I lost my father when I was 8 or 15 depending on how you look at it. When I was about 8 he had to have a surgery to repair his heart. My parents were told that without his surgery he didn’t have long to live. Because the medical field was still relatively young at that point, and heart knowledge in its infancy, he had at best 50% odds of making it through the surgery. He survived the operation, but not without some profound side effects. He had considerable paralysis on his left side which did improve somewhat in time. He also could not speak clearly for a bit, and suffered some brain damage. But more than anything, he lost his will and his fight along with his independence.
Although he had only been able to work part time since his health declined in the few years leading up to the surgery, afterwards he could not work at all. Nor could he drive. He was sentenced to a life of sitting around existing on TV, smoking his forbidden pipe and eating. He really ceased to be a person, much less a father. And he remained that way until his death. Ironically, despite his past 15 year battle with heart problems, his only heart attack took his life instantly.
I would say I know loss. I have said I know loss. But the reality is I do not. I know my loss. Or more clearly, I know that I grew up feeling something was not there, but having not really known what that something was, given my father was ill for virtually all of my childhood, I have really only imagined what I thought it was supposed to be and missed that.
For reasons, I am not wise enough to understand, these past few months I have been deluged with stories from people about their loss. There are adults who lose their aged parents; friends who lose their peers and most significant in numbers and magnitude, parents who have lost children. They come to me in hopes of finding some way of understanding what is occurring for them. I can give them none. But what I try to give them is some way of finding their way to at least a moment or two of peace as they try to build a life that now has a void. An unfathomable void.
We all know that death is inevitable. From the moment we take our first breath we are set on the path towards death. And in all the time in between, most of us live in ways focused to prevent it, deny it, ignore it and for some the magical belief in transcending it. We have a lot of help from our environment to support these notions: anti-aging creams, miracle life- saving medical interventions and slogans like 50 is the new 40. We needn’t even get older, much less die.
Our psychological resistance is an attempt to keep the unpleasant at bay and insulate us from discomfort. Count me among the masses who don’t want to feel pain. But I am increasingly aware of the saying “That which we resist, persists”.
The people who come to me to speak about their loss have not been resisting death. It is thrust upon them like a thief in the night robbing them of their most prized possessions. In the cases I’ve heard, despite the tremendous burden of guilt these parents bear, no one could have, should have, would have done anything differently to prevent such loss. If there is resistance, it is only in the form of trying to find meaning in why the tragedy has occurred. In the end the only answer I can find is simply “Because it has”. It is part of the human experience to die. And while most of us envision some sort of life plan for ourselves and those we love where, we live to 110 and die quietly and painlessly in our sleep after a beautiful celebration, that rarely occurs. Children die at 1 day, 10 years, 20 years. People die in harsh circumstances and illness. Sometimes they die while doing everyday ordinary ways. And when they do, it is painful for those of us left behind to feel their absence.
My father’s body died when I was 15. I was about 35 when I finally said goodbye not only to him, but to the fantasized version of him I carried around in my head for which I longed. Grief is personal and everyone has a right to choose their own method and timing of expression. It is also part of our human experience as natural as eye color and the need to breathe. Resisting it will not delay it or protect us, but perhaps embracing it for some value that it brings might allow us that moment of peace, for which we search.
The best teacher we have about the value of life, is in fact, death. It is death that sets boundaries, helps us to prioritize how to use our time, and most of all provides us with incentive for what to value most in our life. It is an awareness of death that motivates us to tell the people we love what we want them to know and to not become bogged down in people, places and things that we can’t take with us. When we ignore our grief but focusing instead on the why loss happens, and the push to prevent such, we step out of the current moment of loving what we have right now. When we think about what we lost from a person’s absence we are choosing not to think about all they have given us prior to their absence and how that has prepared us to live now.
These are in no way intended to be simple commands of advice. My father’s death immobilized me emotionally for so many years because I tried to insulate myself with trying to understand it rather than experience the grief for what it was. Perhaps loss of a different type might do that to me again, but I hope not. What I do know is that death and its resulting grief are not thing to be afraid of, and that because they are part of the human experience, they are teachers, rather than events meant to punish us. And if they are teachers, then we are students who must be willing to learn.
We cannot learn if we cannot talk about our loss. If you know someone who has experienced a loss, whether it is a child, their cat, or a relationship, reach out. Let them speak. Make an effort to refrain from using your own fear to keep the subject far away from you. Perhaps if you let them learn, they in turn will become better teachers for you.