My father-in-law was a gregarious person and made friends easily. He valued his friends and they valued him. Friends appreciated his “glad to see you” exclamations, handshakes, and heart-felt hugs. As the years passed Dad’s friends grew into an army of people.
So I was surprised at his lack of reaction when a friend died. Dad always had the same response to a loss, “He (or she) was a wonderful person,” and that’s all he said. I waited for Dad’s follow-up comments, but there were none. He just went on with his life.
By the time he died at age 98 ½, Dad knew every day was a precious gift, and made the most of it. Instead of focusing on death, he focused on life. As more friends died, Dad’s approach was the same and never waned. More friends died and Dad became the last man standing.
Don’t get me wrong. Dad missed his friends. He said their names often and told stories about them, stories that made listeners laugh. He talked about the things he learned from his friends and the times they spent together. Every story was filled with affection and hope.
His favorite poem says a lot about Dad. Almost daily, he would quote India’s master poet, writer, and philosopher, Kalidasa’s, and two lines from one of his poems. “Look to this day! For is life, the very life of life.” Dad knew the poem by heart and, more importantly, he lived it.
It took years for me to understand Dad’s response to grief. I’m 83 years old now and find myself thinking the same lines. Though I may not say them aloud, the lines pass through my mind like a flashing road sign. The flashing lines are always with me. I think these thoughts are telling me to wake up, pay attention, live each moment, and be grateful for it.
Priest and poet John O’Donohue describes the grief journey in his book, To Bless the Space Between Us. In his poem, “For Grief” he tells about early grief, facing it head-on, and coming to terms with it. “Gradually, you will learn acceptance with the invisible form of the departed,” he explains. Over time, the wound of grief will slowly heal.
Dad knew this. Enjoying the miracle of life was his tribute to the departed. He lived this tribute every day.