way there. My brain is numb, I can’t bring myself to think about anything. This is the first time I’ve felt this way. The feeling of nothingness. My mind races and yet I can’t grasp the reality of the situation. I feel stiff. My body wants to move but my mind refuses to let it. I am deprived of emotion and spend the car ride watching the world go by. There is a bitter taste in my mouth and my heart pounds—I feel that something is going to happen.
When we arrive, we find the rest of my family seated in a private waiting room next to the ICU. My mother, brother, older sister, uncle, and aunt huddle inside the small room. I glance at my mother, whose gaze fixates on the ground. Her hands cross like she’s praying for good news. I want to see my dad, but it seems like everyone in the waiting room is waiting for something. I stand in the corner, hands shaking, chest tight, contemplating whether I should ask someone for updates. But everything seems clear. The weight of bad news fills the air, and I don’t know what to expect.
I hear steps approach our waiting area and look up to find a young blonde woman at our door. She isn’t dressed in nurse or doctor attire, but a bright blue lanyard is around her neck. She speaks with a gentle voice. I try to focus on the words coming out of her mouth, but for some reason, the room is silent. I can’t hear anything. My family hastens towards the ICU. I stand up in disarray and confusion. What did she say? Where did everyone go?
Suddenly, I hear her mumble those three gruesome words: “I’m so sorry.”
I sprint to the ICU and force the doors wide open. The bed is empty, sheets tucked in. He isn’t in his usual room. I run down the short hallway. I see him. My father’s lifeless body is lying there, all the tubes removed and hanging off the gurney. My mom sits in a chair next to him. I kneel beside her. She is screaming in pain and hitting me. My brother weeps. I have never seen my twenty-five-year-old brother shed a single tear. A grief counsellor is already in the room offering water. My sisters stand in shock.
To this day, I have not forgotten the moment I found my father’s body draped off the sides of the hospital bed.
I remember his yellow, stiff body. I remember the thick black liquid that fell from his nose. I remember seeing my family breakdown in absolute anguish. But it wasn’t in that moment when I felt alone. It was when I ran outside the hospital that night and called my high school. I sat on an empty, black-painted, metal picnic bench in the dark while the white hospital lights shone through the glass windows behind me. I left a voicemail, telling them through sobs that I wouldn’t be able to complete my exams; I asked them not to call my mom and to take my word as I did not want to them to disrupt her. I knew that from then on, I had to adopt the responsibility of protecting my mother. That night, my heart shattered in my chest. The pieces crumbled inside my body. I knew I would be alone forever as I’d lost my best friend and my role model.
The following night, my brother’s friend drove us back in his Ram pickup truck. My brother was too distressed to drive. I had never seen him in that state. The way back on the Gardiner was also quiet. I could not stop thinking about how I had just said my last goodbye to my father, so unexpectedly. It took about thirty minutes before we were back in Mississauga. Family friends drove behind us and took us upstairs to our apartment. The apartment was crowded, but I managed to slip out.
I went to the back of the building by myself, where the giant trash bins were. I screamed for my dad as loud as I could, and I wailed for what seemed like hours. My whole body was sore, I felt weak, broken, and so lonely. But I keep screaming and crying as if something would change. For the first time, I realized that I would never see my father again; I would never be able to hear his voice.
“BABA,” I scream in Arabic.
“BABA, WHERE ARE YOU?” Louder.
“WHY DID YOU LEAVE? AM I EVER GOING TO SEE YOU AGAIN?” Tears running down my face, my face hurts from perpetual sobs.
“COME BACK, I NEED YOU!” I collapse to the ground and bawl for what feels like hours. My throat begins to ache and I choke on my scream.
A few minutes later, I stand up and stare at the sky. I realize that tonight my dad won’t be coming home after work, and that I will go to bed and lock the main door without him here. I feel lonely as ever.
I drag my body upstairs and push through a crowd of family friends to hold my mother. She wails and I pull her close to me.
It’s been almost five years since, and still, I feel lonelier than ever.
Losing a loved one is never easy but losing your parent at the age of fifteen is a different kind of story. You mature quicker than everyone else your age. A study in Northwest England, which observed individuals who lost a parent before the age of eighteen concluded that there was a negative impact imposed on their adulthood regarding trust, relationships, self-esteem, feelings of self-worth, loneliness, and isolation, and the ability to express feelings. One participant admitted to experiencing an overwhelming feeling of loneliness and isolation. Back in high school, and even to this day, I feel that overwhelming sense of disconnection. I was unable to resonate with my peers. My worries were not the same as their worries.
Two weeks later, I was back at school. Many of my friends were just turning fifteen. Some had invited me to dinners and others invited me to their Quinceañeras. In Islam, it is traditional for mourners to spend some time at home following a bereavement. Therefore, I couldn’t attend any of them. I told my friends that I couldn’t come but I felt like they believed I was rejecting their invite because I was being a lousy friend. I remember scrolling on Snapchat and watching my closest friends posting videos of each event while I was at home comforting my recently widowed mother. I couldn’t believe that some of my friends, who knew that my dad just passed away, assumed I couldn’t attend for the sole purpose of just not going. It made me feel terrible like I was missing out on so many memories. I was frustrated because I wanted to participate in those parties, I wanted to be in those videos, I wanted to have fun. But I knew it would be a long while until my life would get back to normal.
