Liba’s Story: Living & Healing Through Grief
Written By Liba Lurie in The Layers Writing Workshops.
Photos by Shira Lankin Sheps
(1/5) “When Will She Be Home?”
It had been months since I had heard from my father.
It’s Friday night, on May 28th, 1993. I’m 8 years old and it’s 8pm, which means only one thing: I’m perched in my self-designated spot in front of the television for the long-awaited weekly primetime lineup.
I spend a lot of time in front of the TV. From the moment I come home until the minute I take myself off to bed, I’m rooted in front of that luminescent box and all is well in the world. TV is my companion, my teacher, and my best distraction. The TV is the most stable presence in my life.
I’m in third grade at a private Jewish school and while most of my privileged classmates hop into carpools that chauffeur them the short distance home to a nanny, a hearty meal, and a mom, I board a public transit bus with my two older sisters (at the time, they are only 9 and 11 years old). Rain, hail, or shine, we travel an hour by bus and walk another ten minutes home until we can finally spill into our empty house and disperse. I make a beeline for the television where I sit glued for hours accompanied with whatever I can scavenge from the unpredictable cupboards.
On that night, as I make a dash to the bathroom during the commercial breaks, I see that, for the first time ever, my mother has closed the makeshift wooden doors to the kitchen. On the other side of the thin barrier, my mother is sitting at the kitchen table, deep in conversation with two police officers.
Just a few hours earlier, well before my mom arrives home from work, the doorbell rings and I am roused from my cozy spot in front of the TV. I leap up the stairs and call out, “Who is it?”
I can clearly see two cops standing outside my front entrance through the peephole. Suddenly a wave of fear runs through my body and my mind begins to race. In just a split second I consider all the possibilities that would bring the police to my door. Did I do something wrong?
I slowly open the door. The police officer asks if my mother is home. There it is, they busted me. There were no adults around, and if something was wrong, it had to have been my fault.
I brace myself to be reprimanded, “When will she be home?”
“Six,” I spit out.
I can’t tell if I’m safe or in danger. “We’ll come back later,” they say. The door closes and I hurry off back down the steps and I dissociate in front of the TV until I hear those voices with my mother in the kitchen later that night.
I was surprised that the policemen came back. I’m not used to men coming back.
When the doors to the kitchen finally open, my mother steps into the hallway and calls out the usual summons “girls!” to round us up. I hesitate at first, considering what I might miss on TV and, truth be told, feeling heavy with an odd sense of unease. Curiosity and the will to please get the better of me and I mechanically bolt up the steps once again. Just before reaching the top of the steps, I trip. As my hands make contact with the carpeted floor, a thought blows through my mind like a sudden gust of wind and I know what’s about to happen.
“It’s Daddy,” a voice in my head says. “He’s either dead or in jail,” and at that moment, I don’t understand either.
My father is the proverbial tall, dark, and handsome type. He is sharp as a tack and his charisma lights up a room. He’s a mechanical engineer. I’ve seen him hotwire a car (this one he owned). He served as a medic in the Russian army and saved his comrade from certain death when a Czech bullet struck him in the neck on the battlefield. My dad fled the USSR alone and immigrated to Canada at the age of 26. He is a lover of music, vodka, and a good adventure. (I’m pretty sure he loves me too, but sometimes it’s hard to tell).
When I’m five years old my parents get divorced. My dad moves out of our family home and into the makeshift apartment above his machine repair shop where the air smells like engine oil and tastes like metal. A young blonde appears on the scene and before long they move to an apartment in midtown and just as quickly, they’re living in a townhouse in a brand new development north of the city. My father is constantly on the move, but wherever he goes, I follow, until I can’t.
I’m seven years old when my dad casually announces that he’s “going away” (a well-worn euphemism for flying abroad) and he’ll be back next month. The long reign of Communism has ended and business owners in the former Soviet Union finally have some freedom. As a native Russian speaker, my dad boards a plane to Europe in the hopes of cashing in on a seemingly lucrative opportunity. All I know at the time is that our weekly visits are being put on pause and the waiting game advances. The rules of the game: I suffer missing him in silence hoping to be rewarded with the pleasure of a reunion. It used to be that I waited for my dad to get home from work or a business trip, then I waited for my dad to pick me up for our weekly visitations. The separation is always painful, but I had hope that he would return. This time there was no return date.
In the 90s long-distance phone calls are as brief as they are costly. That is why, I’m told, my father only phones at random, once a month, and our conversations are so short. Every time we speak, I ask him when he’s coming home, excited by the thought of his return. Just another month, he tells me. Another month passes, and with it a phone call and a delayed promise.
On the 4th of July 1992, I turn eight and it has been months since my father’s departure. I have mixed feelings about my birthday in general, but this year the conflict is overshadowed by sheer excitement. Today my father will call and the constant sadness I feel in his absence will be momentarily lifted. The call will be short, but for just a few minutes I will be the only person in his mind and my birthday wish will be granted. He doesn’t call. Another small scar on my broken heart.
Days later the phone rings. It’s my father and my ambivalence rages.
I sit on the edge of the bed and reluctantly take the phone receiver to my ear. With my head bowed I timidly whisper “hello,” and I hear my father’s voice on the other end. I want to pause in this fleeting moment. I long for him so deeply, but I am so angry. “I hate you,” I want to yell; I want to cry, I want to slam a door in his face. I have so much I want to say, but the only words that come to my tongue are “why didn’t you call me on my birthday?”
“Of course, I called you…” he quips back aggressively, too proud to admit his mistake.
I think maybe I’ve gotten it all wrong, but then again, if he had called I wouldn’t feel so hurt.
No, I’m sure of it and for once I’m sure of myself. He gets angry at me and my last memory is of the sound of his deep voice scolding my protest and the faint snap of the last thread.
