by Stacey J. Sage – September 1, 2019
When my father died, all of the spaces that he occupied in my life felt empty. He was my very best friend, my hero, the country of my heart; and one of the handful of people on earth who truly knew me and loved me in a way that made me yearn to become a continuous better version of myself. He also loved my son, my siblings, my nieces, my nephews, and my mother in a way that brought me steadfast peace and joy. Losing him was one of the most soul shattering losses that I’m sure I will ever know. If you’ve experienced the death of a beloved parent, you know this type of loss all too well: the lingering ache, the strange sense of aloneness, and the subsequent melancholy. It seems that no matter how fully a life our parents have lived, how old they may be at the time of their passing, or how much they may have been suffering, we are never prepared for them to die; and never prepared to fully let them go.
Everyone grieves differently. My grief hit me like a ton of bricks at first, then it would lift up for a period of time, and then come rushing down again in waves. During the first few days after my sister called early in the morning to say “…Daddy is dead,” I felt both a sense of deep sorrow and extreme disbelief. The thought of never seeing Daddy again seemed surreal; never being drawn in close for one his hugs, never smelling the scent of Egyptian Musk oil mixed with his natural scent, never having another conversation with him, never hearing his hearty laughter or hearing the sound of his voice say my name; I thought there would never be an end to my aching, my crying, my desperation for wanting the truth of his death to be a cruel joke. When someone loves you, the way that they say your name is different. My father loved me and everyone else that he held dear like we were the last person on earth and the way that he said my name, at any given time, seemed to add greater purpose to every moment we shared.
The day of his funeral, I felt so heavy on the inside. My son was only four at the time and I decided to not have him attend the funeral. He adored his grandpa. Their love for one another was so tender, and still so new. I didn’t know if his little spirit could take the pain of seeing his grandpa sleeping lifeless in a casket. I didn’t know if [my] spirit could take it, and I didn’t want his four year old world to feel confusing; scary; hopeless. When I knelt down on our kitchen floor to face him and explain to him that grandpa had died; that he had gone to sleep and didn’t wake back up and that he would not be seeing him again, he looked at me bewildered and responded “you just don’t go to sleep and get dead, and never wake back up again.” As I drew him in close for a hug, I wept silently thinking: no, you just [don’t] go to sleep and “get dead,” and never wake back up again. And life felt unfair.
That night in bed I couldn’t help but remember a joke that my father would always tell. It’s about a man who is walking around aimlessly crying. Daddy would of course fake cry at this point in the joke, and he’d really ham it up! So the man is just boo hooing boo hooing away and a Sufi walks up to him and asks: “what’s the matter, why are you crying so?” This is where Daddy would really amp up his fake crying. The man answers the Sufi through tears saying: “My friend died.” The Sufi looks at the man with compassion yet responds very matter of factly saying: “Well, find a friend who won’t die.” As I’m writing this, I can’t help but chuckle. My father always had a way of directly and politely putting things into perspective. He was such a remarkable person. Even so, my father certainly had his struggles. He carried the pain of losing his mother at a young age. He dealt with the possible shame of his family’s loss of wealth and reputation. He lost all but one of his four brothers before he was fifty, and he wrestled with the memories and physical pain of the Vietnam war, and having to return “home” to the US where he and other soldiers were mistreated and disrespected because they were black. He also fought an on again off again battle with alcohol where he’d be clean and sober for years, and would then ‘fall off the wagon’. He carried his fair share of emotional baggage, yet he often said if he only had one choice to make over and over again, no matter what, he would always choose love. When he transitioned, he left us with enough books to fill a library, and through countless pieces of poetry that he’d written, he left us with beautiful pieces of his life’s testimony. He left behind a series of journals, many of which read like love letters to the countless family members and friends whom he loved so deeply and so dearly. Some of my favorite entries are the ones where he details what it is he loves about each of my siblings, his worries with regard to each of us, and his hopes for our and our children’s lives. There are also the ones where he admits to his faults and shortcomings, and boldly states that the way he was able to love and care for his grandchildren was his redemption. He also left us all with one of the most poignant, wise, and comforting quotes that I hold so close to my heart: “Love is greeting you everywhere!” And I believe that to be a truth that guided his life.
