The phone rang late Friday afternoon, as I was in the middle of a planning conversation with Maggie. Caller ID said it was Denver Hospice, the place where my father spent his last 16 hours last February. I picked up the phone out of respect.The caller identified herself as a ‘grief counselor’ just wanting to check in and see how I am doing now, nearly six months after losing my dad. I stepped into the next room, settled into a comfy chair, and answered her like this:
“On a daily basis I think about my father. So much around me brings him to mind. In fact, another chair in this very room came to us via his apartment, and his mail is still coming to my house. Often it’s just a passing thought, a snippet of a memory; sometimes it’s something more. In each instance, I think I’m doing OK. And I’m glad you’re calling, and I’ll tell you why…”
“I think of grief on a spectrum, from total denial of loss and never thinking or feeling a thing… to total debilitating obsession with the lost loved-one, that makes it impossible to function for thinking only of the loss. Between these two polar places, I see plenty of room to grieve, and that’s where I’ve landed. I’m aware and engaged with my memories - recalling good times, recounting stories with those who’ll listen, noting his absence at appropriate times - while consciously avoiding being focused on his last hours in hospice, those final days in the ICU, and with the things I didn’t say to him, or the things I might’ve done to ease his mind and his pain in the last days, weeks, months, and years I cared for my father.”
When I paused from recounting this description, the counselor breathed deeply on the other end of the phone and said, “Good, I am very encouraged to hear what you’ve just described. The best thing you can do is to remember your dad as he was, the good times and the fondest memories, and not get caught up with the coulda-shoulda-wouldas that you can’t control. You’re doing well. Doug, and you should be proud of that.”
I’m grateful to the grief counselor for her call, and for her affirming words about my bittersweet process of mourning the loss of my dad. I noted to her that my father had certainly known plenty of his own grief – losing two wives, a daughter, and both of his parents – and that he modeled an approach to dealing with grief that’s best described as ‘out of sight, out mind,’ never speaking of the departed after they were gone. I can only surmise that he thought of those lost loved ones, yet never saw fit to keep their memories alive through conversation, nor in the annual rituals that our faith tradition provides.
I note this, and pledge to do things differently. Whenever possible, I’ll remember my mother and sister and grandparents and other loved-ones lost – including my dad - in my heart and words and ritually, in bittersweet defiance of the way my father did it.
That’s what the grief counselor encouraged, and that’s what encourages my heart as well. May all those memories be for a blessing to those of us who recall them now and always.
…and that’s the full-circle fatherhood report for this week.
BONUS TUNE: Bittersweet Memory