by Bonnie Kelly
To put it simply, my dad died in 2004. I was 14. A tween who didn’t know who she was, let alone what the heck had just happened to her young family unit.
From what I remember, my 14-year-old brain had it something like this:
- Dad started drinking Vitamin Water because he was swollen.
- He kept going into and out of the hospital (but because he was taking himself… it just kind of seemed… low stakes?)
- Dad was there for a while and it wasn’t great but didn’t seem life-threatening.
- We had an NFC Championship party. The psychiatrist came… that seemed weird. My dad sent him away and he didn’t come back.
- Dad declines quickly and might die.
- The Philadelphia Eagles are in the Super Bowl — Janet Jackson and Justin Halftime show…
- Dad died three days later.
How does a 14-year-old process this? How does a 14-year-old ask questions about what happened when it’s so clear your mom is just trying to get through the chaos and also shielding you from the painful truth? Planning a funeral, getting us clothes for the services, dealing with her own emotions and grief after the trauma she just went through. Handling end-of-life matters for all of my dad’s affairs, trying to keep us afloat financially, trying to keep us all afloat emotionally.
Perhaps this was the moment I turned into the ultimate empath. I feel like I was being so sensitive to her feelings that I didn’t try and figure out my own. It just feels like I went right back to school, right back into my activities — I’m sure my mom was observing — but she never really asked how I was feeling or if I had any questions. I *think* I just kept doing what I was expected to do. I cannot imagine losing your husband and leaving you to figure out how to get through life with two teen girls when you had imagined an entire lifetime together. She was just doing what she could. She was going step by step. Most likely, trying not to lose her marbles so we didn’t lose ours. I remember her looking at me one night of sophomore year as I left for a party very hesitantly because I didn’t want to leave her in our new house all alone (we moved the next spring — I get it — trigger central) and she said “Go. Don’t worry about me. You live your life.” My mom did a great job with what she had been handed. Everyone was “fine.” Everything was “fine…”
Unfortunately, now that all of these questions have come to the surface for me — what really happened to dad? How did it all really go down? What was the hardest part for you?— they all have to go unanswered. My mom was killed last year. Out of nowhere on an ordinary day. My mom (who was my single parent for 18 years) was just… taken from us. The dinner we planned to have that night was in the fridge and the plans we had that weekend were on the calendar. In a true blink of an eye… she was gone from this Earth. In a blink of an eye… I was 32 with no parents.
My mom was my best friend. I know it’s a cliche. Everyone says it — and I’m sure lots of people mean it— but she was my other half. The Judy to my Liza, the Dorothy to my Sophia, the Goldie to my Kate. She didn’t have a husband and I’m perpetually single. People would invite us to weddings on one invitation even though I live in my own house. We were a pair and we did everything together. When I tell you the wind had been knocked out of my sails in one single second… It does not do justice to what she meant to me in my life. She was “a damn good mom.”
This leads to the why. What made me turn to writing to express myself? What leads to “oversharing” on the internet? What lead to me launching a podcast a year after my orphan phase came to fruition? The truth is… verbalizing how I feel was and very much is just… too hard. My throat chakra is locked up. Almost any interaction was leaving me in hysterics or I had to disassociate to get the information out clearly which made me feel like a total sociopath since I’m sure I was stoic — and as you can guess from my writing — my personality is anything but stoic.
I sense my sister picked up on my coping mechanism because she sent me a book that was paired with a journal for grievers. I’ve always been a journal kind of girl and now, I needed it more than ever. What is a creative who cannot express themself? I couldn’t verbalize what I was feeling or what I was needing clearly. I couldn’t verbalize the magnitude of my loss to anyone without feeling insane. So I started to write. At first, with prompts from the journal. Then prompts from my girl, Michal (check her and her community out!) and then I just started to share.
I started with Facebook posts. More so, to connect with my friends and family. To try and keep them in the loop. Her loss wasn’t sudden and traumatic just for me and my sister. It was sudden and traumatic for all of my mom’s siblings, her lifelong girlfriends and her colleagues. Everyone was mourning and I just kept feeling like people were looking to me for answers — even though I didn’t and still don’t have any. So, I just kept writing. Starting with tributes to the amazing mom we had lost, to the amazing parents and the nostalgia of a family we once were and no longer are, to really diving in as I navigated the first year of grief — grief on top of being the executrix of an estate. Homegirl learned how to sell a house before she’s ever owned one, learned all about life insurance and the importance of keeping your passwords organized for your loved ones.
Maybe some people would call it “over sharing” but, please. I am definitely not the only one doing it. Hashtags like #deathtok are a thing for a reason, right? And the more I do it — the more people are reaching out. In a world where we are normalizing everything… why don’t we normalize the one thing we will all see? Grief.
Funny enough, I always have this core memory of my mom helping me through some sort of high school drama where I didn’t stand up for myself. She looked me dead in my eyes and said “God gave you a mouth. Use it.” She meant to advocate for yourself and for others. If something needs to be said, say it. If something should be shared, share it. If something might help someone else — use your words.
So, here I am. Using my words. I wish they were about anything rather than grief but this is my story — my truth. I am no professional in grief counseling, nor a psychiatrist. I don’t have a fancy title next to my name, but I am a griever. I have grieved, grieve and re-grieve for my parents who were taken from me way too soon. I think about them all day, every day and someone out there is doing the same thing.
So, here I go. In my grief, I have turned to publicly writing, sharing my truth and developing a new visual grief podcast called “The Grieving Girl” where millennial grievers can have light-hearted conversations around a really heavy topic. If we’re all going to go through it.. we might as well go through it together. It’s so new there are no posts yet (fingers crossed for January 2023!) but give it a follow on Instagram.
To all my grieving friends out there — just remember — day by day, step by step.
For more information about Bonnie, you can check out her website.
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