The Odd Empowerment in Experiencing Death

My dad, leading his own way--as always.

My dad, leading his own way–as always.

The lessons to be learned from my father’s unexpected death are probably innumerable and will surely continue to trickle in over time. One, however, has hit me hard and fast, and…though a little scary…has served as one of the few comforts during this surreal, tender period.

It struck me in full while I was snowshoeing one day by myself in France along a trail that often gives me the creeps. I’m easily superstitious, a trait carried over from childhood, which causes my imagination to run amuck with theories of dangerous people hiding in the trees or a freak accident looming (and, well, my dad dying in an avalanche certainly doesn’t help). I can remember summers running along this same trail where I would panic and speed up, the hairs on the back of my neck in full alert mode. I should probably deal with the omnipresence of these misguided fears in therapy, but that’s for another time.

Back on the snow-drenched trail a few weeks ago, slightly out of breath and legs working hard to trudge through all that wet weight, I felt totally calm and at ease. I thought up various terrifying stories and they failed to phase me like they used to. I felt truly okay being alone out there, and fully capable of dealing with whatever freak accident would (not very likely) come my way. It may sound miniscule, but to me it was a big deal. It was as if someone had shaken one of the last drops of little girlhood out of me, asserting that I no longer needed another person’s presence to feel safe in certain places—that I could handle this shit, this life, on my own.

I rarely went on adventures like this without my Dad, so I grew used to relying on him for support—both tangible and not. Simply by being there, he assured me that he could fix whatever went wrong. Even in my most terrified moments with him—skittering across a rock face, navigating the steepest off-piste slope, zip-lining between two mountains—there was a level of trust that would assuage my anxiety and push me forward.

The trust that he embodied is no longer here, not in any way that the eyes can see. Instead, I seem to have swallowed a bit of it…taken it upon myself to be my guard.

Losing a parent so early has forced me to reckon with the cruelty of the world in a way that my privilege never made room for before—the complete and utter unfairness, the seeming lack of a greater plan—or the blatant shittiness of whatever that plan might be. In doing so, I’m also forced to acknowledge that the ties that bind—even those that feel permanent—are easily broken, at least in the fleshly sense. I’m forced to face that all the love in the world won’t keep me propped up on it’s own, that it can disappear swiftly—that my main base, my only eternal support, is simply me.

Of course, within this person I’ve become and am becoming, there are elements of my father, my mother, and everyone else who treads through my life. Other people effect me, some even transform me—but their physical presence isn’t necessary for me to continue on, to be wholly who I am.

No, I can push ahead without them. I can deal with my father’s death, even if it’s tragic and awful and makes me want to puke—I have seen this now, that I can survive a worst-case-scenario, that surviving it is no longer an idyllic, future happening, but a reality that I’ve been thrust into. My dad has inadvertently helped me see this, perhaps giving me a final push towards accepting my inherent independence—something he also tried to do while he was alive.

This sensation—because that’s truly what it felt like when it hit me on that trail—is overbearing yet oddly exciting. It doesn’t feel as harsh as you might expect. Instead, it feels empowering. It makes me want to ask for less, and do more; to strengthen all my muscles, both figurative and literal; and to take the tedious steps towards total self-reliance (financially and emotionally).

I was overcome by the not needing I suddenly felt—not needing my dad to survive, or my mom, or a romantic partner, or even a friend. This doesn’t mean that others have nothing to offer…that life would be whole without them passing by, but that if they do pass by—if they are no longer there—it will…it can go on. Not merely in a half-assed, watered-down way, but one that can be equally fierce and fulfilling.

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