The word expectations has been on my mind lately. The definition, a strong belief that something will happen or be the case in the future, has me considering how our expectations influence our experience of grief. Words synonymous with expectations include assumptions, presumptions, anticipations and even assurances. I think that’s my word nerding part of me creating connections with words, phrases, thoughts and ideas. We have expectations about how children should behave in school. We have expectations about how relationships will look. We have expectations about how life is supposed to unfold. We create expectations about ourselves, about the people around us, about careers and as the definition expresses, our future. These expectations seem to be housed in our subconscious mind for the most part. We don’t even realize they are running us, playing in the background, influencing our actions until something unexpected happens, something that we had not created, planned for or believed in for our future.
I had the expectation that February would be a dismal month. I had already listed the many reasons in my head. My original ‘assigned unit’ consisted of my mom (Judy), dad (George), older brother (also George) and myself. This was the fond nickname for my family that resonated with me during a time in my youth that I was not so enamored with them. As a child, I often felt that random selection was at play in the melding of our household instead of the sharing of genetic bonds. I have always felt like an outsider with my family. As if it weren’t enough for my mind to create this illusion all on its own, there were actual facts that reinforced this assumption in my childhood mind. I was left handed, they were all right handed. I had blonde hair, they were all brunettes. The three of them shared February as their birth month and mine was at the other end of the calendar in October. I look back on all the emotional turbulence I created with these presumptions of separateness and shake my head. After experiencing the death of my brother and then my father in less than 2 years, February has taken on a different connotation. I began to take stock in the false beliefs I had created and how these negatively impacted my thought process often causing undue pain and suffering.
After my dad passed away in July, my mom took inventory of all the months and holidays that were going to be difficult. Of course, starting in July following his death, the months of November with Thanksgiving and December with Christmas would be the first obstacles. January, a time for making new resolutions for the year without our loved ones for the first time. The fact that the weather is terrible in January in Ohio can be added to the list of reasons supporting the presumption that this month would be difficult to endure. As if all this weren’t enough while dealing with death and grief, the birthday month, February, loomed like storm clouds on the horizon. The anticipation of the impending turbulence added to the feeling of grief and sadness.
I made plans to visit my mom for her birthday. Lately, my mom has found comfort in sharing with me all the things she has gone through and organized or donated since July. It has been helpful for her to go through his items and reminisce. She talked about a family friend who had recently been helping by selling off my father’s gun and ammo collection. Once I arrived at her house, we went down to the basement and looked through what was left. A Kel-Tec semi-automatic handgun sat off to the side. It brought back memories of my dad taking me out back and teaching me how to shoot when I was growing up. I earned the nickname Annie Oakley because I was just naturally good at target practice. I recalled my dad taking my kids out back for target practice when we would visit. One chilly November day they begged me to come outside with them. I told them I’d think about it without much conviction. I was hoping they’d forget once they were out shooting. After a few minutes, Brennan came trotting back to the house. He looked at me with those beautiful brown eyes and asked me again to come out. He said, “Papa said you were like Annie Oakley.” Out I trudged to the target range Papa had set up. He had the gun loaded and waiting. He smiled as he handed me the handgun. With a straight face (people who know me, know this is a challenge for me), I took aim and knocked every last can and bottle off the target to the surprise and delight of my boys.
Returning from this momentary nostalgia, I had this feeling come over me to go out, set up a target range and use my dad’s gun for target practice. It was a bitter cold February day and I have to admit that I lost a little steam as my fingers started to tremble from the cold. I couldn’t find where my dad had put all the safety items like eye protection and ear plugs. In my annoyance, I left without them, remaining steadfast in my determination to make this happen. I got exasperated as I realized my dad did a lot of the prep work that was not at all glamorous in preparation for target practice. Frustrated, I settled for an old flower pot on a stump with an old soup can on top of that. I stepped back, loaded the gun, took aim and fired. Not only did I miss by a mile but the gun was much louder than I had remembered. This fueled my fury. I pulled the slide and click, the bullet got stuck. At this point my fingers were numb from the cold which made pulling back the slide even more challenging. I tried repeatedly, but could not get the bullet dislodged. I was so enraged I was shaking. I am sure in part to the frigid temperatures but also from my anger that I couldn’t do what Papa had always done for me. I finally put the jammed gun down and ran back to the house.*
Inside the house, I sat on the step to the family room trying to warm up and regain feeling in my fingers and toes. My thoughts were parading through my mind. I couldn’t understand why I was so incensed by this current situation. I pondered what made me think I could venture out by myself on a freezing cold Ohio February morning and try to shoot that damn gun. That’s when the tears welled up and the pent up emotions of the past 7 months came pouring out. The aggravation and frustration was just masking the truth. I missed my dad. I felt bad about all the things I had taken him for granted, all the things he had always been there to do for me and my often ungrateful attitude about him growing up. To take a deeper look, I was angry and resentful that he didn’t meet my expectations. I had created a future that he was always going to be there. It was that subconscious idea planted early on that he was there to fix things, help me when I needed it and do the not-so-glamorous behind the scenes work so things ran smoothly. The gun incident reinforced my fears that there were things I wouldn’t be able to do by myself because he had always done them.
My mom and I had both braced ourselves for the difficulty we thought would surely be experienced in the months following my dad’s death. There were a myriad of emotions over those months that proved to be challenging. There were also moments that brought insight and healing. In gaining understanding around expectations, I got in touch with the resentment and anger I felt in the things that would never come to completion because of my dad’s unexpected death. I began to let go of holding him responsible for no longer being here. I have begun to settle in with this new way of thinking about expectations especially the expectations I realized I have created about people in my life. I am choosing to focus on honoring the loved ones that have gone before me for the lives they lived. I am taking on the possibility of living life to the fullest, while holding them close in my memories. I am committed to taking time to feel and process my emotions and share my stories with others so we can all learn ways to let go and settle in.
*In case you are wondering, after warming up and drying my tears, I went back out and got the bullet dislodged and promptly put everything away.