My father died 10 days after my 14th birthday.
That was 15 years ago. I thought I was over it. I went to therapy, journaled, wrote sappy poems, and cried a lot. But it wasn’t enough.
Grief does not decay as quickly as our bodies do. It’s sticky—like the gum you can’t get off your shoe. It arrives unannounced and ambushes you from behind, like a rear-ender when you’re already late.
If you’re lucky, you let yourself sob to a stranger on the street—mascara smeared under your eyes for a raccoon surprise.
Feel the feels, my friend. Feel them now, so they don’t get stuck inside you and get all sticky.
Below is a letter I wrote to my adolescent self of what I wish I had known when my father died, but that I am finally figuring out now.
Dearest 14-year-old Barrett,
I am so sorry you lost your father so young. I am sorry you feel abandoned, unsafe, and completely off-kilter. But you don’t have to stay in that pain. The catch is—in order to move past the grief and guilt you must sit it the discomfort of its dark shadow.
Cry. And then cry some more. When someone asks, “How are you?” you are allowed to say, “Not so great today.”
You will not help your cause by numbing the pain with alcohol, drugs, overexercising, anorexia, or drowning yourself in homework. When you are 21 (or younger and more rebellious), please remember there is a difference between enjoying a glass of wine with a friend and downing six shots of gin on an empty stomach because you can no longer bear the sadness.
Wounds just want to be acknowledged—they’re like crying babies. Usually, they are crying for love and gentle touch. And even when you heal from this deep grief, you will still experience sadness. There is no magic potion to fast-forward.
But you are magic, my dear.
Don’t become morbid and obsess over how things could have been. Don’t fall into feeling sorry for yourself. And don’t numb with escapist activities when the pain is exquisite.
Instead, use your magic. Use this sadness to fuel the fire of creativity. How can you express and let the sad anger move through you?bfreibert
Dance, write, cry, scream, run, savor nature, write a letter to Dad with the things you wish you could have said to him, and serve others who have similar experiences.
Remember when you were on the verge of nervous tears before swimming the 500 freestyle (20 laps)? Or before going on a three-week backpacking adventure camping trip? Dad would always say, “The ships are safe in the harbor, but that’s not what they are made for.”
As he hugged you tight and said, “Go get ’em, sweetheart,” the smell of his Brooks Brothers cologne, the softness of his blue cashmere sweater, and those words transformed those anxious butterflies into powerful ones. That’s the magic—knowing that nothing good ever comes from anything easy. And when we are scared, it means we must push forward even more.
Feel the sorrow—when it bubbles up your throat, don’t choke it in. Let that bad boy rip and weep. Weep loudly. Even though it may scare you and your neighbors. Let it move through and out of you. Like a virus, you must ride it out.
It’s a long ride, but it’s worth it.
Unstick yourself from being stuck by sailing into the dark harbor and “go get ’em, sweetheart.”