I became acutely aware of the physical implications of a broken heart when my Dad died. My auntie said that he died of a broken heart; the doctors called it a heart attack. It made sense that he died of a broken heart; he had lived quite unhappily.
I was 22 and had experienced him as critical and judgmental towards me for many years, and I can see how that was the filter he viewed life through. People liked him but he managed to keep them at a distance so they didn’t become subject to his criticism.
I believe he struggled to see me as separate to himself or separate from Mum, depending on the day. He was happy when he could see himself in me; he was upset when he saw Mum in me. I was a good chameleon, I was expert at reading what they all wanted from me, and so I largely avoided him being upset with me.
He was sad because his life didn’t work out how he hoped. He was sad because he felt knocked down one too many times and didn’t know how to get back up. Sometimes all that hurt and pain landed in my direction.
In the time following his death I grieved, I was angry, I felt guilty, and I felt a lot. The lid popped on many of the feelings I hadn’t allowed myself to feel. I also became determined not to die of a broken heart. I wanted to be healthy physically and emotionally. My Dad’s death was the reason I went to counselling at 24, a few years after he had departed.
Counselling was incredibly supportive, I still remember the loving kindness of the counsellor, the warmth she wrapped me in with her gaze and words. She normalised grief for me, that it was okay to cry, it was okay to want to talk about Dad, it was okay to feel confused about everything that happened. I felt a sense of peace and relief after a handful of sessions and I thought my grieving was complete.
The way my mind operated then was in solution mode. Something’s wrong, you go and fix it and it goes away. But I discovered a few years later that it didn’t go away. A breakup was the worst trigger for grief because then a man was abandoning me again. Homeopathy was a helpful remedy through one early relationship breakup. My homeopath was judgmental about me drinking though, which made things difficult. Drinking was my other medication – it made everything disappear.
To give you perspective, Dad left me repeatedly, even prior to his death. He left when they divorced, he left when he moved to a different city and didn’t visit for a long time, he left when he and Mum fought and there would be an icy war, he left when he defended extended family who hurt me, he left when I rejected his attempts at fathering when I was 15 and again at 18. Isn’t that what teenagers do – reject their parents? But he didn’t come back after that last fight, we never reconnected and then he left for good.
One of the highlights of my relationship with my Dad is when he taught me to drive and helped me buy a car at 16. It was the sweetest time; he was loving and patient with me, even the day I ran his car into a tree in a car park. I was a very awkward beginner driver. He gifted me some formal driving lessons after that. He also had his first heart attack not long after I got my license, I would go to his place and make dinner for us. I was cultivating time to be there with him and care for him. I felt loved by him and I wanted to show him love in return.
The car he helped me buy was at the centre of the fight we had when I was 18 – the last fight and the last communication we had. It was awful; a woman we knew didn’t give way and had smashed into my car. I was physically in a lot of pain and shock and my boyfriend was in hospital. Dad decided that we should wreck the car for parts; I wanted to claim on her insurance. He wanted to protect her insurance rating, which would be great inconvenience to me and Dad and other family members. I wanted him to protect me, but there he was protecting someone who was not his daughter. I was deeply hurt and his demands felt unreasonable.
In my deepest heart I wanted him to come back. I hoped that he would find the strength to fight for me. But I never even let myself in on that secret; it was very firmly tucked away in my unconsciousness until years after he died.
During my 20s when a lot of my friends were getting married I was so envious of them as their father walked them down the aisle. I didn’t want their relationship but I wanted their father. A father, a man who would like at me like sunshine radiated out of my face.
I looked for my father in a variety of men and I relived the imprint time and time again. As a man walked out the door, it was Dad leaving and I got to grieve again. It’s a cliché, I know, and I cringe a little as I write it, but yes, I am the fatherless woman who fell for unavailable men. I also loved the experience of grieving, it gave me a reason to feel deeply.
At 27 there were 2 broken hearts in a few months. The effect of which was a huge catalyst for change. A year or so earlier I had been diagnosed with a potentially life threatening lung disease. There was a weakness in my lungs that I was told I would have to live with forever. After unsuccessful medical support, I found a solution via herbal medicine. However I had to be cautious of my overall wellbeing as it could flare again quite easily. Later on I would learn through Chinese medicine of the significance of the lungs to grief.