It’s now almost ten months since that conversation but the wound remains fresh and untouched. I’m waiting for my dad’s return to reassure me of his love and commitment to me.
The policemen are gone now. I’m back in my kitchen and my sisters are there, too. It’s late and this is strange. My mother never gathers us as a family to bring order or awareness. It’s kinda nice I think, but experience has also taught me to believe that pleasure doesn’t come without pain, so when my mother reluctantly, but clearly says, “Girls, your father died this morning”, I’m not surprised, but maybe it’s just the shock.
I’m not sure what to do now. There hasn’t been an episode on TV that has taught me how to understand this sudden ending.
And so I wait. I wait because I don’t know how else to stay connected to my father. I wait because I long for him to reassure me that I’m okay. And I wait because as long as I keep waiting, I don’t have to face a reality where he is dead and all hope for his return is lost.
I’m almost sure that this episode will end, the doors will swing open, my Dad will be standing on the other side and my need for a loving, attentive father will be satisfied once and for all.
My father returns in a casket and we bury his body and just as quickly I bury my grief. I instinctively know that there is no vacancy in the hearts or minds of my caregivers for my loss, so I continue to hide my anger and sadness behind a facade of strength and confidence. I so desperately want to feel loved and valued, but every opportunity for connection is laden with the threat of inevitable loss. Denial is my refuge.
Nobody knows it, least of all me, but I spend decades stranded in a raging sea of unprocessed abandonment. Every new connection brings with it the hope for security coupled with the fear of inevitable loss. I ride the waves for over a decade, until my first child is born, and suddenly, I become the parent.
“I didn’t know how to be the parent I wanted to be.
When I considered how to show up in the relationships that mean the most to me, the task is clear: I needed to pick up the pieces of myself that were broken by abandonment and restore a sense of safety and satisfaction to my relationships.
In the early days of motherhood, I kept my emotional wounds guarded behind my trusted wall of denial. I told myself “I’m fine,” and that seemed to suit those around me. I was admired for my strength, but the approval of others didn’t change the way I saw myself.
I felt that I was absent in my relationships with my kids, even though I rarely left their side. I was in the room, but I was not really emotionally there.
I felt overwhelmed by the demands of feeding my kids, because I was reminded that, for the most part, I was left to feed myself.
At bedtime, I felt anxious and confused. When I was a child, I never had anyone stay consistently by my side, or leave me with a sense of their return. As a young parent I was constantly asking myself, “should I stay, or should I go,” feeling eaten up by the weight of guilt.
Terrified that my kids would feel abandoned, I rarely left them in the care of others, leaving me bereft of much-needed time to nourish and heal myself.
I was a good mother, but I could only grasp at the joy of connection. I was still stuck in the past; every day trying to survive crippling feelings of abandonment and grief.
I decided to go for my Masters in Psychology because though I didn’t know how to help myself, I wanted to help other people.
One morning I woke up and realized I was living in survival mode and I couldn’t find my way out on my own. So I finally asked for help.”
“My struggles in my relationship with myself only became clear in my training as a therapist.
I reluctantly turned to my supervisor. My first lesson was how hard it was for me to get help.
I was seeking guidance on how to help others and uncovered the tools and internal resources I needed to help myself.
My therapeutic process was not quick, but it transformed the way I related to myself and, as a result, the relationships I was able to build with my kids, my partner, and my clients.
At first, I was terrified of what I would discover. She helped me recognize my fear of abandonment, and for the first time, my distress was seen and validated.
My fear is real and I learned that it is also tolerable. I can feel my fear and still know that I’m not actually being left behind.
In my process, I wrestled with my anger. Instead of running from it like a ticking time bomb, I allowed myself to experience rage and betrayal.
I discovered that my unprocessed anger was keeping me stuck. I wanted to create close intimate connections with others, but my anger kept people away. In a state of anger, I didn’t know how frightened I was of connection. I started to acknowledge the anger that I had to hide away in order to protect myself and others.
So I let myself feel.
I cried. I released swollen, heavy tears that had been fermenting for decades. My supervisor sat in silence and stood as a witness to cries so deep and painful, they didn’t even make a sound. Over time, and with practice, I learned to feel more comfortable with my sadness, to hold it, and the sadness of others, without being washed away by it.
I learned to laugh again. I resurrected the little girl who had to sacrifice her play for the sake of survival and I remembered how to have fun again.
Piece by piece, I repaired my relationship with myself. I reembraced my value and worth, despite it being ignored for so long. I learned the mechanics of relationships and started to build meaningful and lasting connections, first and foremost with myself.
Today, my work to move out of survival mode and into a life I enjoy, with and without my kids continues. It is safe to just be with my kids, and it’s safe to leave them. I remind myself that in our relationship there is trust and dependability. I have every intention of coming back and they know it.
I strive to accept the unfortunate and inevitable losses that life entails without feeling overcome with grief. Instead I endeavor to take pause to see the beauty and experience the pleasure in the little moments of life and connection.
Instead of withdrawing from relationships, or acting out in rage when strong emotions arise, I am striving to recognize and make space for the emotional ups and downs of my day-to-day life.
I am learning to trust and support myself, as much as I am learning to count on others.
Despite my impulse to hide, I am exercising my ability to let myself know when I’m struggling and share my vulnerability with others. I ask for help and let myself be held in my relationships. I have friends and a partner who I can count on.
Even though it might feel that way sometimes, I know that I am not alone.
It is safe to want and need support.
I can take joy in the pleasure of connecting with others.
It is okay to be me.”
Liba is a Psychologist and mom of four kids. In her group program and private practice, Liba has helped 100’s of moms own the struggle and become the parents they want to be. You can learn more about Liba on her website www.libalurie.com and
follow her on IG @liba_lurie