Wednesdays are good days, because in the mornings I get to listen to the new “Dear Hank and John” podcast on my way to work. They call it “a comedy podcast about death,” although it’s generally more about John and Hank answering listener questions with dubious advice and having debates about whether cereal tastes better with milk or water on it, and bringing listeners the latest news from Mars (the planet) and AFC Wimbledon (the football club). It’s possible you’ll only like it if you’re a fan of either of the Green brothers for some other reason, but I don’t know if that’s always the case.
This week’s episode was called “Grief is Super Weird,” because Hank’s dog Lemon has just died (and John is also sad about the author Harper Lee dying). While death often gets brought up in the podcast (often in the context of the extinction of the human race…I swear this podcast is hilarious), this episode is specifically overshadowed by the immediacy and strangeness of grief.
It was a weirdly timely podcast, since it came the day after the 3 year anniversary of my dad’s death from thyroid cancer in 2013.
My dad was diagnosed with thyroid cancer sometime around when I was…6? 7? It was the reason we moved to San Diego from Japan. I vaguely remember walking down a hospital hallway in San Diego, and hearing people talk about cancer, but not really understanding what it was. I remember later, reading dramatic and intense books about people’s family members getting cancer, and thinking that perhaps my dad’s cancer was somehow different, since I didn’t feel that I had been traumatized or affected in such a deep way.
It’s an interesting thought now, because as my therapist and I work through some of my issues surrounding my OCD and anxiety, some of them do seem tied back to my experience of my dad’s health. My OCD has always centered around health-centered ideas, and my anxiety often centers around death or missed opportunity, so it’s possible that it did affect me in the way that the books always seemed to say it would. I just didn’t notice at the time.
My dad’s cancer was such a constant background event in our family that it almost didn’t ever seem that serious, even as it got close to the end. Every so often, he would go into the hospital for another procedure, but since it never followed the cultural narrative of “diagnosis, chemotherapy, recovery (or death)” it never seemed very serious to me. I remember getting a phone update from my mom about some procedure my dad had gotten, about 4 years before his death. I relayed the news to my husband, and he said gravely, “Wow, that’s really not good. I think things may be starting to go downhill.”
I was completely stunned by this announcement, because from within it, things seemed the same as they had always been. Some cancer news, a procedure, and then things went back to normal. And in fact, things still seemed that way, even once he was in hospice. It was only in the last few months before he died that I was able to realize with any certainty that this time it would be different, and there would be no going back to “normal” this time.
Even now, 3 years later, things go weird for me around the time he died. I almost never remember exactly what day it was (sorry Dad, I had trouble remembering exactly what day your birthday was too). Facebook usually reminds me, which I appreciate. But I usually find myself short-tempered and upset a few days before, until I realize what time of the year it is.
Which is all to say – grief is super weird. It may not look like other people expect it to. It may not even look like what you expect it to. And it may not even be something that you’re comfortably able to label as “Grief,” since your mental conception of that word might not be what you’re experiencing.
Sometimes you just have to label it “super weird” and let yourself be.