Finding Grace in Grief

“Grief, like regret, settles into our DNA and remains forever a part of us."

This quote from The Nightingale (my favorite book of 2015) would be an apt epilogue to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ On Death and Dying, in which she explained the five stages of grief.

Loss has been a constant in my life and I’ve turned to the book many times. The first four stages— denial, anger, bargaining, depression— are straight-forward. In my case they involve a lot of ugly crying, binge drinking, and otherwise bad behavior. It’s the last step, acceptance, that I’ve always found the trickiest.

I experienced my first major loss and go-round with Kübler-Ross when my dad died during my junior year of college. It was heartbreaking to know that I would spend the majority of my life without him. He wouldn’t see me graduate from college, visit me in New York (although he would have probably tried to talk me out of moving to the city in the first place), or see that my dream of becoming a writer wasn’t out of reach after all.

I was young when he died and still badly needed a father, but I had to push through my pain and get on with my life. This was what acceptance looked like. Or so I thought. 

By the time I get married this summer, my dad will have been gone for 14 years. I’ve had a long time to get ready for the onslaught of father-daughter traditions even untraditional weddings uphold. Over the past 14 years, I’ve gotten a lot of practice saying, “I’m perfectly capable of walking myself down the aisle, thank you very much,” or to recite feminist talking points about how outdated this practice is in modern culture. I’ve read hundreds of blog posts about all of the things you can do to remember loved ones at weddings: Light a candle. Leave a empty chair. Release a balloon.

And yet, as my big day approaches, I’m surprised that none of this preparation has worked. I am really sad that my dad won’t be at my wedding. Despite everything I thought, I am so not capable of walking myself down the aisle. In fact, I don’t even want to have a wedding-y wedding if he (and my brother) can not be there. For me, a candle, empty chair, or balloon in the sky will just highlight the pain that is already baked into me so deeply.

This has me rethinking what that final stage of grief really means. Perhaps acceptance is understanding that the sadness of losing someone you love will always exist.