My father died recently. This is, in a word, suboptimal. It has also given me occasion to observe closely, sometimes more closely than I’d like, this emotional landscape, these territories of grief.
My immediate response when I heard the news was a feeling of relief. This was familiar; it was also my immediate response when my mother’s father died, and then my mother’s mother. I have seen the indignity of slow death, have cared for loved ones who were on their deathbeds for interminable days, weeks, months. I have been impressed and horrified by how many times I could think, with hope and guilt and resignation, that “it couldn’t possibly get any worse” and still be wrong. Death is an insult — a petty ultimatum from a world inadequate to the giants that inhabit it — but sometimes, it is also a reprieve.
He’d been sick for a long time. The particular timing of his death was something of a surprise, but the fact of it was not. I had prepared. As a general rule, the sense of future parting is always in some ways a part of my present relationships.
What took me by surprise, what I hadn’t prepared for, was the grief of others and the impact it would have on me. My father was a well-loved man and a visible figure in his communities. In the days following his death, I saw dozens and dozens of posts about him — stories I knew and didn’t, from people I’d met and hadn’t, about ways he’d enriched or impacted their lives. Suddenly, I was a wreck.
“What the fuck?”, I said to myself, bewildered and more than a little annoyed. Then I dug in. This the fuck:
I had been wrong about what grief is, about where it lives and where it comes from and what it points to. I thought that it was in me, that it came from loss, that it pointed at his death. And it’s certainly true that I’m sad that my dad is dead, but the grief… that, it turns out, is another animal entirely.
My dad and I, we were never close in the traditional sense. He was back in Russia, I was here in the US, and we could comfortably go months without speaking to each other. We’d always been such similar people that we never really needed to talk much. We’d had maybe three or four conversations in the year before his death, and that wasn’t unusual. Which is to say that on a day-to-day level, his death didn’t change much for me. I didn’t expect to hear his voice whenever my phone rang; I wasn’t surprised to walk into the kitchen and not see him there. He’d never even set foot on the continent where I’ve lived the majority of my life, so I haven’t been surrounded by his specters the way many people are when their parents pass, the way I was when my mother’s parents passed.
Why, then, could I contemplate his mortality (actual) and mine (theoretical) without issue, but found myself with a lump in my throat when someone posted a sentence or two about a dumb joke he’d once told them, 20 years ago, that they still think about sometimes? Why did my breath catch when someone I’ve never met or heard of, whose work I’ve never read and will never read, talked about how he nudged or kicked them forward in their career?
I had been thinking about grief as a subjective, solitary experience: I grieve, and you grieve, and even when we’re grieving the same loss, we’re both relatively alone in this. And maybe that’s true, as far as it goes. The real wrinkle, it turns out, is that the loss isn’t what I thought it was. The loss isn’t life, but nearness; the grief isn’t for his death, it’s for the distance between us.
(There’s always distance between people, of course — the Self and the Other and all that — and it’s often a distance that only reveals itself when you’re truly close to someone, when you know them as well as yourself, and suddenly — for a moment — they’re inscrutable. Death is just one kind of distance, one of the many barriers between us and intimacy; in this sense it is not unique and doesn’t merit special treatment.)
I once had a long relationship with a woman who spoke American English, but lived in Europe. By the time we decided to end the romantic part of the relationship, she was living in the UK. One of the things that really took me by surprise was how my stomach would drop when I’d see her adopting various Britishisms. Each “cheers” and every “lorry” was a measure of the distance growing between us, a reminder of the ways in which this person whose life and mine had run together for years was becoming a stranger to me. The moment that hit me hardest — harder than the breaking up itself — was months later, when she changed her Netflix password.
In the same way, every story about my father was a here’s-another-way-in-which-you-didn’t-know-him, a here’s-another-piece-of-him-that-is-moving-away-from-you. And, in a way that’s both ironic and apropos, it’s precisely this process of alienation — the this-was-a-part-of-you-and-no-longer-is — that reveals to you, with the growing distance between you, exactly what it was that was part of you.
So I don’t begrudge people their experiences with or their memories of my father, and I’m grateful for the pangs of grief they leave me with. These pangs are teachers: by drawing my attention to what I’ve lost, they show me what I used to have (and what, in truth, I have still).
I’ve written before about the temptation to use loss as a measure of love, so I want to be clear: I loved my father, and I grieve him, but the one is not the measure of the other. I’m leaning into that feeling of loss here, but it’s not to express the how much of my love for him; rather, it’s to explore the what of my love, to find those jagged edges inside myself that tell me, “ah, yes, he was here.”
I think that’s what grief is really about, and that’s why it’s such a communal activity. We open ourselves up and say to each other, “ah, yes, he was here” — and we listen for that echo of “oh, yes, he was here, too.” The stories people share hurt because they show me places in myself where I did not know to look for him. They hurt because they remind me that, while our paths have now diverged, they never entirely ran together in the first place, and that others have found pieces of him in themselves that were never in me and that are now forever beyond my reach.
Grief lives in the spaces between us. It points at the divergence of paths, at the I-didn’t-know-I-needed-time-but-now-it’s-too-late of absolute, irrevocable change. But ultimately, privation is itself a kind of presence. By sharing with each other what we’ve lost, we share also what we’ve gained.
Eventually, the grief fades into the background, and what remains — in each of us, and more so than if we each had grieved alone — is the occasional flash of “ah, yes, here he is.”