I remember feeling an enormous amount of guilt because I didn’t want to hold my mother for hours while she cried. I wanted to lock myself up in my room and weep by myself. After all, I lost the only person in my family I truly connected with.
I remember going to restaurants every Saturday because we both loved trying new cuisines. I remember waking up early together before he had work and I had school because we both hated the thought of being late. I remember when I told him how excited I was for him to meet my children one day and he responded with, “if I would even make it that far.” That sentence broke me because part of me believed it. His health wasn’t always the greatest, but if only I knew the day would come sooner than I thought.
I never wanted my mother to see me cry. I frequently told my sisters to comfort her so I could go to my room. Anyone who has ever lost a parent at a young age would resonate with that bitter hurt that comes with consoling someone while concealing your own pain. It’s not always easy to be strong for others when, on the inside, you can barely breathe.
I quickly became familiar with common adult terms such as mortgage, life insurance, death certificate, and pension plans. I wanted someone to talk to about these words I kept hearing. I was young but still obligated to understand each concept, or at least I thought I did. For my mother and older siblings, I was too young to know what those words meant, but for my friends, I was too mature.
Another study published as part of the handbook of Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy found that bereaved children who have lost a parent at a young age can experience social withdrawal months after the death. It wasn’t always easy to hear those maddening words from friends, teachers, and neighbours: “I’m sorry for your loss.” Hearing those words so frequently can cause detachment issues for a child. Those words reminded me how much no one really understood what I was enduring and reminded me that in fact, I was grieving. I was tired of people’s pity for me. I hated the formality of it.
For weeks, I felt alone. No one really understood the pain I was enduring. I was angry. I hated seeing fathers picking up their kids from school. But I knew I couldn’t be angry at them; it wasn’t their fault. I couldn’t blame my friends for their inexperience in losing someone. That was maturity, and I hated it.
Because of that lonely feeling, I had to put on a mask. A mask so strong that it stayed on until the last year of high school. I obstructed any emotions and continued to fight against any negative feelings. In fact, through that experience, I began to neglect memories of my father. Years passed by and I couldn’t remember his face or his voice. Why? Because I wanted to fit in. I wanted to be ignorant of life’s abhorrent gifts. I didn’t want to bear the pain of my empty life. I was so alone and though I had my friends and family, I felt like no one really understood what I was feeling.
I also began to question religion. I wondered why God had taken away my father so soon, and constantly questioned if I had done something to deserve this loss. In their article, Osterweis, Solomon, and Green suggest the use of religious explanations regarding the afterlife has little meaning to children. In Western societies, the concept of the deceased entering heaven is sometimes upsetting to children who hold more concrete interpretations than adults. Studies have found teaching youth about death scientifically is more comforting in the long run, as it clarifies one’s misperceptions and misinterpretations. Whereas for adults, religion can bring a sense of security.
Two years later, I met my best friend. Our relationship taught me that the feeling of isolation will always linger regardless of how strong your connection with someone is. We were in our last year of high school. Our bond was based on the mutual feeling of losing a parent. Mine had died due to complications from what was supposed to be a simple procedure, and his was dying from cancer. We spent most of our time conversing about feelings that we thought no one would ever understand. And for a minute, I didn’t feel alone anymore. Until his mother finally passed. There it was again.
He spent most of his time in the hospital with his family, which only made me feel more detached. It was his turn though it felt like mine never ended. His grieving journey left me so alienated. Suddenly, my whole world was depopulated. I felt selfish. Watching him suffer hurt me, but only because those feelings of solitude were coming back. I needed someone again. But my someone was hurting and enduring a loss of his own. Neglecting those feelings of grief over the past two years was something I wish I hadn’t done. Those feelings barged back in and came harder than before. This time, I was really grieving.
My journey of grief has taught me many things. One of the hardest truths I’ve had to face was how to survive adolescence as someone who has always felt much older than her other friends. I felt more mature as I took on responsibility beyond the breadth of my age and beyond what I could handle emotionally. I entered adulthood while in my teenage years and had to teach myself how to navigate this new manner of life.
Since losing one of the only people I looked up to, I have never had a sense of direction or guidance. I watched my mother suffer for years and had to experience milestones without one of my parents. I’ve always felt like everyone in my life was moving forward and no matter what I did, I was always a step behind. A piece of myself is now buried alongside my father.
The unfortunate reality is that the feeling of isolation will never fade, it will always loiter. Being a fatherless daughter is not easy. Milestones will pass by and each one will be harder than the next. I fear the day of my wedding and the day of my graduation. Those days are the loneliest and they always will be. Whether I’ve improperly grieved or should have turned to therapy, that emptiness can never be removed, only managed. Like a chronic illness, it’s just something you have to live with.