Vulnerable Conversations & Holiday Season Grief on the 2-Year Anniversary of My Dad’s Death

Today is a somber day in my house, and at Ridiculously Efficient: On this day in 2014, my dad died, just 18 months after my mom died.

This time of year is always difficult, but over the last two years I’ve witnessed firsthand how catastrophic situations -- death, divorce, career changes and other major life events -- can eventually bring out the best in us.

But it takes courage to fight your way out of that pit of despair to see opportunity and eventually enable growth. In my case, that courage came from dozens of emotionally intense writing sessions and the loving support of my teams and best friends.

Dean and Betty Brassfield, late 1960s/early 1970s

Dean and Betty Brassfield, late 1960s/early 1970s

If you’ve gone through a life crisis like this, or you’re feeling profoundly alone this holiday season, I invite you to have a vulnerable conversation with someone you love and trust. Ask for their help or support if it feels appropriate. The important part is to let them in, rather than building and fortifying walls.

And if you don’t have someone with whom you can have this kind of conversation, please contact me. I may not know your story, yet, but I’d love to support you, whether it’s helping you find the best path forward or just by listening quietly.

You are never truly alone.

[Editor’s Note: What follows is Marissa’s edited, expanded journal entry from December 1, 2016, in which she relives the moment she learned of her father’s death and the first critical hours thereafter.]

**START JOURNAL ENTRY**

Two years ago today, my dad had a heart attack and died at home.

I missed the call from an 818 number the first time. It was too early to pick up a call from a number I didn’t recognize -- six, maybe seven in the morning. After waking up, but before coffee.

A woman was on the other end of the line. Not Mom -- she too had died, 18 months earlier.

Frantic. Broken English. Hysterically crying.

I’m your dad’s girlfriend. Your dad, your dad... Something happened. I call 911.

What? What happened? You already called 911, or you’re calling them now? Do you need me to call?

I already call 911. The ambulance… [crying]

Did they already take him? What hospital is he at?

He gone, he gone.

My voice got deeper as I entered crisis-resolution mode. What hospital did they take him to?

No. He gone. He gone.  [crying]

Is he dead?

Yes. [dissolves into hysterics]

Okay. I’m in San Diego. I will drive up there now, but I won’t be there for 2 and a half hours.

Okay. Okay. [tears]

I’ll see you soon.

[call ends]

I remember hanging up the phone and screaming “FUCK” as loudly as I could.

I sent a flurry of texts from the living room of our San Diego apartment, standing barefoot on the cold bamboo flooring, and my husband Mike quietly yet dutifully packing an overnight bag.

The first text went to my clients, and then my teams, telling them what happened.

The next two went to Billy and my cousin Letty, so she could tell the relatives on my mom’s side of the family.

Then I cried. Deeply. Angrily.

Mom and Dad were both gone.

I felt profoundly alone.

***

We headed north, en route to Billy’s place in Anaheim. I was on the phone the whole time, calling the family lawyer, the insurance company, the banks.

In my head, I envisioned the stapled list my mom had prepared for my dad before she went into the hospital for her oral cancer surgery in April 2013. The first two pages were a checklist she’d printed from someplace titled “What to Do When a Loved One Dies.” The remaining pages were her own -- she’d typed up every open account, the account number, phone number and any other identifying information we’d need to close the account. She put the stapled packet in a pink transparent folder with original and duplicate copies of her will, her power of attorney and the family trust documents.

Marissa Brassfield, Peter Pan, and Dean Brassfield

Marissa Brassfield, Peter Pan, and Dean Brassfield

Before her surgery, she went through the packet with me page by page. At the time, Dad refused to participate -- Jesus, Betty, this is bullshit, you’re not going to die -- so she went through it with me.

A few months later, Dad and I used that packet like a workbook. And as soon as I got to L.A., I would look for that pink packet exactly where I knew it would be -- in my childhood bedroom, next to the computer on the desk -- to add a second checkmark to each of those open boxes.

***

We stopped at Billy’s first. We cried together for a little while. We opened a couple beers.

My aunt Elsie called -- my mom’s sister -- to share her condolences.

We got back in the car to drive up to L.A., with Billy 30 minutes behind us.

