Over a span of four days this month, two strong, amazing women I know lost their fathers. These two dynamos have been in my life forever, and almost forever, respectively. I love them utterly and am gutted to think of the pain they are in, having to now live in a world without their fathers at 40 and 38.
Though the fathers differed greatly in age, stage and demeanor, these men were both lost suddenly. In an instant. One after being lost, found, now lost again too young; the other after living a very long life as a fixture in the lives of his family. Both will live on in the spirits of their daughters (and son) and grandchildren forever, but the tangibility of their physical presence, the promises of “see you later!” have gone with the wind.
I have been thinking of these losses so much this week and am really beginning to understand that I simply cannot begin to understand. The loss of a loved one is individual and can’t be compared to anyone else’s experience with loss. So how then to offer comfort?
When looking on the website of the funeral home where my cousin’s father was laid to rest, I was genuinely surprised and very happy to see a page outlining tips on how to behave when attending a wake or funeral and when offering condolences to the bereaved. Some were obvious: send flowers, deliver food, dress nicely and introduce yourself to the whole family. Other tips were a little unexpected, namely the one suggesting you never take a selfie during a wake or funeral. Whattt??
But really, aren’t we all a little awkward when faced with death or an illness which reminds us of the inevitability of our own departure? It is difficult know how to offer comfort when there is no changing the absolute reality of the recent loss. Words can’t change anything, though we recognize that our presence is the most precious thing we have to offer. A phone call, a hug, a shared memory.
While I was pondering this post I was half watching “A Series of Unfortunate Events” on Netflix with my son when Claus Beaudelaire spat out this Proust quote: “Happiness is beneficial for the body, but it is grief that develops the powers of the mind.” That would truly be cold comfort at the present moment, but I remind myself to ask at a later date.
Though a loss is always a loss, death can also give us many gifts. We come away from whatever ritual or ceremony the family observes reminded of our mortality; that life and time are but fleeting gifts to be cherished. We emerge from the shadow of death with a renewed sense of LIFE.
My own husband lost his father at the age of 14. Even though we have discussed the experience, I really cannot imagine a child processing a loss of that magnitude. Children do it all the time, but it seems unfathomable. I can only imagine the things he didn’t learn, the memories he was robbed of. It’s hard to think about what the gifts might be; how the powers of the mind were “developed.”
At the age of 25, I lost my maternal grandfather. Because my parents separated for good just shy of my tenth birthday, we moved from Alberta to Ontario. I spent that summer with my grandparents. After a few months living in Toronto, we landed in Gananoque for good, staying with my grandparents once again for close to two years. It was in this manner that my Poppa Barrie became like a second father to me. In fact, at the end of his life we were literal neighbours, separated by one town block. When we lost him too soon at the age of 68, I mourned hard. Though I still have my own Dad who I love dearly and have the opportunity to see and speak to fairly frequently considering our distance, I missed my Poppa’s regular presence in my life terribly. I missed having coffee with him while my Nana bowled (these were our “dates”), I missed hugging his big body while he laughed and told me to “give over.” I even missed our arguments and his constant teasing about my hair. Even though I have lost many people in my life, this one affected me more profoundly than any other. He was just so present in my life. He stayed with me for a long time after his death. I still hear his voice once in awhile and he visits me in my dreams when I need a little strength. And it’s been 13 years. And I’m crying as I write this.
I recently had a conversation with a client, a man around age 60 (the age of my cousin’s father at the time of his death) who somehow got around to talking about the passing of his own dad. He expressed his gratitude for having been with his father at the time of his death. He told me that after his father died he stroked his hair. (At the time of this conversation, I was cutting his hair). He said he never remembered touching his dad’s hair before and was amazed at how soft it was. He explained that though they were close, his father was a strong, shake your hand kind of dad. He told me that as a father, there is never a greeting or a goodbye with his own grown son that does not include an embrace. If that is not a life lesson, I don’t know what is.
When we have lost, we think about what our loved ones have left behind. For good, bad or otherwise, they leave their mark on the world. For some, it is their remembered words, turns of phrase, their ability to embrace change and to have fun. To forgive. For others, like my friend’s father, it is much more physical. As well as having been a wonderful husband, father, grandfather and friend to many, Charlie left in his wake a legacy of boats and shared expertise. Skiffs and wooden motor boats that were built by his hand or those of his employees and students are still enjoyed by many. These boats remain, bearing his name, spanning a career that stretched longer than a lifetime for many.
Maybe this is the lesson: immortality lies in the love that we share, passed down in our emotional DNA as much as in our family albums. That our mind develops as we come to understand the gifts and lessons left behind by those we have loved and lost. This is an incredible thing. I often wonder what I will leave behind for my son when it is time to take my final journey. I hope it is the feeling of being loved fully and unconditionally, the joy of being silly, the art of embracing mistakes and getting the hell over them, the knowledge of kindness and it’s importance and maybe a few of my songs.
Until I ramble next time,