My father died from complications of bowel cancer, and I held his hand as he took his final breath. Being there, as hard as it was to experience, was a gift to me, and he told me that it was also a gift to him. He endured some very real physical pain and also the spiritual anguish of ending a life he loved living. Two years have now passed since we said good-bye.
In the days leading up to his passing, my dad prepared us with lovingly chosen words and promises of eternal love. When the moment of death came, it was no surprise. Our shared grieving began many weeks before his death. Daddy participated in selecting the type of life celebration he wanted: his retirement home setting, inspirational music and spontaneous sharing. Friends and family from near and far were there to support us on the day of his Celebration of Life. Time passed and, in those initial weeks, I coped with my loss fairly well. I remember assuring others of this fact as I thanked them for their generous expressions of care and concern.
I didn’t know then what I acknowledge now. Grief is never over though its intensity varies over time. And, as is true for many people, the greatest intensity of my sadness and despair was not at, or even near, the moment of my father’s death. It hit me full-force weeks later. Whoosh! Like an unexpected tsunami washing over me, wrecking my composure and seemingly my sanity, I felt violently torn apart. One part, my beloved “Daddy” part, seemed to be dying all over again. Time had not healed; it had exposed my Inner Child and peeled away all layers of protection from the certainty of my loss.
“You’re really gone, Daddy! I can’t call you to talk and listen to your funny stories and… and… How can anyone ever take your place? No one ever can!” Each realization of the meaning of his loss washed over me anew. Slowly, I began to accept (at the heart level) what I already knew (at the head level), and I didn’t like it one bit. My desperate childlike wish was to have what I had always had present in my life: my daddy.
No matter what age we may be, the part of us that grieves a loss may behave like a child who cannot be satisfied with reason. I was that child. I ranted for a while. Then I cried for a lot longer. I still cry sometimes. And a new vantage point emerged as I imploded emotionally: a place of deepening compassion. I was learning about love and loss–mine and others’, about grief and the passing of time.
Grief changes you irrevocably. You are still here while your loved one is gone. It often hurts when you least expect it and in ways that you cannot control. Grief is the richness of love in you that isn’t ready to say good-bye. How can your heart bear that love? How can you feel, simultaneously, all the joy and the sorrow of the relationship that has now changed forever? These are the questions I wrestled to the ground as I struggled to have an open connection to my dad’s promise of eternal love.
One answer came to me through the wash of tears: Daddy was a goal-setter. He’d found a wonderful secret to feeling great on a daily basis in his retirement years. He set small goals and achieved them. He did this with his memoir writing, social life, daily physical activity and recovery from various setbacks as he neared the end of life. His living memory helped me when I needed it most.
Time mattered to my dad, and he made it matter more by setting and reaching meaningful milestones. In the midst of my grief I remembered that lesson: to make time matter. I’ve been doing so in new and purposeful ways ever since.
I invite you to do the same. How can you move forward while feeling your sorrow? You can write about your experience. You can talk to others about the challenges you face. You can accept unconditionally what other grieving family members are ready to share with you, reflecting the love and the memory of your lost parent. You can let others know that what you feel is normal and natural. You can let them know what you need and when you need it. You can get help, a true sign of strength. You can give and get peer support, sharing with others who’ve lost a dear loved one. What other ways can you add to these?
“For love is stronger than the grave,
many waters cannot quench love,
neither can the floods drown it.
For love is stronger than death.”
~ The Song of Songs, attributed to Solomon
Death isn’t the end for the grieving, because it isn’t the end of the love you have for that person. It is a beginning and, when you feel ready, a good time to reflect on your own meaningful goals. How will you make time matter? Your choices can make all the difference to you and to others.
Blessings and Peace,