I spoke with the police officers who had arrived on scene. I asked them to call Forest Lawn and take care of the arrangements. We had several short “update” conversations for the rest of the drive.

Your neighbor, an older lady, was wanting to wait for you in the house, but we can’t authorize--

That’s my godmother. Please let her in. I’ll be there soon.

At last, I got to the house.

I saw my godmother Lillian first, her eyes red with tears. We embraced, and I squeezed her tiny frame as close as I could.

I saw Jariya next -- my dad’s girlfriend, who he’d been dating and, as I’d learn, living with Dad and cooking and cleaning for him. She saw me and broke down crying. We embraced, at half strength. It was the first time we’d met, and, including our conversation that morning, the second time we’d spoken.

Jariya went into the kitchen to heat up something for me to eat. The rest of us sat awkwardly in the living room. To my left, Lillian, who’s known me since I came home from the hospital as a baby, and lived next door to my parents since they moved into the house in the 70s. To my right, my husband Mike. And now, knocking at the door, was Billy, my best friend for over a decade -- who my dad had once knighted as an honorary Brassfield years ago and loved like a son.

My new family unit.

***END JOURNAL ENTRY***

Year 1: Recalibrating Christmas

Christmas 2014 was… weird, but honestly wonderful.

Jariya had moved out the week my dad died. We gave her my dad’s mattress and bed.

Mike and I had been splitting time between our San Diego apartment and my parents’ home in Los Angeles, with me spending most of my time in L.A. At this point, we didn’t know what to do with the house -- sell, rent or move in.

As our cats and all our belongings were still in San Diego, we had been sleeping on an inflatable mattress in my childhood bedroom. It was the only spot with sufficient floor space. All of my parents’ possessions from their 44-year marriage, plus my own childhood toys and clothing, occupied every possible storage area, including the garage. The aging carpet still smelled faintly of dog hair. One closet smelled like my mom’s perfume; the other smelled like my dad’s tobacco. Their ashes -- my parents’, and my childhood dog’s -- were on the piano next to old photos I’d found, or favorite ones I’d taken.

Home, yet not quite home.

We’d already booked a Christmas-through-New-Year’s trip to Costa Rica for our friends’ destination wedding. Although we both had our doubts about the trip, we went anyway.

We spent most of our days in a Manuel Antonio resort pool with a core group of wedding guests who have since become like family, sipping on a seemingly endless supply of Imperial beer and a magical frozen concoction called Monkey Business.

On one of these days, Mike and I were talking about what to do with the house.

“We can’t afford both,” I said. “I don’t know what to do. Our whole life is in San Diego.”

After some more rounds of Monkey Business and conversation, he said the magic words: “Let’s move into the house. We can do it.”

Year 2: Regaining Christmas Cheer

The next year, there was no avoiding home for Christmas. We’d just finished an extensive remodel of the kitchen and house flooring, and the house felt decidedly ‘ours.’

One thing was certain: Christmas Eve was to be spent at Lillian’s house, where we’ve had dinner together almost every year I’ve been alive. (We’ve only missed a few years of this tradition, all travel-related.)

This year, though, the faces around the table were a bit different: Mike’s parents and sister flew out from Florida to join us. Mike and I cooked a gluten-free gourmet feast. I was so focused on the meal logistics and making sure Mike’s family felt welcome that the day was a blur.

But when we heard the caroling truck come around, as it has late every New Year’s Eve, we bundled up, stood outside, and sang along together, holding each other close.

One clipboard-carrying caroler broke free from the pack and approached us.

“Are you Marissa Brassfield?” he asked, and I nodded. “Thank you for your donation and the beautiful letter. Your parents always supported the caroling truck. I remember they’d always bring their dog out when we passed by.”

“Yes -- she always loved the lights and people.”

He shook my hand, and everyone’s. We continued talking for several moments about some of the tradition I’d shared in that letter -- a really pleasant conversation. The knot in my chest loosened slightly. What a kind man, I thought.

Last family photo of Betty, Marissa and Dean Brassfield, March/April 2013

Last family photo of Betty, Marissa and Dean Brassfield, March/April 2013

I looked around -- at Lillian, Mike, his mom and his sister all smiling, enjoying the show -- and felt a twinge in my heart, missing the faces that weren’t there, the hugs I’d never have again. The knot tightened. I distracted myself by looking back at the crowd of carolers, who were waving and handing out mini candy canes to all the neighbors on their lawns.

