There’s no single way through sorrow. But Louise Thayer helps us clear a path—and lead others, too.
I lost my father when I was 16. I thought I’d start this column with a euphemism because we’re all so desperate to redefine death as anything other than something final. I mean I lost him in the sense that I came to realize I had no idea where he went after he died—I just knew that his body was not him. For a very long time I had no clue how to find him as anything other than a memory full of sadness and pain.
Friends of mine are going through the same trial right now. Today is the funeral. Tomorrow is not soon enough for healing and nor will the next weeks, months, or years necessarily take away the singular torture that is never being able to touch or see that person again.
I’ve been trying to think of any words to say to them, but for all the years they’ve been in my life, I didn’t know much about Ray. I believe he baked cakes for his granddaughter’s birthdays, and I remember seeing pictures of him smiling at the sight of small children shrieking with laughter as rain poured into the canopy they were all under. I know that his son makes my friend feel complete and that their daughter will remember her Bampy, but I also know their hearts must be so heavy that they and she didn’t have him for longer.
This is the void time that no words can fill. The truth is that nothing can fill it. Well-meaning sentiment, even when delivered by our most beloved, feels like an attempt to placate the primal rage, fear, and heart-searing pain that we’re experiencing even as we help those also grieving besides us.
Platitudes and cliches are a seemingly unavoidable and unwelcome intrusion to our own personal process. In this time and space, words feel redundant and burdensome.
When we are deep in grief, it’s impossible to answer questions about how we feel. Once they’re asked, we have to concern ourselves with the wellbeing of the intruder to our private suffering. We have to fake our responses to suit the enquirer’s own state of mind, or else we run the risk of offending or repelling them with our raw emotion.
Syrup-soaked comments are the worst because we’ve all been there (or we’ll all be there someday), and we realize that nothing can sweeten the bitterness of a father not being present to walk you down the aisle or live out his own dreams.
At first when you reach for the memory of that person who is no longer physically present, there’s only the aching chasm of knowing that they’re gone. You fill yourself with funeral arrangements and making rooms ready for out-of-town family, and you only scream in silence when you close the door of the bedroom at night. Or not. There’s no single way through sorrow. I don’t have any solid answers and I wouldn’t dream of offering them to my friends even if I thought that I did.
It took me over a decade to start to allow my father back into my life after he died. He had a massive heart attack on our 16th birthday. I say “our” because I’m a twin. The catastrophe of his loss was compounded by its timing in a way that I now believe was no coincidence. For years though I blamed myself because of course he wouldn’t have said anything on our birthday about how awful he must have been feeling. Now I prefer to think that he was feeling good, right up until he wasn’t.
He woke us as he did most mornings by walking down the stairs singing. I’d never heard “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen” before that day, and I can’t say that I care to hear it again, but it made me smile even as I somewhat unwillingly pulled the bedcovers off. I remember the way his head disappeared from view as he descended below the bannister railings.
I had only seen my dad cry once before, on hearing about his own mother’s death. He cried for a different reason that morning, when my sister and I came downstairs dressed in our best-clothes-to-fit-in-with-friends. Mum said at the time that it was because he thought we both looked so grown up. I now know that it portended the end of our childhoods, and I wish I could remember whether or not I hugged him.
Of course I realized nothing at the time of what it must have meant to him as a father, to see us that way. I think back on how fitting it was that I got to see him shed an overwhelmed but happy tear at our progression towards adulthood.
Yesterday I drove my truck to an appointment in the city. She’s temperamental, but I work with her foibles as I work with the horses under my care. I accept, for instance, that if I don’t wire scrub her battery terminals on a regular basis, she’ll somewhat petulantly withhold my AC, and then one-by-one my display lights and gauges, until I’m running entirely blind.
We also have an ongoing negotiation as to whether I’m allowed to use her CD player or if she will arbitrarily refuse to eject. I rarely come out on top. I was therefore being made to listen to the radio when Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” came on. I felt it reverberate from the first note and could hear the needle take hold of the record as my dad carefully lowered it on a Sunday afternoon.
The Dallas skyline crested into view and the world slowed to a place where music, memory, movement, and sheer indulgent joy collided—and I knew my dad. I know my dad. I was my dad right then, in that moment. It was the first time that he had blasted the same tune, and it was the freedom to decide to be more alive than dying. I have made this alien landscape my home and I keep choosing not to hide away in pain but to go forward, in large part because of who he still is to me.
It takes a lot not to run the memory of a person through the net of grief, but if we can hold who they were separate from how we felt when they left their bodies, then we can still experience the parts of life that meant something to them when they were here.
It seems on the surface to be a crappy alternative to having the person we love sitting in front of us, but we all die. There is no going back on death. Only going forward into life. When you can.
Photo courtesy of author