My lung condition was under control with the herbs but my drinking was out of control. My binge drinking had increased from 2 nights per week to 5 nights a week. I remember being startled by how many empty wine and beer bottles were accumulating outside the house.
After the 2nd heartbreak, something in me cracked. It was a huge catalyst, I cried on my verandah for hours, my friends attempted to console me. In the midst of this drunken night full of tears in July 2000 under a full moon, only one thing made any sense: I had to move to Sydney. I didn’t know why, but I knew it was a path to something new. It held the opportunity for a new beginning, something I desperately needed and wanted.
In Sydney I discovered rebirthing and it gave me the opportunity to be witnessed in some very raw and deep emotional places. I had sessions where I could be angry with Dad for leaving and sessions where I grieved for him. One of the most profound was a session where I realised that he didn’t know how to father me because his father was not in his life.
Over the following years I talked to Dad via rebirthing facilitators. The wonderful thing about the process was that I was really feeling it in my body, I was no longer just talking about it, the energy of the emotion that had been stuck in my body and lungs in particular was moving. Also the facilitators gave appropriate father responses to help in changing my imprints of neglect. During this time I stopped taking my herbs for the lungs, I also stopped drinking and smoking. I was healthy and feeling good in my body.
In the realms of spirit I found solace by talking to Dad, discovering the feeling of him near me without physically being here. That has been a very comforting connection to nurture.
I still had a belief that each process was chipping away at the grief and one day I would live free of the grief. I have journeyed layers of my relationship with my Dad through counselling, rebirthing, acupuncture, shiatsu, flower essences, yoga, meditation, energetic healing, primal therapy and tantra. Relationships have continued to provide abundant opportunity for healing this foundational connection in my life. I have felt liberated and at peace many times from all the deep and powerful processes I have done. I wouldn’t give up one minute of processing as it has informed so much of who I am, how I live and the choices I make.
In recent years at the ripe age of 43, there’s a new clarity, this grief from death and abandonment is part of the tapestry that has created Martina. And she is pretty damn awesome!
I don’t grieve a lot for my Dad now but I do know I that grief may show its face again at any time. I may feel a twinge of envy if I see you with your Dad but it won’t make me run for the bar. I might cry extra tears when someone else is grieving a loved one. Occasionally I speculate about what it would be like if my Dad were around. And other days I am glad he’s not because I don’t have the challenge of explaining to him that being a tantra teacher does not mean having sex with people for money.
Grief has deepened my capacity for humility, compassion and empathy. Grief reminds me not to be cocky. It helps me to be fully available for the grief of my friends and clients. I am at peace knowing that grief is okay and it will come again.
It’s possible that significant grief never disappears. I am grateful for being able to dance more gracefully with it. I have many tools from years of active process work, including the capacity to simply surrender and feel and allow it to take up space and move through my body.
As I am about to turn 43, I think of my Dad, he died at 44. In dark moments, I ask myself if history might repeat. Physically I know I am very healthy, emotionally I am so actively engaged in healing, and very connected to the enormity of love inside of me. The continuing piece of work for me is the cultivation of joy, to embrace pleasure and gratitude in all the big and small things in life. My tantric practices constantly bring me back to enjoyment of life; reminding me that feeling is the way.
Also I have so much more to do and share here on this earth before my checkout time comes.
I am grateful to my Dad for his role in my life, for having been the catalyst for so many new experiences. Thank you Dad, I love you. And to my friend grief I see you and feel you, let’s keep dancing.
A NOTE for well-meaning friends: If you know someone who is grieving a loved one, give them space, let them talk about their loved one. Know that it doesn’t magically disappear; it doesn’t have a time frame. It is one of the most incredibly powerful and unique experiences of being human. There are no formulas to dealing with it. To support someone you love, truly listen, hold them, ask what they need. If they need more support than you can offer, recommend professional help. Seeking help is powerful medicine.
Everyone journeys differently with grief. Honour it is a life transforming process. Love it and dance with it.