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first person

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Illustration by Drew Shannon

After sitting at the end of my bed for an hour, I decided to force myself to go for a run. After all, isn’t fresh air good for you? Isn’t movement supposed to snap you out of whatever kind of funk you are in?

I had been doing an okay job of getting myself to move again in the last four weeks since I started training – it had, after all, been over four months since the phone call. My dad had dropped dead. Dead out of nowhere. Healthy and then boom: dead. Dead and no goodbye. Out for a hike in the Fraser Valley in beautiful British Columbia, then dead.

Back in January, I signed up to run a 50-kilometre race in the spring. That would give me several months to snap myself out of the cycle of grief I had spiralled down. Fifty kilometres. Fifteen more and that would be the number of years my dad was when he died in September.

I have spent the better part of the months since he died allowing myself the space to grieve and giving myself all kinds of grace during the process. Sometimes my runs end in tears and retching by the side of the road (thankfully after the friend that dragged me out for the run had driven away). But that’s getting better with more sleep and less medication. I only yell or cry when I run alone, and it doesn’t last the whole time. With friends, I am able to talk and laugh and be regular. Kind of.

I want to do things well and properly – I want to laugh at funny memories and cherish the unbelievably life-affirming and precious moments we spent together in the year that he died, including the time we looked out at the ocean and he opened up about how recently he had started thinking about his mortality. I thought about how amazing and miraculous it was that the last time I visited, he reflected on funerals and what he would like to happen at his own. How we shared a special and precious moment and then choked out words and a hug. How did I get lucky enough to get all of that before his sudden death?

Even still, this far into the grieving process, it feels impossible that my brain can move to a space of reflection and remembrance instead of where it was stuck as I looked for signs to somehow have it all make sense. Recently, on a day that I was feeling all right, I got out of my minivan at the hill where I always went for a run, and I found myself collapsing, crying uncontrollably and gasping for breath. Again. It seems, no matter how hard I try to process, this shock is not leaving my system.

I slowly made my way back to the van and went home to try and focus on things that I could control, like the kitchen. Cleaning the kitchen. Making my family life nice in case, somehow, I die. I want to live. I want to be a good mother. I want to forget the phone call that had me literally screaming in the streets.

I spent a good portion of my life coping with negative feelings in self-destructive ways and since recovering, I have overintellectualized and overanalyzed negative thought patterns and emotions to the point where it was difficult to just feel. I want to just feel my dad’s death. However, I also wanted to understand what was going on in my brain – the uncontrollable crying and the hyperventilating.

I learned that when people experience a large and sudden loss, about 5 per cent of them experience post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD symptoms after a sudden loss include panic and intrusive memories of the moment the news of the death came that exceed 4-6 weeks. Yup. That is exactly what was happening to me.

I have had dreams every night about my dad – dreams where I am told about his death and people comfort me, but we are all confused because he is standing close by, alive. In my dream, people say, “I thought your dad was dead?” and I reply, “He is.” But, somehow he is there, alive, but I can’t make myself speak to him. I am terrified. I wake up with pain all the way down my back and neck from tension.

When my dad first died, I felt overwhelmed at the idea of therapy, even ashamed. Why would I need therapy? I had a good dad. We had a good relationship. There were so many moments that we shared in the past year that should have made me feel prepared for the day that he would die. What would I even say? What would therapy even do?

But now, I understand that I am one of the 5 per cent that is experiencing post-traumatic stress related to a sudden loss. Understanding that I am not just some colossal screw-up is helping me feel better about what is going on inside of my brain.

Sometimes life doesn’t make sense. I didn’t run today. I may not run again tomorrow. And I might not run that race in May. Giving myself grace and time as I seek understanding and healing is the best I can do.

Vanessa Dueck is a Canadian living in San Jose, Calif.