I’ve been thinking about death lately, not because I’m morbid or depressed but simply because of my life circumstances. Recently an 18-year-old from our area died in a car accident on the morning of his last day of high school, a 40 something son of a family friend died from cancer, a concert was bombed in Manchester England, and I outlived my father. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that I’ve been thinking about life because of those circumstances and, I’m aware that grief is very personal, so I’m not telling anyone how they should grieve. What I am sharing here is how I deal with grief, and the perspective I’ve developed over the years. I’ve wanted to write about this subject for a while, and I’ve avoided it for fear of backlash, but here’s the thing; death is a part of life and unless we deal with it, it will absolutely overwhelm us when it happens so here are a few things I’ve learned.
Cancer can be a gift
Before you get offended by this statement, hear me out. I know people are uncomfortable when I say cancer can be a gift. I never want anyone to suffer with any disease, especially cancer, but in my case it was a gift. My dad and I didn’t get along from the time I was twelve until just before he passed. My dad did the best he could as a dad, but when I was young, his best wasn’t good enough, at least for me. He and I had different views on everything. He called me a women’s libber, and it wasn’t a compliment. I thought he was stubborn and inflexible. It wasn’t until my oldest son was born that I saw the best my dad could offer. He loved my son more than I ever imagined he could, and I watched their relationship grow over the three years he and my son were in each other’s’ lives. He only loved my second son for three weeks, but he packed a lifetime of love into those three weeks. In both cases, he learned to be present with them and surround them with love in a way I never felt he was present with or loved me because he was too busy trying to provide what he thought we needed rather than what we actually needed. During his six weeks in hospice, my dad and I talked about how we had drifted apart and forgave each other for slights and insults and bad behavior from sides. He suffered, a lot, but we also healed, a lot, and when he left this earth, I released him with love and more than a few tears of gratitude for the moments that may never have come without knowing the end was near and taking the time to do something about it.
Celebrating a life is better than mourning a death
My dad turned 54 years old the month he died. He didn’t retire and live the life of his dreams. He feared leaving the safety of his stressful corporate job that I believe contributed to his short life. He was a database guru who developed a computer tracking database for one of the largest corporations in the US and was grossly underpaid to do it. He wanted to do more with his life, but he didn’t. The one thing he did do was travel. My dad was happiest when he traveled. Maybe that’s why I love to travel so much. My dad made it to 49 of the 50 United States, and although he never visited Hawaii, he was so proud of how much of the United States he saw and how much of it he showed his kids. Every time I go on vacation I think about my dad and some of the things I do that he would enjoy doing with us, and because I am a person of faith, I believe he does from afar. We try new foods like he encouraged us to do. We talk to people, locals and other travelers because we learned so much from them as children. We enjoy the stops on the way as much as the destination because we’re on vacation from the time we leave until the time we return. These were the best of times for my family when I was growing up, and they are the stories my children tell as well. And I prefer to focus on that rather than the 60 hour work weeks and stressed out man who worked them just so he could travel a few weeks every year.
Life is short no matter how long you live
This one is a biggie for me right now. This is the one that keeps me blogging and writing and pushing forward to follow my dreams of writing and travel. You see, my dad thought he had much more time than he did on this planet. He waited for retirement to enjoy his life, and he never got there. He was qualified to do much more exciting and better paid work, but he feared leaving the “safety” of a company he worked for all of his 32 working years as a college graduate. For a while, I worked where he did, and I met several people who knew my dad. Not one of them ever said he was a great engineer or database programmer, but several of them took college level computer programming courses from him and told me what a great teacher he was. My dad loved to teach and wanted to be a teacher at one time, but his parents told him there was more money in engineering so that’s what he did, and he spent a lifetime trying to find joy in that. Teaching after hours helped him do that, and he could have been a great college professor making so much more money and having so much more fun, but he didn’t because he was afraid to make the jump
Occasionally you know someone who does live life fully and leaves this life with no regrets. It’s a beautiful thing when you do and my father in law was one of those people. My father in law passed from cancer the same year as my dad. He was first diagnosed 5 years earlier and decided to retire as early as he could. He played golf, traveled a bit, spent time with his family and enjoyed every day as much as he could. When he was on the verge of passing, he told us that he felt sorry for us because he was going to “win” no matter what happened. As a man of faith, he truly believed that when he passed he would be in a better place, and if by some miracle he got to stay, he would be with the family who loved him. On the night he passed, surrounded by family who sat with him until the end, he looked up at the ceiling and said (and I paraphrase here), “You’re all so beautiful. I can hardly take it all in.” Within moments, he was gone, and that story began to change how I view death and life. I realized the best way to come to terms with death is to fully live while you’re alive, and that means different things to different people. For my father, it took getting cancer and knowing the end was near. For my father in law, it started much earlier as he lived each day fully and mostly joyfully for all the years I knew him. Each one taught me so much about life and so much about death, and as we approach Father’s Day, I cannot think of any better way to honor them both than to say, “Thanks Dad!”
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