"Heart to Heart" by Julia Khligh
When my dear friend Ricky asked me to contribute a piece to the Circle Camps website, I was immediately overcome with gratitude and appreciation. Something so near and dear to her and her family’s hearts, she wanted to let me put my mark on. I knew I would never forget this unique opportunity. Further, and maybe selfishly, would this allow me to tie a nice pretty ribbon on my own grief that still plagues me 8 years later?
Circle Camps was introduced to me about a year and half ago, and it’s one of those foundations that is so specific it could easily be overlooked, yet it is so impactful to a very real and existing audience you literally can’t believe that it doesn’t exist on a larger scale. The loss of a parent is prevalent, and tragically, I would take a guess that the statistics have deepened after the events of the last two years. I have frequently let my mind wonder what my life would be like had Circle Camps been around in my earliest time of need. Would I have felt a little less despair on the days that I couldn’t imagine being able to genuinely laugh again? Would I have found lifelong friends who could understand my pain with just a look? Would navigating this dark and precarious journey have been made just a bit easier had I found a support system early on?
Loss first knocked at my door when I was in middle school. I will never forget the image of my mother pulling into our driveway, inconsolable and tear stained face, as she practically shouted, “Robert died.” Her brother, my uncle, had killed himself. Though at the time, being so young and impressionable, my cousins and I were told he suffered a heart attack. A few years later, my granddad died unexpectedly in his sleep. This rocked my mother, sent shockwaves through our entire family, and things were never quite the same. And though grief was now known in my life, we weren’t best friends. I could explain away and rationalize these tragedies. My uncle struggled with his mental health his entire life, my granddad lived to be in his eighties with an adoring wife and family that he treasured, so it was a life well spent. I wouldn’t really know grief for another year and a half, when my dad unexpectedly died from cancer.
Just a few months past my 20th birthday, on New Years Eve, I awoke to a call that my dad had stage 4 lung cancer, he didn’t have much time to live, and we needed to see him immediately. I was absolutely spinning. And as my mom took over and hurriedly began booking our flights, she asked me if I wanted to fly out tonight or first thing in the morning. Hardly able to form a sentence, I blubbered “the morning please.” I was under the impression that we were looking at a couple of months left, maybe weeks if we were unlucky, and this would give me just a few hours to wrap my head around what was happening before I had to face what I imagined to be a completely deteriorated version of the once strong and healthy man I knew.
My parents were divorced for some years, and we lived in a different state from my dad; seeing him on holidays, and spending large chunks of the summer with him. It was my second year of college and being so busy with school and summer jobs, I hadn’t seen him as much as usual, which allowed him to hide his illness from me and my sister.
Hours later, all I had done was curl up and cry. I had to get out of the house and slip away from the dark cloud that was hovering over all of us. A searing headache had formed, and my stomach grumbled. Surely I could force down a few bites of food to feel somewhat functioning. I was in the car on the way to pick up dinner for all of us, just minutes down the road from home, when my sister called, screeching “he’s gone, dad’s dead.” I pulled over immediately, and began dry heaving onto some poor stranger’s lawn.
When I look back at the years and months that would follow, I remember them with a gray lens. My days and nights always appeared dreary and colorless.
I was in a relationship at the time, a quite unhealthy one, and my boyfriend had the emotional range of a Kardashian - essentially useless when it came to consoling me. My sister was four years younger than I, so I wanted to be her shoulder to lean on. My mom had lost her father so recently, and unfortunately, this topic dredged up her own unresolved issues with him. Bringing up my dad, I felt, was painful for her. My closest friends were all at their respective colleges in other towns, and while they did their best to comfort me, none of them (thankfully) had lost a parent before. There was only so much they could do. I was the most alone I had and would feel in my entire life.
I was lucky enough that my mom suggested and was able to afford therapy, which I quickly took her up on. Fast forward to my present life. I have a very close relationship with all of my family members and a few cherished friends, as well as a new boyfriend who lends tremendous support daily. And while I am always happy to share my story, the pain feels as fresh and sharp as if it happened yesterday. I look back on this time, when things were their most raw and ugly form, and I still experience a lot of unresolved feelings and anxiety.
The age-old advice about time and its healing powers does hold some merit. You learn to cope. Life doesn’t wait for you, so you must adapt and learn to grow with your grief. And while I do believe it is up to me and anyone suffering a loss to make our own peace, outside support is invaluable to a broken heart. Having something as transformative as Circle Camps would have altered my life for the better, and I hope the next person who reads this and may be feeling hopeless, knows that there are many of us out here looking to fill that missing piece of our heart.