This story is adapted fromAm I There Yet?: The Loop-de-Loop, Zigzagging Journey to Adulthood , written by Mari Andrew, a writer and illustrator living in New York City.
When my dad died, I didn't know where he went. Literally, I didn't know the location of his body. He had expressed a desire for an environmentally friendly burial, which involved a biodegradable casket and a certificate with some GPS coordinates to mark where he was buried in lieu of a tombstone. I didn't know where exactly he was buried, but knew someday I'd seek out that information, and spend some time wandering around a field looking for coordinates that point to his bones.
In the meantime, I tried to bring him back to life by looking for love to rescue me from grief. Well, not so much "looking for love" so much as grasping at any sign of romance I could possibly find.
For a while, this meant going on as many dates as I could fit in a week. It was easier, in a way, to talk to someone I’d never met than to talk to a close friend. It felt like trying on a new life for a couple of hours, one I could wear until my real one started poking through the seams. They all began the same way: black eyeliner, blue suede pumps, two spots at the bar. About an hour in, I would inevitably blurt something to the effect of, "I'm sorry, my dad died, I should go." I think I've singlehandedly scared half a dozen men off Tinder forever.
By compulsively going on dates, I was trying to skip the stages of grief and find a solution for the constant ache of loneliness in my sternum.
By compulsively going on dates, I was trying to skip the stages of grief and find a solution for the constant ache of loneliness in my sternum. I thought I’d be "fine" within a month, but instead, the stages just kept cycling in a different order.
"This too shall pass." That’s something a lot of people told me when my dad died. All these young people, who had maybe lost a pet dog, an elderly grandparent, a job, apparently held the universal Wisdom of the Ages: My grief was going to pass. People want to believe that grief, like stubbing your toe, follows a crisp, orderly pattern, and that one day it’s done and nobody wants to talk about it or has to hear about it ever again.
But the truth of grief involves stepping into the deepest, darkest, monster-infested zone and acknowledging, "This place is the absolute pits, and you might be here a long time." It takes a very brave person to step into the lightless murk of true empathy, and I’m fortunate to have a few of these brave souls in my life.
But dating someone new was not the solution I needed it to be, so I looked to my romantic past. Through expressive emails and dramatic text message proclamations, I tried to bring old romances back to life. One of them would surely work out. One of them would complete my story, and I would no longer be alone. In fact, my story would end with romantic triumph!
"This too shall pass." It hurt the most when Digo said it because I wanted empathy from him more than I wanted it from anyone else. "Friend" would be an appropriate term for his relation to me, and "pen pal" would also do, but "fantasy" is the most accurate. We didn’t see each other often, so I could make him whatever I wanted him to be; in this case, I had imagined Digo as salvation from my isolation.
The night my dad’s death really hit me, I called Digo. I was desperate to get out of the monster-infested zone and needed him to save me. I needed him and only him to come into the dark, terrible place of true empathy for me, with the intention that we could come out together, holding hands, walking down a street in the East Village. I was desperate for Digo like I was desperate for my dad.
I cried to Digo and I told him how angry I was, angry for experiencing heartbreak and loss at the same time, and angry at the earth for taking my dad down below that field in California, with only GPS coordinates pointing to his bones.
"This too shall pass," he said.
A couple of weeks before my father died, I went to New York with my then-boyfriend Alejandro. I don't love traveling with other people, but I made the exception for him, and he whispered in my ear how much he appreciated it while we were listening to Louis Armstrong singing "La Vie en Rose."
We held mittened hands down Fifth Avenue as I confessed to him that my dad was on my mind, remembering all the incredible things he had introduced me to, like New York City, Thai food, and Sam Cooke records. So Alejandro and I danced to Sam Cooke’s "Having a Party" in a dimly lit Upper West Side living room. I remembered doing the same with my dad in our brightly lit Seattle living room two decades earlier.
Before Alejandro, I had only experienced the romance of New York with Digo, when we met up at a speakeasy and spent the next day walking arm in arm around Central Park. For me, New York was so dreamlike that it glossed over the realities of both of these relationships. When I was with Digo in New York, it felt like we had known each other forever, even though we’d seen each other only a handful of times. When I was with Alejandro in New York, it felt like we were the only two people who existed.
I couldn’t separate the feeling of heartbreak from the feeling of grief, because both felt like rejection.
The train ride home to Washington, D.C. washed away the gloss of New York. Actually, Alejandro and I broke up right there on the train when I found out the person he had been texting all weekend was not, in fact, his brother.
I couldn't separate the feeling of heartbreak from the feeling of grief, because both felt like rejection. The two most significant men in my life had left me at the same time.
After "This too shall pass," Digo became the last to leave me in a series of men I used to try and resurrect my dad. Here’s a dating tip from me to you: Guys don’t really have an interest in taking the place of your dead dad.
Acceptance is not a relief; it’s the realization that you will always carry grief with you.
There wasn't a certain day that friends stopped cautiously asking me how I was doing; the conversations just changed as I slipped back into a social life and stopped looking like I was on hallucinogens. I no longer had nightmares and I laughed a lot more. I put some diner dates with friends on the calendar. The weight of a concrete slab had been lifted. I figured I was in the final stage of grief.
The final stage of grief is acceptance. That’s a nice word. It sounds like a Zen-like state of openness and newfound peace.
But now I understand that acceptance is actually a heartbreaking realization. My father is dead and nothing can bring him back. Not an old boyfriend, not a new boyfriend. Acceptance is not a relief; it’s the realization that you will always carry grief with you.
The evening I lost Digo's friendship was the evening I moved into the final stage of grief. Months of silence followed after I cried to him on the phone, without an offer to sweep me away and tour Central Park in a carriage for the rest of our lives — or even a sympathy card. I was waiting for him to take up the responsibility of my consolation prize, and he silently declined.
I marked the final stage of grief by calling Digo with an update: "It never passed," I snapped at him. "You told me it would, but it didn’t, and it never will." I was mad at him for not having the empathy that I needed, and mad that he could not be the magic potion my heart needed to heal. But more than that, I was mad that no man could be that for me.
The moment I hung up on Digo, I said good bye to my dad for good. There was no bringing him back — not physically, not in the ambiguous spiritual realm, not through love from other men. I'd have to go through this pain alone, and it was up to me to decide if it would make me weaker or stronger.
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