Grief you can’t escape — and don’t want to


SEPTEMBER 25, 2022 6:00 AM

Sometimes, when people ask me where my dad lives, I say “Western Massachusetts!”

In reality, he lives (read, exists) in a jar on my desk. The day my sister brought me his ashes was the first time we had lived together since I was four years old. Once though, he did live in Western Massachusetts, a place he often described as heaven on Earth.

Growing up, I was acutely aware of my dad’s eccentricities, his intelligence, temper, emotions, his difference from other fathers. It was what I now know to be borderline personality disorder. Even so, I would describe my childhood as a generally happy one. My relationship with him shifted as I got older, I moved into moody, brooding teenage angst. I criticized him for his illness, his inability to be like other dads. This normal part of development is now something I hold deep guilt and regret over.

If only I had been a nicer daughter, maybe things wouldn’t have ended the way they did.

The last time I saw my dad was in July 2019. I never imagined it would be the last time. COVID and the demands of college kept us apart after that. In the time between then and when he went missing, we often shared letters back and forth, something I still yearn for now that he’s gone.

I remember very little from those first few days, my sister calling me, something like “Search and Rescue is out for Dad … He left a note … the Connecticut River.” I remember the noise I made, pained, primal, almost inhuman. I remember lots of “I’m sorry’s,” and “I can’t imagine’s.” March, April and May 2021 will forever be fuzzy in my memory. Looking at photos from then is like looking at photos of a stranger.

My dad went missing on March 28, his body was found by a kayaker on May 28. In a way, it felt like I was missing then too, even now, I think there will always be a part of me that left when my dad did. His death was a suicide, which added a layer of uncertainty, shame and anger unconscionable to those who have not experienced it.

Not only had he left us, he had left us on purpose.

Eight days after my dad’s body was found, I boarded a plane to King Salmon, Alaska. I had two suitcases and an ambiguous return date. With the help of my friends, I had managed to pass the semester and had accepted a Quality Assurance internship working in Bristol Bay for the sockeye salmon run. No one there knew what happened; it felt like a new life, a reality where I didn’t spend most of the day crying.

For the next eight weeks I worked every day, sometimes 18 hours a day. Once, I worked 115 hours in one week. I saw volumes of fish I never could have imagined, millions of pounds of sockeye headed, gutted, frozen, canned. It may not be everyone’s heaven, but it was mine, and it saved me. Sometimes, when my shift was over, I would stare off the dock into the murky Naknek river and wonder where in the universe my dad’s soul might be.

When I came home to Pennsylvania in August, I was hit with a ball of reality so harsh I didn’t know how I could ever survive it. I had escaped, run away from my grief for one divine summer. But it waited for me, it was there when I got home, in my room, in my car, in my old job at the grocery store.

Through many hours of grief counseling, support groups, journaling, self-reflection and lots and lots of tears, I came to realize over the last eight months that it’s unlikely I will ever truly escape my grief, and more importantly, I no longer want to escape my grief. It is as much a part of me as my dad is, it is ceaseless, with no beginning and no end. There are still moments where this loss hits a part of me so weak and tender, I can hardly imagine there’s pain any worse.

But there is also joy. There is the future, there is another fishing season in Alaska, there are people who have never met my dad who are always willing to listen to a story about him, about his momentous laugh and gentle hands. There are college graduations, new jobs, moves to big new cities. There is the soul of my dad, which I like to imagine is a beam of color in the Northern Lights, streaking across the sky in Alaska, watching me from all those miles up.

Maddy Arthur is a 2022 graduate of Penn State, where she studied food science and creative writing. She currently splits her time between Northeastern Pennsylvania, Seattle, and some very remote parts of Alaska. She is a lover of the outdoors, an advocate for suicide prevention, and a doting Aunt, among other things. This column is coordinated by, whose mission is to create educational and conversational opportunities for meaningful intergenerational exchanges on loss, grief, growth and transformation.

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