He was diagnosed with cancer in the summer of 2012. While his death was somewhat anticipated, nothing can really prepare someone for the onslaught of emotions that comes with such a tragic loss. I watched as my dad aged before my eyes, the cancer turning him for a young, energetic, active man in his 60’s, to a decrepit, skinny shell of the man he once was.
To help cope with these changes, I tried to stay busy. I found it helpful for me to make various small changes in life (growing a beard, shaving it off; cutting down trees). These activities seemed to create another visual reminder of the change that I was going through emotionally with the impending loss.
I met with my dad regularly. From his diagnosis to death I don’t know that a day went by that I didn’t talk with him. I had the feeling that this initially annoyed my parents to have such a constant check-in when he was still feeling fine. But it was something that I needed to do for myself. As time progressed, I found myself at a complete loss of words as his death became more and more of a likelihood. I think my dad shared this feeling and we ultimately settled on just saying “I love you” and if those were the final words we said to each other, there weren’t much better words to end with.
When he passed, I was left with that same wordlessness. I was lost and felt again a desire and push to change. I knew that with this loss my life would forever be different than I had anticipated. I knew I was different and still changing. But I could not identify how and, from previous experiences, realized that I might never be able to fully vocalize all the ways in which this experience is changing me.
I decided to grow a beard: a mourning beard. I decided that for six months, I would be in mourning and this beard would be a reminder of that. Our culture does not have a good process for mourning. Our employers generally give three days (at best) “bereavement leave” which seems to give some indication that we should be fine after that. I found that generally people had a few days or maybe a couple weeks of grace around the loss, but otherwise one is expected to pick up and move back to normal quickly. So, outside of a visual reminder, I did not have a way to help facilitate my own grieving process. I was able to talk with my family about the loss, but as they were experiencing similar feelings as acutely as I, this was not always possible. More importantly, I did not have the words to express myself even when I had a listening ear.
Now I am coming up on the end of my 6 month period of mourning and I feel that my mourning beard was a good choice. As my beard has grown on me, so has my grief grown on me. This beard has changed the appearance of my face just as I know my grief has changed the landscape of my soul. I will have to cut my beard off, just as it will take work to cut myself free of some of the grief and sadness that has characterized my life through this loss. And I will have to keep working on it. Just as my beard would come back if I let it, so could my grief. This is not to say that I will not still feel sadness and mourn the loss of my dad. That will be an ever present part of my life as I move forward. As I get used to a beard free face, so too will I have to get used to how I have changed, how my family has changed, and how the rest of my life will be different moving forward.
Kevin DeBruyn is a LMSW and NASW Michigan Member