If you’ve experienced the death of someone close to you, it’s inevitable that at some point (well, many points actually), your loved one’s death will come up in conversation. In the 11 years since my dad’s death, I have shared variations of my story more times than I can count, and each time, I’ve felt a little better and healed just a little bit more. In the process, I’ve also realized that depending on the person, the context of your future relationship and the general situation, the way in which you share can look and feel quite different.
Here are the five levels or “tiers” – from least to most intimate – that I’ve identified when it comes to telling people that (and how) my dad died.
TIER ONE: THE NEED-TO-KNOW-QUICKIE
The Need-to-Know-Quickie comes out whenever he comes up in conversation. Most commonly, it’s in response to the “what does your dad do?” question.
Often, “my dad died when I was 11” is offered as an explanation before diving into the next sentence. The conversation continues, and we both leave it at that. If I were to have an emotions gauge, my reading would have spiked moderately before returning to its former state.
TIER TWO: CASUALLY COVERING THE BASICS
One step beyond the Need-to-Know Quickie, Casually Covering the Basic incorporates some of the basic details of my story.
Talking points typically include the following:
- I was 11 years old, a daddy’s girl. My sister and brother were 8 and 2, respectively.
- He died from septic shock that resulted from surgery complications.
- Thanksgiving of fifth grade was the last time I saw my dad and/or he died on Dec. 1, 2002.
- Don’t worry*, I’m OK. *Complete with a reassuring, understanding smile.
Then, as with a Tier One, the conversation moves on.
TIER THREE: GETTING MORE PERSONAL
Here’s where things start to get a little more personal, usually because the person with whom I’m talking is particularly engaged and asks a question or two.
How I coped with my loss then and over the years might enter the conversation. The ways in which my family dynamics shifted could as well. We’ll talk about how hard it was for my mom. I’ll maybe mention how my two-year-old brother didn’t understand why daddy wasn’t coming home from the hospital. And, I’ll likely reference Comfort Zone Camp – the nation’s largest free bereavement camp for children who have experienced the death of a parent, sibling or primary caregiver – and its tremendous impact on helping me grow into who I am today.
TIER FOUR: ACTUALLY SHARING MY STORY
This version isn’t as short and sweet as the others.
If you’re on the receiving end of a Tier Four, you’ll get somewhat of a play-by-play of how things unfolded the week of my dad’s death. You’ll hear the different details that, depending on the day, are brought to memory. And, you’ll get the Sparknote version of notable moments of the past 11 years (mom dating, moving, changing schools, college, moving again, etc.).
When I’m actually sharing my story, my emotions can zigzag from sadness and nostalgia (tears included) to happiness sprinkled with smiles and laughter.
TIER FIVE: FASTEN-YOUR-SEATBELT MODE
The gloves have come off, and composure is forgotten: I’m reliving moments of my story as I tell it. That is, I’m hardly aware of the other person’s presence because I’ve literally been transported back in time, recalling even the minutest of details.
Tier Five tellings are rare. Very, very rare. In fact, I can count the number of times I’ve told my story in this stream-of-consciousness way on one hand.
It’s a vivid memory for me. I remember exactly how it felt to lie on the bed next to him as the words poured sloppily from my mouth. Even though I had shared the story of my Dad’s death with countless individuals throughout the past eight years, this time was different. The stakes were higher. Because this time, I desperately needed the person with whom I was sharing to understand.
I’m not sure how long it took me; I remember recalling even the minutest of details. Because, I wasn’t giving him my rehearsed, to-the-point version that so many people before him had received. Instead, I was reliving each moment in my mind, as the thoughts and feelings that had never been shared aloud finally found their audience.
It truly seemed counterintuitive that falling for my now ex-boyfriend meant I would find it more difficult to tell him. But I was petrified he’d become just another person in my life who didn’t get it. And I couldn’t have that.
It took time though. I had to consciously make myself vulnerable. I had to give myself permission to drift back in time to really re-experience and reflect on those raw emotions and the pain. Long-winded and less than eloquent, the tears came and my hands shook, but I didn’t stop. He needed and deserved to know about one of the biggest things that shaped the life of the girl he loved. I think, in a way, it actually broke his heart a little to know that he couldn’t do anything about this pain.