He’d lost his father, and he did not want to stop grieving. My friend feared that soon he wouldn’t feel so heartbroken, because that would mean “I was forgetting him.”
Many who lose someone they love feel this way. I did, especially when my dad died. You feel he can’t be dead if you can still feel him as if he were with you. He’s just in the next room or on a trip. “Not here” doesn’t feel like “dead.”
But the memories that make you feel as if he were with you fade very fast. I felt horrible when one day I suddenly realized I hadn’t thought of my dad in days. Sick to my stomach horrible. Outside prayers, 18 years later, I can go a long time without thinking of him.
I remember him most when something triggers a memory. As I wrote a few years after he died, I’d go into a bookstore and see a book I knew he’d want and start to pull it off the shelves, and then remember he wasn’t alive to read it. I felt that sharp, burning pain behind the sternum you get when your body panics and floods itself with adrenaline.
A few times, I almost started crying in the aisle. Worried people shuffled past me as quickly as they could, some staring at me as if I were a freak, others averting their eyes.
I wrote then that the world has a hole in it and one that will never be filled in this life. That’s still true. But the hole has partly filled in, in a way I didn’t expect. It’s now a hole I might trip in, but not one so big and deep I’ll fall into. That’s a blessing, though it makes me feel a little as my friend does. He was my dad, I loved him, why don’t I hurt more?
This is what I wrote to my friend, a little revised because I’ve seen a little more as I’ve gotten older and the years from my dad’s death increased:
I think that’s the way we’re supposed to live. Forgetfulness is a blessing. We can’t live life always feeling the loss.
Even if we forget in one way, we can remember through a kind of active replacement. I think of life without my dad as giving me the work I’m supposed to do, that he’s passed on his work to me. I’ve described life when he was alive as feeling my family and I were staying in the cozy little cabin, sitting by the fire, safe from everything, while my dad stood guard in the snow on the cold windy ridge.
Now I’m the one on the ridge. This really became true when my sister found she had terminal cancer seven springs ago and I was the one to take care of her. She had no one else, and I was her brother. My dad would have done it. Taking my dad’s place was a form of memory.
Something of the same thing applies to every loved one who dies. Unless they were monsters, they pass on something to you in which you can take their place, or do what they did, or be what they were.
In some way, the person you loved will be a model. If they were specially kind to strangers, or to awkward people, or to people who made being friends with them difficult, you can do that, too. If they spoke kindly of others in a way that led more critical people to speak kindly, too, you can work at speaking kindly.
My dad made friends with those the comfortable people tended to treat as servants, if not as peasants. He valued them for themselves, not as people on the other side of an economic exchange. That has grown on me (or in me) as I’ve gotten older. Now I’d feel less guilty at robbing a bank than I would being rude to a waitress.
To make the imitation a memory, so that you feel it as a memory, you’ll want to have recognized the thing in which you imitate the one you lost, if you can. We can’t always. Even if you can’t, to be in some way what he made you for good is to remember him; and in that way, you can’t forget him.
In my youth, advertisements for luxury products sometimes used the line, “Living well is the best revenge.” It seemed to be aimed at people who’d dealt with difficult people on their way to getting the life they always wanted.
The saying can be turned around. You can apply it to life after the death of someone you loved, and still love, even if you don’t remember him as intensely as you did at first, if you try to imitate his virtues. Living well is the best remembrance.
David Mills writes from Pennsylvania.
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