On Being a Principal Mourner

As I said in my post last week, I'm reeling from the sudden, unexpected death of my beloved father.  I haven't been able to write, or think, about much else these past two weeks.  I wasn't intending to post much of what I am writing these days- unsure if I should share in the thick of it.  But I came across this post from Laura over at Hollywood Housewife today. In it she writes "About my summer meltdown, I feel a little differently about it after a few month's distance.  But I am so glad that I wrote what I did when I did.  I'm glad I have those thoughts from when they were raw.  And I'm glad I shared them.  If we waited until we had enough perspective to wrap it all up with a bow, then you're not actually capturing the experience.  You're masking it in the lesson, in what it meant later.  But I crave to read about (and write about) what it is now."  And that's what I want to do.  Write about what it is now.  In the thick, heavy, tear soaked mess of it.  And write about it again when I've gained some perspective.  And so here goes… it's going to be a little heavy around here for a while…

Principal Mourners.  That’s what they call them.  The ones who lay awake that long, first night listening to the sobs of their loved ones echo through the house.  The ones who cry as they pick out flower arrangements and choose songs.  Who stand for hours receiving the grief of all those who came to the wake and are given privacy to say their last good-byes.  Who walk behind the casket down the long church aisle, their sorrow on display for all to see.


People arrive almost immediately.  How did they know?  How did they find out so quickly?  The news of death spreads faster than fire it turns out.

And the people come bearing gifts.  No one arrives empty handed the first few days.  The groceries and meals I expected.  But how did they know we were running out of toilet paper and paper towels?  Who told them I’d been searching the house for a fragrant candle to bring some light into our darkness?  What made them pick out the softest, most perfect blanket and did they know it would be the only comfort my mom sought out those first days?

People surprise you in so many ways those first weeks.  The number of people is shocking.  I never realized how many people cared about us enough to show up.  And then you find yourself leaning on someone you never expected to be the rock you needed.  And others you always thought would be that rock surprise you with their distance, too lost in their own grief to help you with yours. 


Whenever Liam catches me crying he takes my face in his little hands and searches my eyes for tears.  Upon finding them he proclaims, “Mommy’s happy!  Mommy’s happy!” with manic desperation, as though he could will me into a state of happiness.  I understand his behavior completely as I watch my mom sob over my dad’s body.  It is all I can do not to grab her by the shoulders and shout, “Mommy’s happy!  Mommy’s happy!”


My grief overwhelms me.  I’m afraid to overwhelm others with it.  I feel dangerous, as though my sadness has the power to extinguish all the happiness from a room forever.  It’s a heavy burden I carry everywhere with me.  A burden I’m afraid to unload because it means I’m moving on, moving further away from my dad.  The first week an image of him making a characteristic face or gesture would flash vividly and brilliantly in my head, then violently sucker punch me with the reminder that I would never see him make that particular face again.  The second week I sobbed and sobbed because those images were becoming a little less vivid, had already started to dull around the edges in his second week of absence. 


The irony for the Principal Mourners is that everyone you’ve every loved shows up to offer support of one kind or another but you are unable to fully acknowledge or appreciate it.  You can’t survive without it, but you don’t have the mental or emotional capacity to connect with just how wonderful people really are.  You have no choice but to receive and receive and receive, keeping a list of all the thank yous you hope one day to be in a place to genuinely offer.


I feel like I’ve been initiated into a club I never wanted any part of.  The Principal Mourners Club.  I suppose I know now what to do the next time someone dies.  I know what to bring (candles, toilet paper and blankets) and I know what to say (there’s nothing to say.  Nothing can ease this pain.  All you can do is be with.).  Still, I’d rather have my dad back than the insider knowledge on what to do for a Principal Mourner.  Selfishly, I’d rather bumble around ignorantly with my father still here.  I’m not quite ready to look for any positive in this shitty, shitty situation.  One day I’ll find light in the darkness.  Today is not that day.