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Four years ago, I kissed my father’s cheek, hugged what remained of him, held his hands for the last time, and walked out of his hospital room. I reached the parking lot, got into my same car, took the same route home, walked into the same house to see the same husband and the same kids. Everything in my life was the same, yet everything was completely different.
My world as I knew it had changed.
It was the end of my dad’s life. The end of his battle with cancer.
But it was also the end of his career.
The end of our long and meaningful conversations.
The end of him attending birthday parties or family functions.
The end of surprise visits and impromptu dinner dates.
It was the end of so much.
Death highlights the ends, causing sharp pain which cuts through your heart.
Although I’d suffered this profound loss, I found myself comparing my situation to others.
I had friends who’d lost their parents much earlier in life. Their parents had not been around to walk them down the aisle or see their grandchildren be born.
I had friends who’d lost their child. That is out of order in the cycle of life. Our parents are supposed to die before us, not the other way around.
I had friends who’d lost their spouses, young and old. They’d had to rebuild their lives without their other half.
Things could be worse, I thought. How dare I be sad?
And then there was something else. I wanted to believe that my father’s presence would remain with me even after his death. I had to believe we were still connected— that he was still here with me.
But if he hadn’t left, then how could I miss him?
I suppressed any feelings of mourning, thinking I didn’t have the right to have them.
At the time, a friend of mine sent me a podcast interview on grief. It took me a while to hear it, thinking it would be too heavy and unnecessary. But eventually I did press play. That podcast did something for me that I will be eternally grateful for: It gave me the gift of grief.
The guest said something that stayed with me. Something I’d never heard before. “Pain is inevitable, Suffering is optional.”
What I was really trying to do was avoid suffering. I refused to become a victim of my loss. My father had taught me to focus on the positive, to use humor in all circumstances, and to be strong. I thought by grieving his death, I’d be letting him down. But that podcast showed me that I was merging pain with suffering and I didn’t have to.
That changed everything. Suddenly it didn’t matter if my loss was more or less tragic than anyone else’s. It didn’t need to be compared. It was my loss and it sucked.
And then the guest said something else. “It’s not about the grief, it’s about the change.”
It’s not that he’s not with me…it’s that he’s with me in a different way.
My relationship with my father had changed. A relationship that had helped mold me and define me. A relationship I had counted on and depended on for the last 35 years.
I no longer had a relationship with my father— the person. I was beginning a relationship with my father— the soul.
I could see my dad in my mind or in videos. I could sniff his cologne and smell him. I could hear his voice. I could remember him. But I could no longer touch him. I could not kiss his cheek, hug him or hold his hand. I had lost one of the most important senses we humans have, the sense of touch. We are allowed to feel the pain of that loss.
The most beautiful realization I made, however, was not while I was listening to the podcast. It came later.
Despite giving myself permission to grieve, I was still the same person as before.
I was still positive.
I still used humor.
I was still strong.
I often think of my dad, cry, and minutes later find myself laughing at something adorable my child did. I can miss him and feel his presence simultaneously.
I can grieve with grace.
I have also come to appreciate the cycle between ends and beginnings. The end of one thing is always the beginning of something else.
A newly wed welcomes a life of companionship and romantic dinners yet misses the simplicity of being single. A new mother thanks God for her beautiful, bouncy, baby girl and yet mourns the time when she was only responsible for herself. As parents gloat with pride that their bright and independent son is off to college, they mourn the little boy who creeped into their beds in the middle of the night. Even happy beginnings come with sad ends.
Although I reached the end of my earthly relationship with my father, it was the beginning of a new relationship. One in which I carry him with me everywhere I go.
The gift of grief has allowed me to live fully in the present moment. I can be happy or sad without feeling guilty about it.
I used to have a mantra whenever I felt a twinge of pain. It went like this: “I am strong. I do not feel sorry for myself. I am not a victim. I am blessed. I have a good attitude.”
I continue to reiterate the same mantra, but I’ve added this sentence: “I am human and I feel sad… That’s ok too.”
If we deny ourselves the joy of the beginning or the pain of the end, we are denying ourselves the act of fully living.