My therapist once told me “… you seem to be living your life in protest of things that are inevitable.” It was a simple statement, delivered in the most non-confrontational way; but it was rough receiving it. Bargaining, Anger, Denial and Isolation, Depression, Acceptance; these are the stages of grief. People move through them very differently. As you might imagine, I spent most of my grieving in the Denial and Isolation phase. There were days I convinced myself that my father had faked his death as a joke and that it wouldn’t be much longer before everything was back to normal. The isolation part played out through periods in which I withdrew from my family and I wouldn’t attend family functions. I couldn’t stomach it: the absence, the lingering yet unspoken sadness, the open spaces on the dance floor, or in the conversation where my father used to be, the palpable, collective longing. Mostly, it was the constant reminder that my mom had lost one of her best friends, my siblings had lost our dad, and our children had lost their grandpa. At the time I felt like there was nothing I could do for them. I had no comfort to offer them, and for me that was difficult. And then, as if she knew exactly what we all needed to heal, my older sister planned a very special family function. One that she knew not a one of us would miss, and that the majority of the near two hundred friends and family who attended my father’s funeral would also attend. In honor of my father, and because it had occurred to her that like so many other people, the only time we saw the large majority of family members and friends together in one place, was at a funeral; she committed herself, her husband, and my two delightful nephews, to throwing an annual “Celebration of Life.”
A Celebration of Life event is a joyous event. As the name suggests, you’re there to celebrate life. It’s more like a party than something that’s commemorating your loved one’s death. Incorporated into the celebration are the loved ones, the interests, and the passions of the departed. It was this event that helped usher me through the rest of the grief stages because it forced me to look at the parts of my father’s life that were not only worth celebrating, but require celebration:
The way he drew people in and made it a point to let them know they were loved; the way he created a safe space for people to be themselves and share their truths. The way he showed up in every space and every relationship fully himself, and fully present. As the celebration drew near, I took time to consider and bask in, the light he added to my life, and it was then that the weight of my pain began to lift up off me.
Sixty-eight years of life, while relatively young, is a lot of living. Simply put, my father lived and loved long, and he generated love, joy, and understanding in every relationship he cultivated. Watching him do so, and continuously calling upon the memories of him doing so has shifted my perspective. For if we can produce the energies of love, joy, and understanding, we can embrace the people who are with us, now. We can make them happy while we are happy ourselves, and out of that happiness we can create spiritual nourishment, healing, and more happiness. So that the question shifts from “how can we obtain love, joy, and understanding” and becomes “do we have the capacity of generating love, joy, and understanding ourselves?” If we do, we’ll feel content and at peace, because these energies satisfy us and the people around us at the same time. When we have the capacity to generate love, joy, and understanding, we can make the choice to do so, now. We don’t have to wait for or on anything or anyone. When we succeed in this, something so awesome happens! Our worry, and fears go away, and we feel wonderful right away. And we are able to see and feel life as a celebration!
My father’s death has helped me see life more clearly. Nothing in life is guaranteed, not even our next breath. Everything in life is finite. The strongest, most healthy heart has a finite number of beats. No matter how long the journey, we are all here for a finite period of time. I can’t imagine that anyone would argue with the notion that time seems to fly by. Yet, what my father’s life and death taught me is that though limited, there is certainly more than enough heartbeats, and certainly more than enough time to do what is most imperative in our lives. Maintaining physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health is important. We have an unwavering obligation to ourselves and the people we love to practice self-care. Spending time with family and friends and being fully present is important. In doing so, we honor the history that we share with loved ones. Teaching our children their history and how to love and cherish themselves is important. Without self-worth and self-love, who can be happy? Financial security is important. Finding and making peace within, and in our relationships is important. All of these things are important enough to pay attention to today. Because life waits for no one. Life is happening today, and change – surrendering to the unknown so that we can embrace the new – is the comprehensive theme of our lives. It’s paramount that we accept this, and that we see all of the inevitable changes as opportunities that bring growth and wisdom, and bring us to a deeper understanding of life and living.
On the ride home from this year’s COL party, my son, now twelve asked “do you believe that grandpa knows that we get together every year to celebrate life?” That sort of question rests on some of the other questions like, where do we go when we die? And can we reach our loved ones in the great beyond, and if so, how?
The notion of death, of nothingness, is a dangerous and unkind one. It makes us suffer a great deal. I now believe in energy and manifestation. Certainly when they are pronounced dead, our departed loved ones are absent from this physical space. But I believe that the spirit lives on because the energy of the spirit is immortal, and that we cannot forget to look to our ancestral spirits for guidance. I catch glimpses of my father all the time; sometimes it’s when I’m looking at my son or my nephews and see the way that they cross their legs the way he did when sitting and reading. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of him watching my sister laugh; or watching my uncle (his last living brother) dance; and sometimes I catch a glimpse of him when I look in the mirror. I hear him when I speak or re-tell a story or joke he once told, or blurt out one of his random sayings like – “so so so, blah blah blah, good sexy life.” He lives in me and in all of us who loved and cherished him, and who continue to celebrate his life. And it is with courage, honor, joy, dignity, and love, and with the strength and blessings of the ancestors that we can we can see the way forward, in celebration of life.