• Renata and her father, Aldo Gortan. Photo by Chris Pavlich Photography. (Supplied, Chris Pavlich Photography)Source: Supplied, Chris Pavlich Photography
His grave was a physical manifestation of my pain, but I didn’t realise it until I went.
By
Renata Gortan

7 Sep 2020 - 10:24 AM  UPDATED 28 Apr 2021 - 2:41 PM

I refused to visit my father’s grave after his funeral.

For nearly 18 months, I railed against the expectations of my Italian family where paying your respects to the dead is seen as a vital part of the culture. What would people think? My duty as his daughter, my love for him and my grief was questioned because of a pilgrimage I wouldn’t participate in.

I didn’t see the point of it, it wasn’t as if I could see him, talk to him, hug him. I believed that there was nothing for me there inside that cold marble crypt, but that wasn’t true.

His grave was a physical manifestation of my pain, but I didn’t realise it until I went.

His grave was a physical manifestation of my pain, but I didn’t realise it until I went.

I kidded myself into thinking I had processed my grief. I could finally talk about him fondly and share amusing anecdotes rather than tearing up, so I figured I'd put down some flowers and say hello to a wall, but I didn’t count on the ferocity of my grief.

I was already sobbing as my car pulled up outside a new complex of crypts that I had only seen once before.

He was really gone. I would never get another phone call describing the state of his vegetable garden, another dad date where we’d watch an action movie then go out to dinner, another bear hug that literally lifted me off my feet and made me feel so, so loved.

By the time I was standing in front of his crypt, I was doubled over.

By the time I was standing in front of his crypt, I was doubled over.

This wasn’t just ugly cry-face, it was a full-body experience. You see it in toddlers as they’re about to have a tantrum, the kind of cry that starts in the pit of their stomach and causes them to stop breathing for one second, two seconds, three seconds before that tiny little body unleashes an unholy sound you’d never dreamed possible. Unlike adults, children haven’t learnt to feel ashamed of their feelings, so they let it all out, selfishly and un-selfconsciously.

I was self-conscious at his funeral. I had to deliver the eulogy, thank the guests for coming and host the wake. I had responsibilities. I had to keep it together.

Nobody wanted to see me lose it, least of all me. We don’t know how to do grieve. We attend funerals, silent and sombre, a hand on the arm to comfort someone as tears slide down their face but we don’t know how to sit in the rawness of their pain. The space where tears aren’t enough, when only screams and cries and wails can express the depth of our sorrow, is ugly and uncomfortable and embarrassing for those who witness it and those who feel it.

This time, there was no one else’s feelings to worry about. It was just me and him. Never mind that I was in my mid-30’s, I was just the kid that missed her dad. Does it ever matter how old you are when you lose a parent?

I didn’t just cry, I howled. A deep, dark, guttural sound synonymous with death. You instinctively know it as soon as you hear it, nothing else could cause such pain. It was loud and echoed among the walls of the other newly erected crypts, some with blank marble faces that have been bought in preparation and others carved with the names of loved ones that are just as sorely missed.

I didn’t just cry, I howled. A deep, dark, guttural sound synonymous with death.

I didn't care who could hear but there was no one there to intrude on my grief. It was 2pm on a Monday and it had hit 35C in Western Sydney, so maybe I subconsciously chose a day that I wouldn't be interrupted, that I wouldn’t have to censor myself.

The emotions that I tried to push down had finally spilled over and I was powerless to do anything except let them flow.

There is power in losing it. A catharsis in wearing your messy, confronting, heart wrenching pain as plainly and openly as the black garments at funerals so the grief doesn’t gnaw at you.

Sitting down in front of my dad's grave and tucking flowers into the rosary beads surrounding a candle holder, I finally understood the purpose of a grave site. It's not for them, it's for us. This intimate gesture is the closest I'm ever going to get to giving him a hug.

And although my realisation brings on another wave of sobs, there's also a hint of a smile. Because my dad was a great hugger and even if he’s not here to lift me off my feet, I can bring him flowers to show him that he’s still loved.

Renata Gortan is a freelance writer.

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