Today is the 21st anniversary of my dad’s death. I wasn’t going to write anything, so many of my friends have suffered their own huge losses and mine isn’t any worse. We’re all going through our own stuff.I won’t lie, I still feel anger about his death. And I’m especially angry that he left us so young. I’m only a couple years shy of the age that he was when he passed away and everything in my own life feels unfinished. It seems so unfair that he had to endure all the work and the hard of raising five kids through their early years without all of the rewards. He missed the high school and college graduations, the weddings, the grand babies, the career accomplishments. There are times when we are all together as a family and enjoying each other’s company and I find myself fading out of the scene and wanting him to be there with us so much that it physically hurts.
But instead of sharing more anger and heartache, I’m going to share some of the things his death has reinforced to me over the years:
1. Always say I love you. I never get off the phone with my family without saying I love you. This isn’t something we did before my dad died. You just never know the last time you’ll see or talk to your people.
2. Take all the pictures, save all the notes. I have so few photos of my dad and I together since his life happened pre-iPhone and pre-social media. And the only handwritten note I have from him was one he wrote in college to tell me I had overdrawn my bank account and to do better. But man, I sure cherish that note . I try and take photos with all my people, even if I’m not in the mood. I’ve noticed as I’ve aged that my photos tend to look better to me in the future. Like if I feel like I look frumpy in a photo - give it a good 5-7 years and then I’ll usually think I look pretty good .
3. Stay close to your siblings, they are your best friends. I will never understand how the same two parents created five such completely different humans, but we’ve all worked to stay close over the years on a foundation of shared grief and trauma. This doesn’t mean we never fight (oh…we do!) but we’re quick to apologize and repair bad feelings.
4. Grief comes in waves, just let them hit you. When my dad died, I figured the grief would last about a year and then I would be done. I will let you in on a secret if you haven’t figured it out yet: The Five Stages of Grief is a complete hoax! I remember thinking often, “if I can get through this first year....” But 21 years and counting, the waves keep hitting, and usually at the most random times. Like the other day I was shopping at Fred Meyer and I passed the men’s sock section and I got all teary-eyed because every year my dad would wake up at the crack of dawn on Black Friday and go buy us all our athletic socks for the year. Surrounded by bins full of white athletic socks, I bawled until the grief slowly passed and soon I just felt thankful that I had a dad who cared about keeping his family in socks.
5. Write the will. For someone who died in their forties and completely unexpectedly, my dad did a great job of “having his affairs in order” and it was such a gift to our family. There were so many more important things to worry about.
6. Love your kids and leave them alone. This one is a work-in-progress. My dad and I clashed a lot, especially during my teen years, and it created a pile of regret when he passed away. My natural way to “love” is to control the situations and people around me and I have to fight that instinct with everything in me. The past year of pandemic life has reinforced this — there was so little I could control, the only thing I could do was love my kids, and be there for the highs and crushing lows of life in lockdown. Loving them and leaving them to their own mistakes and accomplishments has been my lesson of the year.
So, in summary: love your people, save the good stuff, write the will.