Caught in grief's riptide

CNN's Jessica Dunne lost her father, Michael P. Dunne, in March.

Story highlights

  • In March, CNN's Jessica Dunne lost her father very suddenly
  • The loss hit her in waves and threw her life off-course
  • She wants people to know who Michael P. Dunne was, to her and to the world
I don't think anyone is ready for grief. But when it hits you, it knocks you out cold. I was told that tears and the sorrow would come in waves. For me, it's been more like a riptide or a tornado, constantly circling around me, whipping me in the face. Sometimes it stabs; sometimes it punches; sometimes it drowns me.
My grieving process began in March, when I got a phone call from my mom while at work. She told me that my dad had suddenly stopped breathing and that I needed to get home to Louisiana as soon as possible. The seven-hour car ride felt like an eternity. As the optimist I am, I kept telling myself that my dad would pull out of it. But when I got to the hospital and saw the looks on my relatives' faces, I knew the situation was much worse than I thought.
My father had a major brain hemorrhage, the kind that you don't recover from. I sat by his side for roughly 48 hours, with my siblings and my mom, holding his hand until he took his last breath.
The loss didn't hit me until a few days after the funeral, when all the out-of-town relatives were gone and friends and neighbors made fewer "check-ins." My parents' home didn't feel like home anymore, just an empty space. Friends were just people who didn't understand what I was going through.
I had always been an incredibly social person and loved being surrounded by people. I always found a reason to smile; I always cracked jokes. But after my father's death, the world became a dark and scary place. I wanted to crawl into a dark corner and avoid everyone. This grief felt insurmountable and incredibly alienating. I went from planning a family vacation to planning a eulogy in a matter of days. It's the kind of whiplash that is emotionally and mentally paralyzing.
I attempted to manage my own grief while trying to be strong for my mom and my family. And to top it all off, I had to deal with some of the more practical matters. My mother and I had to close down his real estate appraisal business, and I had to explain to client after client that my dad had passed away, previously healthy, at the age of 64.
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The resounding response was always: "What? But we just talked to him a few days ago, and he sounded fine!" I would quickly hang up the phone before they could witness my imminent breakdown. Then there was the task of planning his memorial service. My mom, my siblings and I were all in a daze as we ironed out the details.
When I gave the tribute at his memorial service, I described him as the kind of guy who was "a mountain among pebbles." I needed everyone to know just how amazing he was. It's part of the reason why I am sharing this with you.
My dad, Michael P. Dunne, was a real estate appraiser with a penchant for perfectionism. He was a senior Olympic volleyball player, a former coach and an avid member of an Irish marching club in New Orleans. Friends would tell you he was the life of any party. His six siblings -- older and younger -- always called him for advice on everything from real estate to relationships. He and my mom were inseparable.
For me, he embodied everything good in the world. I remember when my first love dumped me in high school, he spent hours sitting with me in the middle of the night as I cried, constantly reminding me of the amazing woman I was. He baked a cake for his grandson -- my nephew Nikolas -- every year for his birthday. He wasn't even very good at baking, but he'd spend hours meticulously frosting his creation.
Now, more than six months later, those fond memories come often. I remember sitting on the porch in the days after he died, steeped in sorrow and angry at the world. Out of nowhere, I heard my neighbors play one of my dad's favorite songs, "Unchained Melody" by the Righteous Brothers. I went from crying to laughing as I recalled a fond memory. One day, he and I were in the car and it came on the radio. We both belted the ballad out at the top of our lungs.
Moments like that serve as reminders for me to live my life fully and with joy. My father lived a life full of love. And the best thing I can do to honor him is to try to do the same. Those little moments make me look at the world differently. Life is suddenly more precious, more beautiful.
So many things remind me of my dad. I see the love he had for me and my family in everything. Every time I eat an apple, I'm reminded of the time we went apple-picking in North Georgia. It was late in the season, and he was the only one of us tall enough to actually grab the fruit. When the New Orleans Saints play a game, I think about how he'd yell at the TV, a trait he definitely passed down to me.
I try to remind myself of how fortunate I am, to have had 27 years with this incredible man. I still have the support of my mom, and that's what keeps me going most days. She lost her husband of more than 30 years, her best friend, and yet somehow she finds the strength to be there for me daily. She and my father taught me everything I know about love and family, and she and I often lean on each other for support.
But I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a struggle every single day. The biggest relief from the pain has been surrounding myself with photos and mementos of joyful moments. I constantly try to remind myself of a phrase I uttered in the hospital as I saw our whole family surround him to say their last goodbyes: "so much love." My father had so much love for others, and everyone I know loved him back.
Some days, I still feel the blow, fresh as new. I still have my riptide moments, and some days there are tornadoes.
But mostly, there's just love. And that has to be good enough for now.