The caroling truck stayed directly in front of our house for a full song, and it felt as if they were singing to all of us, including Mom and Dad. I looked at all the smiling faces on the caroling truck, the happy carolers that surrounded them on foot, the dancers and their choreography. I felt like I was inside an adorable Christmas snow globe filled with pure love.

The song eventually wound down. Clipboard Man said a heartfelt goodbye.

“Well, thank you again for your support. Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas,” I replied. “Thank you.”

I meant every word.

3 Mindset Truths for Those in Crisis

I’d love to tell you that I now love the holidays, and that my Christmas spirit has fully returned, with interest. But that isn’t exactly true.

What is true, however, is that I’ve discovered a new dimension of holiday spirit. One that gives me a glimpse of what’s possible if you can just let others love you.

Consider the following truths:

  • You are never truly alone. When I posted about my parents’ deaths on social media, I had no idea how much support I’d get from unexpected places. An old teammate, whose mother had also died of cancer. My old coaches. My dad’s friends. Entrepreneurs I know through work. My colleagues’ parents. I went from feeling alone to feeling fully loved, simply by expressing my honest, true pain.

  • Sadness and grief are part of the human experience. From the start, I always knew I wanted to feel the pain of my parents’ deaths fully -- not trying to squash it down someplace inside for years of future therapy. I cry a lot. Sometimes multiple times a day, depending on how much I’m thinking about my parents. But exploring the depths of my sadness has also made me appreciate all of life’s beauty and good. We have so much to be grateful for in life. Even tremendous loss.

  • It gets better. For a time, I really thought I’d lost my mojo for good. I didn’t feel creative, or productive, or even particularly alive. I felt like a shell. Until this year, I used to wonder if things would ever get better, and half-believed that they wouldn’t. But they did, and continue to improve every day.

How to Get Support

If you’re in the muck, as I was, the fastest way out is by asking someone you love and trust for a helping hand.

“Hey [Name]. I’m working through a really challenging situation right now. I could really use your advice.”

(Replace advice with words like support or ear, as appropriate.)

Then honestly relate your story. You’d be amazed at how little most people around you might know about what you’re going through.

If they offer support, and that support would be valuable to you, accept it with gratitude. If you don’t have any specific actions for them to take, heartfelt thanks go a long way. I probably said something like, “Thank you. Honestly, the best support has been just speaking with you. I appreciate and value our time together.”

Betty and Marissa Brassfield, mid-80s

Betty and Marissa Brassfield, mid-80s

Then, let people love you.

For some, this is the hardest part. It’s easy to tell yourself tall tales.

They’re only inviting me out because they feel sorry for me.

They’re probably talking about me behind my back.

They’d be having more fun if I weren’t here.

Skip the storytelling. Yes, your friends might feel a little awkward around you at first. If they’re real friends, though, this isn’t because they don’t love you or want you around -- it’s because they know you’re hurting, want you to feel better and don’t quite know how best to help you.

One way to let people love you is by telling them how to help.

I’m trying to [get a result], and need an accountability partner. Do you know someone?

Can I talk to you about [topic or problem]?

I’d feel most comfortable if we didn’t talk about [issue] today. Instead, can we talk about ____?

You’re Never Alone

If you made it all the way to this point, some next actions.

If you’re in a situation like the one above, what I’d like for you to do next is to make that call for support to someone you love and trust. If you don’t have someone, contact me.

If you’re not in a situation like the one above, one of your friends might be. If you sense that someone you care about has something bothering them, help them feel safe -- a gentle touch on the shoulder or a kind, sympathetic expression goes a long way.

Once, in the dark days, a friend asked me how I was doing and what I was up to. I gave a lame reply like “Fine, busy as usual,” or “Good, you know, can’t complain.”

She said four magical words: What’s really going on?

That simple question let me know she actually wanted to know how I was doing. So I opened up to her, and had an enriching, beautiful conversation as a result.

This year, alongside your presents, parties and family time, I’d like you to consider giving a different gift -- emotional safety, and a listening ear -- to someone you care about. You never know what silent battles they think they’re fighting alone.