Just recently, my hugely popular and loving father died. He was in something of a coma for 23 days, and fell into it on January 1st of this year. He had suffered from several strokes during that period, and prior to that had struggled with chronic pain and illness throughout his adult life. Nevertheless, he managed to remain rather upbeat, charming, and wonderful — but rarely was he ever in denial about the hardship that he was going through.
Now I find myself asking odd questions like, “is loss real?” That question can be further fleshed out when we realize that we don’t really know what we are talking about when we use the word “death.” Frankly, I have always said that the word and its derives, “died” and “dead,” should always be presented in quotation marks — precisely because when we use these words, we are referring to a mystery. Putting quotation marks around those words reflects a kind of intellectual responsibility, I think. Because though we are referring to a state, we don’t really understand what the entirety of that state entails.
I won’t fall on spirituality here, merely point out that we don’t really have a collective agreement on what death actually is. This is a fact.
As for loss, my Daddy doesn’t actually feel lost to me. I know I cannot go downstairs and talk to him face-to-face, but there permeates in my life this odd sensation that he is not only present, but accessible. Indeed, as unusual as it sounds, it feels like I can still communicate with him. He doesn’t feel gone. He feels like he lives inside of me now. And that doesn’t at all feel like a loss. It feels like a gain.
One of the more peculiar careers my Daddy pursued was being a funeral director, a position he deeply enjoyed for a decade. He would often start his day by greeting his other staff-mates, declaring, “Folks, it’s a great day to be alive.” In fact, he wrote a rather well-received and hilarious (as well as profoundly gory) novel based on his exploits during that time called Final Arrangements.
Years ago, I was mourning a young friend’s death. I was, for many months, beyond consoling. But one day my Daddy approached his grieving little boy and told me, “Son, you might not believe it, and I am not saying you have to — but, being a little older than you and a little more experienced, especially in these matters, I want to tell you something — the dead don’t die.”
I was too numb to really absorb what that meant. Maybe it was from is famous Southern mysticism. Maybe he was just trying to make me feel better. Now some decade since then, and now grieving his own “death,” I have to say — those words do ring true. Though I cannot listen to him play guitar downstairs, and I cannot hear his latest opinions about the world in quite the same way; I cannot say he is absent. I can say that his body no longer works (cremation will do that to you), but I cannot say he is gone. At all.
I can say that even now I can hear him psychically whisper to me; “Don’t worry, Sonny — the dead don’t die. Go have some fun now.”
Now, if this all sounds too hopeful, or too detached from reality, or too woo-woo; he was also very famous for this quote from his book, “As long as you doubt your sanity, you can’t be insane.”
Go have some fun now.