Learning to cope

My father died when I was 8 years old. Sharing this isn’t meant to evoke sympathy or pity – it’s just a fact of my life.

Nearly 13 years later, I have come out from the other side of pain. But I have found that even years later, grief can still manifest itself in certain ways. Many things, such as the anniversary of the loved one’s death or certain holidays, can bring this sadness back to the present.

“It’s like popcorn kernels,” said Sheryle Baker, executive director of the Life Center in Tampa and a licensed mental health counselor. “Each has their own time to pop. Grief is like that. When it’s ready to come up, it just does.”

This is certainly true: My father would have been 49 on Tuesday, so I baked a German chocolate cake, which was his favorite. I felt that even though he’s gone, I had to do something tangible to commemorate the occasion.

“In many ways, that connection is never gone,” said Bettye Jo Wray-Fears, an intern at the Life Center in Tampa who is working on a master’s degree in mental health counseling, and marriage and family therapy at Argosy University. “That connection one has with someone in the heart is still there.”

Grief is not a one-size-fits-all process, but it’s based on the individual and his or her experiences. It is “a natural reminder to the person that they have real strong feelings about the loss, and that could be years later, and it’s never too late to heal,” Baker said.

“Everyone has their own coping styles based on the nature of the loss, the connection to the person and other prior losses.”

Baking the cake was part of my individual grief process, which I believe is and always will be an ongoing thing. Other things I’ve done over the years include writing letters to my father, talking aloud to him when I’m alone or listening to a song that reminds me of him.

Those who are doing activities such as these and going through this process may feel as if they are going nuts and that no one else understands the reasons behind their actions and feelings. This is why having a strong support system or attending a support group is helpful.

“When they have a support system that’s understanding, it helps them to be okay with what they’re feeling,” Baker said. “And when they don’t, it can feel more isolated and lonely.”

As one can imagine, there are ways of dealing with death that may feel right to the individual but may not be a healthy release.

“Certainly there are ways that people would use or abuse substances,” such as alcohol, drugs, promiscuous behaviors and reckless driving, Baker said. “Those would be ways to hide the pain. That would be unhealthy ways of dealing with loss.”

As instances of grieving may return, certain aspects of a young adult’s life – such as relationships – can be affected by a loss experienced earlier in life.

“If you didn’t have that last sense of your dad saying ‘I love you’ to you and that was something you wanted all your life and never got, that could be a shut-down,” Baker said. “It could emotionally shut a person down and make it difficult to keep their heart open to loving again.”

All my relationships are seen through the lens of mortality: It may not always be at the forefront of my mind, but it’s there. I’ve had fears of those close to me dying young – my mother, my boyfriend (who I someday plan to marry) and even myself. Since it happened to me at such an early age, it’s almost forced me to become an adult ahead of schedule.

“(Those who have lost someone) have a different perspective or a different reality of what’s important in life,” Wray-Fears said. “There’s literally different developmental stages that can get interrupted or altered.”

No matter how old an individual is when they lose a parent or loved one, “it’s a shock to the reality of the mind,” Wray-Fears said. “The mind can conceptualize loss, but the heart cannot.”

Though death may have separated me from my father, the love I feel for him will never die, as “the relationship still lives even though there is not a physical body,” Baker said.