We spent the next couple of weeks arranging the funeral - it was two weeks later having had the post mortem, and we cremated my dad on December 21st. A couple of years earlier he’d written me a note that ended “Never cry for me again”, so I made sure I went through that day without shedding a tear. It was much easier than I’d thought, having this big cloak of warmth around me the whole time from knowing what a complete relationship we’d had, and how I got this cloak of warmth is what I’d like to share with you.
My father and I were best friends. I used to follow him around the house and he’d call me his ‘shadow’, sitting in his office for hours, him explaining the world to me and me asking endless questions and pressing flowers and clovers into his big books. He taught me how to tie my shoelaces; he taught me about periods, boys, how to do a flaming Sambuca. He taught me that, as I went through teenagehood, I’d loathe him and distance myself and that I’d come out the other end and we’d be best mates again. I did spend small amounts of time rolling my eyes and cutting off his questions with one-word answers and closed doors, but there was something in knowing the process that meant we were always close underneath it all.
The reason I’m happy with his death - not with him dying, of course, but with his death - is that there was nothing left unsaid. There are things I never shared that I would tell him now as an adult, but it wasn’t the right time to tell him them as a teenager (he’d probably have killed some young men). There are no regrets; there’s no heaviness.
I’ve come to learn - and studying yogic philosophy & advaita actually really helped put this into words! - that there is a difference between pain and suffering. Grief is a physiological thing that we go through when someone we love dies. It’s a tightness of the chest, a hollow heaving that smacks down on the stomach - and it can come at any time, not just in the weeks or months following death. Suffering, on the other hand, is knowing that we should have acted, but we didn’t. Or that we shouldn’t have acted in such a way, but we did and we never put it right.
Suffering stems from regret - we crave a different past because we didn’t follow the right path at the time. It takes time to let that go, and self-forgiveness. (Whatever the situation, you deserve self-forgiveness.)
The lesson I learned from my father’s death was that we should give our all to every relationship without expectation. Never going to bed without making peace or at least reaching out and trying.
I would have learned this lesson either way, and I feel extremely lucky to have learned it in the form of “Everything with Dad’s death was great because I put all I could into the relationship when he was alive, and so I should make sure I act in the same way with others so that I feel this clear when their deaths come”. The other way I could have learned it was, “Everything with Dad’s death was awful because I didn’t see him enough/forgive him/stand by him, and so I should act differently with others so I avoid feeling this terrible when their deaths come”.
I guess that’s what pressed me to write this post: if you haven’t already experienced the death of a loved one, you don’t have to learn this lesson the hard way. And you don’t have to learn it by reading a sad story. I’m writing this now from a place of deep clarity, from a comfort that will be with me till my own death. Know that people you love will inevitably die. Know that it’s okay! Although you will experience grief, you don’t have to experience suffering.
This isn’t to say that I don’t miss my dad - I miss singing with him while he plays guitar and I miss the winks he would give me whose meaning I could never put into words. It’s that the ‘missing him’ is carried with a smile, with the knowledge that a seventeen-and-a-half-year perfect relationship isn’t ‘cut short’. It’s complete and filled with a level of quality that no number of years can guarantee.