My family recently experienced a tragedy when my sister's husband passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. We lost our father suddenly as well - he died of a heart attack - and so my sister asked me to speak at the memorial service about what it was like to lose a parent, hoping it would bring meaning and comfort to her four children.
I would never have considered sharing my words on the blog until my sister called to tell me how much of an impact my reflections had on people at the service; she'd gotten so much feedback from friends and family and coworkers saying how beautiful and eloquent it was, and how touched and moved they were by my words. Several people had asked for copies and so my sister requested my permission to share it.
She said to me, "I think you have things to say that need to be heard, and you have a way of doing it that brings people a place of grace and humility and a wanting to receive it. Because it is truth, what you're sharing, but it's given with such love." And so it is.
We share more than our Gyovai heritage, now. I was almost 11, just about M’s age, when my dad – our dad – died.
I know many of us here have had a friend or a family member experience something painful, something tragic, and all we can say to them is, “I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine what you must be going through.” To you, M, and you, L, and you, R, and you, D, I can imagine what you are going through. And I am so very sorry.
In the 22 years since my dad died, I have come to understand that losing a parent – at any age, under any circumstance – is a terrible loss. It is one of the biggest markers in any person’s life, and it is a milestone through which we all must eventually pass.
But I have also realized that losing a parent so suddenly, so unexpectedly – when they are still so young, and you are still so young, too – is profoundly life changing in a way few people will ever truly understand.
As someone who does understand, I’d like to share with you two things. The first is a quote, the one I send as a signature on all my emails. By Emmanuel Teney, it says, “There are no guarantees. From the viewpoint of fear none are strong enough. From the viewpoint of love none are necessary.”
After losing my dad, this is something I know deep in my bones – that there are no guarantees. We can never know what tomorrow holds. But we get to make the choice: will we be afraid – of trust, of intimacy, of being hurt – or will we greet each day grateful for another chance to live and love with an open heart? Will we turn away for fear of risk or rejection, or will we act with the knowledge that each moment we have is sacred?
This choice is something many people will never even know they have. But now you know. You know in the way I know.
At times I think the Grace of God comes to us as “the Awful Grace.” This is one of those times. If there is a gift to be found within the heartbreaking loss of your father, may it be the wisdom to see and the courage to choose love in the absence of any guarantees: to live fully your one wild and precious life.
The second thing I would share with you is something a friend said to me only last week. We were talking about my dad and she said, “He may be gone but the relationship continues.” He may be gone but the relationship continues… I’m sure people have said that to me before – I know my mom has – but somehow I never really heard it until now. I wish I had, because it’s probably the most important thing to know about losing someone you love: they are never really gone.
After 2 decades I don’t think so much of the anniversaries anymore – my dad’s birthday, the day he died – as I remember him in the little moments… sunlight catching the dew in the early morning grass…a deer standing at the edge of a field…fresh vegetables from the garden, grown by my own hand… He was with me at my wedding and at the birth of my child, and he is with me when I look through a camera lens or meander through the woods.
And your dad is with you. He is a part of you. You are just beginning a new chapter of your relationship with him, a relationship that will go on for the rest of your life.
Keep pictures of him nearby. Keep asking your mom questions about who he was, and keep sharing stories of your times with him. Go to a basketball game with your girlfriend or your husband and tell them it was your dad’s favorite sport. Read the books he liked best and wonder what it was that made them so special. Take your children to a concert or teach them to play an instrument, and remind them of how much their grandpa loved music.
This is a real, living relationship – not one that is frozen in time. My dad wasn’t a perfect man, a perfect husband or a perfect father. It’s okay to be hurt by the things that were said – or unsaid; the things done – or undone. Your memory will not be tarnished or your love made any less. The more you come to know your dad as a nuanced and complicated person – as we all are – the richer and deeper your relationship with him will be.
And I would say to everyone here – the friends, teachers, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and to you, my sister – it is your job to honor this relationship. And not just honor it, but foster it. Too many times we are afraid to say a thing for fear of being hurtful. Too many times we assume vulnerability and therefore overprotect.
Yes, there will be times when it’s simply too painful to talk about. There will be moments when the wounds still feel too fresh. But do not make the mistake of assuming that means you should stop holding the door open. You may not always know the right thing to say or do. Just keep trying.
L and D, R and M, you will always carry your dad with you, and your relationship with him will continue to unfold over a lifetime. You, too, will come to learn many things as you reflect on what it means to be a son, or a daughter.