My dad died

“How are you doing?” — “My dad died.”

“Have a great day.” — “My dad died.”

“Happy New Year!” — “My dad died.”

Of course I didn’t say it. But it’s all I could think of. Friendly sales clerks and strangers were just trying to be nice, not knowing of my pain.

When your last living parent has just died, the loss is ever-present. Everything that used to matter feels trivial and meaningless, and all the little pleasures seem pointless.

I can’t seem to enjoy reading a book or even listening to the radio any more. It’s like a great fog has descended, creating a veil that clouds all I see.

My father died one month ago, at the age of 91. But no matter how old a parent gets, for those of us left behind, there’s never enough time to say all the things you wanted to tell them.

In a sense, it’s harder to lose them when they are 91 than 61 — because they’ve been a part of your life for so long that you come to expect that they will always be there for you.

Losing my dad makes me, at age 60, feel like I’m 6 — orphaned, alone, lonely.

My 60-year-old self says that my dad had a long, good life, filled with joy and love. But my 6-year-old self throws a tantrum and wails at my loss.

At 60, I know how lucky I am to have had my dad, fully aware and lucid to the end, for so many years.

But the 6-year-old child inside me howls in pain that I don’t feel very lucky right now.

My dad was my light, my guide, my rock. He always gave non-judgmental love and support, and inspired all those who knew him with his sweet disposition, gentleness, compassion, trust and honesty.

I felt protected by him. With him gone and my mother’s death long ago, I viscerally sense my own mortality. I’ve just moved up a rung on the ladder of life.

The stories people tell

The remarkable thing about telling friends and family that my father just died is that it brings up memories of theirs that they feel compelled to share — and every story is unique, moving, and many times heartbreaking.

These stories often cause long-buried pain to resurface, but yet people seem so willing, even eager, to talk about it. It’s meant to ease my grief, which it does, but it also seems to unburden those who relive their experiences.

Every story tells the mourner that others have gone through this and come out the other side relatively intact, and that we are not alone in our pain. It draws us closer as friends and as a community.

We are bound together in the inevitability we all face, and this bond creates strong connections that sustain us as we lean on one another for support.

Often the memories people share are about stormy relationships, hidden secrets disclosed by the dying, or intimacy never felt before until imminent death draws families close.

I’ve taken great comfort from hearing these stories and knowing that others have gone through this hurt and survived.

It’s therapeutic for both parties — certainly for me to understand how other people cope, and for those who remember their fathers and mothers wistfully, with longing and love.

We remember them by telling stories about them to others, and that keeps them alive.

Words of wisdom

Most parents pass along words of wisdom to their children and grandchildren, and my father was no exception.

For him, doing business with others was based on a handshake. Trust was paramount. Customers became friends — long-lasting relationships were established, and loyalty was rock solid.

Dad used to say that the people you do business with “have to pass the customer test.” Life’s too short to deal with unpleasant or dishonest people. Making money is secondary to the friendship. People have to pass the customer test.

There were times, plenty of them, when his trust was betrayed by unscrupulous people. But he never changed his attitude. My dad said that it’s better to live life trusting people than to go through life bitter and suspicious.

I remember once when I was in high school, my friend and I had this insane idea to fly on our own to Fort Lauderdale for spring break. My mother was appalled and opposed, rightly so in retrospect, but my dad trusted me and thought it was a good idea for me to gain independence and take care of myself for a week.

I don’t want to go into details, but this was definitely trust misplaced. Mom was right about that one.

But I’ll never forget my dad’s trust in me, and how I had disappointed him.

We all live with a certain amount of guilt when a parent dies. Why are memories of idiotic youthful indiscretions the ones we recall all too easily?

What did we neglect to say to them as we grew older? How many times did we not call or visit when we should have?

“Don’t be dashed,” my dad would typically say when I had to leave. It was so cute how he would say that.

But I would often dash, always knowing I could come back the next time and he’d be there. Until one day he wasn’t.

Stand up and fight

My dad loved sports analogies, and one of my favorites is: “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.”

Even if you fail, keep plugging away at it. Take those shots, miss, and then try again. Be adventurous. Take risks. Never give up, and never lose sight of what’s the right thing to do.

If you believe strongly in something, stand up and fight for it. You’ll never have any regrets. And he was always there with unconditional, nonjudgmental support.

His honesty was legendary. I remember as a child my dad wanting a newspaper because he had an ad in the paper he wanted to see. He gave me a nickel to buy one from the newspaper box.

After I dropped the coin in and opened the box, I asked him if he wanted me to grab two papers. He said no, that would be dishonest. But he did want a second newspaper — he thought that was a good idea — so he made me shut the cover and deposit another nickel.

My dad never really had to try hard to be a good person. It just came so natural to him, to be so caring and compassionate and forgiving and trusting and honest and … well … nice.

“What a nice man.” I heard it over and over again, throughout my life, even up to the day he died. That’s the ultimate tribute.

Education matters

Death of a loved one has a way of making everything that goes on in the world diminish in importance. And yet, those things upon which we based our lives and our work before the loss still matter.

Education matters. I’ve spent 20 years believing that. All those pressing education issues have not gone away.

Special education, music programs, school safety, teachers, curriculum issues, funding, education bonds, school boundaries, school board elections, public employee salaries — all these issues matter.

They matter to readers too — I hear from many of you, and appreciate each perspective, tip, and insight I receive.

As I contemplate the finality of death, I might put school safety at the top of the Education Matters list. And so, my first foray back into education issues since my father died would be to congratulate the San Dieguito Union High School District for its handling of the two school shooting threats in late November.

Death reminds us that the single most important thing schools need to do is protect children’s lives and keep them safe. Educators operate as parents when children attend school — in loco parentis. Learning comes second behind keeping kids alive.

The attack in Paris on Charlie Hebdo and free speech seems to have shaken off some of my unnatural slumber and apathy — enough to motivate last week’s column, my first bit of writing in two months.

So, little by little, life returns.

It’s been one month since my dad died, and it’s time to move past the debilitating grief. Not forgetting. Never forgetting. Just picking up the puzzle pieces and putting them back together again, with a few pieces missing here and there.

As my husband’s aunt once wrote in her last letter to us, “I had a stroke and that’s that.”

I think back also on a letter to a friend written by my stepmother who described in full detail her and my father’s health problems: “Don’t you worry about us – we know how to accept what is.”

My dad died. He was my hero, and I will miss him terribly. The hole in my heart will always be there.

But I sense that recovery is possible, and I need to accept what is. And that’s that.

The light at the end of the tunnel is no longer the train coming at me. The fog is slowly lifting.

Marsha Sutton can be reached at suttonmarsha@gmail.com.

Thanks to so many readers who have written in to express their sympathy, and to relate their own personal stories of loss. The more we share with others who are grieving, the more we draw closer as a community. I’m very grateful to everyone who has taken the time to send a message. It gives me great comfort to hear from you, and I feel honored to learn of your experiences with the loss of a parent. We all go through this, but we don’t have to do it alone. — Marsha Sutton

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