The site’s been down again. As far as I can tell it didn’t stay up for very long on Saturday, but by 8 PM last Saturday, my DSL connection was the least of my concerns.
I got the phone call nobody ever wants to get. My girlfriend’s father was in the hospital and wasn’t expected to live.
They patched him together long enough for his closest relatives to get there, but Jerry died at 12:45 Sunday morning.I’ve been there, done that before. Today just so happens to mark 10 years since my own father’s sudden death.
The rest of what I write may not make a lot of sense, but I hope it will be helpful.
If there is anything worse than losing the closest of your relatives, I don’t know what it is. By “closest of your relatives” I mean your mother, your father, a child, or a brother or sister, or your spouse.
As my girlfriend and I drove to the nearest polling place last night to cast provisional ballots, she observed that it was like the aftermath of a breakup: Everywhere she looked, she saw things that reminded her of her dad.
That’s true. In fact, when describing dealing with a death to others who’ve never lost someone that close, I’ve compared it to a breakup. But, as I compare a death with the last breakup I had–which messed me up pretty badly, and I’ve got the therapy bills to prove it–I see two differences. Maybe three.
Difference one: It’s a lot easier for something good to come of a breakup than from a death, from your selfish perspective. It takes some time and effort, but it is possible to convince yourself that with a world population of 12 billion, your chances of finding something better than that b-word who dumped you (or who you just dumped) are pretty good.
But with death, those things that annoy you about that person start to matter a lot less to you. There was only one Jerry. Just like there was only one Ralph (my dad). To her, Jerry will always be the best dad there ever was, faults and all. Just like to me, my dad will always be the best dad there ever was. The best doctor there ever was, too. I will go to my grave believing that my dad could have saved Jerry. The fact that my dad actually was very highly qualified to treat Jerry is a technicality. I would probably still believe Dad could have saved Jerry even if Dad had been a dermatologist.
Difference two: Usually there is some choice involved with breakups. A couple of days, or maybe a week before my last messy breakup, I told a number of people that I needed to break up with her. When the time for the breakup conversation came, I had a list of conditions I wanted to present in order for the relationship to continue. As it turned out, I didn’t present that list because she broke up with me first.
Death is different. When that person’s time comes, there is no room for bargaining. Jerry was a classic example of that. When Jerry died, he had nothing left. There were at least three things that were racing to kill him. What had worked against the North Vietnamese and what had worked against his wounds and physical handicap and what had worked against his cancer didn’t matter anymore. Jerry was fighting to the end though. As he died, I looked down at his hands. They were clenched into a fist.
Difference 3: Death is permanent. With a breakup, there’s always hope, however remote, that it can be worked out and things can be every bit as good as they ever were, or maybe better. Or, to again overuse the example of my last relationship, if it can’t be worked out, you can go find someone a whole lot better who’ll make you forget about that old b-word.
Death doesn’t offer that.
So, since one’s previous experience with the end of a romantic relationship only inadequately prepares one to deal with death, how does one deal with it?
I have some ideas.
Grieve. I can’t tell you how to grieve. I asked a lot of people once how. They said, “Grieve.” Thanks a bunch. I once paid $1,400 for that answer. Hopefully you’re paying a lot less than that for the ability to read this. I’ll see if I can do better than that answer. Don’t stuff your emotions. Let them out. If they don’t come out in tears and screams and other stuff like that, they’re going to come out in other harmful and self-defeating ways that will poison your relationships and the rest of your life. So whatever it is that your body wants to do when you think about that person, let it, and the sooner the better. If a week has passed and you haven’t cried once, or maybe only once, you’ve got a world of hurt ahead of you. I know because I’ve been there. This is no time to be macho.
Take care of unfinished business. One of the things the Methodist minister who performed Jerry’s ceremony stressed the most was to bury the things about him that weren’t all they could be with him. Carry the good with you everywhere, but bury that bad stuff. I know for me, one of the things that finally helped was to role-play, so I could finally say those things I wanted to say to my dad but never got the chance.
Remember. Talking about the person helps. Tell those stories, and you might even want to go so far as to write them down. One of the reasons I got into genealogy was to preserve the memory of my dad and what made him the way he was. I only know the basics about his grandparents, but it’s something.
Find the things you both enjoyed and continue to enjoy them. Probably my best childhood memory of my dad and me was setting up and playing with his Lionel electric trains. My dad wasn’t a railroad buff in the traditional sense and I’m not either, but those trains were something we enjoyed together in 1986, and that’s the main reason they’re something I enjoy now. You’ll find things like that too. You’ll find some of them right away. Others will take years. That’s OK.
Honor. This is the one place where I’ll get Biblical. In Genesis, God said (I’m paraphrasing), “Honor your father and mother, so that it may go well with you and you will live a long time on the earth.” We all have our own ways of honoring our loved ones, but one of the best ways is to take that person’s qualities and not only emulate them–that is, make them our qualities as well–but to pass them on.
Take care of yourself. In some cases, it will be clear that some of the person’s personal habits contributed to an early death. I don’t think I need to say that smoking provides zero benefit and does a lot of harm to your body. The same goes for drinking excessively. And it’s very clear that some aspects of diet cause things like heart attacks and cancer. Some families are very prone to these things anyway, but while we can’t control our genetics, we can control our diet. So eat healthier than your departed loved one did, and the next time you see your doctor, mention what you know of your family’s medical history so that your doctor has some clue what to be watching for.
Learn from your loved one’s mistakes. I’ve already mentioned things like diet, drinking and smoking, but most people made other mistakes in life too. If you think about it, you’ll see what that person’s other mistakes were. Don’t copy those mistakes. Make your own. (You’ll have to work at that first part. You won’t have to work at the second.)