Reflective Grief

My father died last week. He was 89. He had lived a full life. He had been a productive member of society by all accounts: four children, 9 grand children, 63-year marriage, retired to a beach community in Florida when he was 60, lived with his bride in his own house right up until the last few weeks. Yes, my father was a fortunate man. His entire family came for the funeral services. We cried, laughed, told stories, and rallied around my mother to make sure that she would be alright moving forward. In all aspects, saying goodbye to him was the way many of us would hope our end would be, filled with love and family. I life very well realized.

Surely, I shed tears for my dad. We spoke at least once a week on the phone, and we were close, but there was something else brewing under the surface all week long. It was the monster in my room, waiting to pounce and keep my emotions uneasy and uncertain. In fact, the same monster haunted my wife and 14-year-old daughter as well. The monster’s name is David. See, David was grand child number 8 for my dad. He was my son, and back in 2009 David, who was only 10, died suddenly during a sports practice from an accident that caused an acute subdural hematoma. It was sudden, uncommon, and devastating for our family. We suffered as all families that lose a beloved child do, and we have worked hard in finding our way forward. We have been fortunate that we have a deep love, and excellent communication, and through many tears, heartache, and perseverance, we have put our lives back together. I think of David every day, which is completely normal, but we have gotten back to living, loving and laughing. We have used David’s loss as a motivation to help others, and I can honestly say, though I can no longer hold him physically in my arms, he shapes who I am and what I do as much today as he ever did.

But then my dad died. And even though my dad’s passing was as “natural” a turn of events as one could hope for, the most unnatural of deaths haunted me at every turn. Since David was only 10 when he died, there were millions of those father and son things we had not gotten to do. They had been the hardest of things to wrangle with when David died. All the unrealized hopes and dreams, the untaught lessons, the years of laughter and old stories about things that seemed so very important when they happened, but years later would become funny family history in retrospect, they had all been stolen from us in one devastating event. Through the years I had come to terms with what David and I had been denied, and learned to focus on what we were able to share, but when my dad died, they all came back.

The morning my father died, as I searched the internet for plane reservations to join my family in his life celebration, I hastily ate a crusty roll for breakfast. As I ate it I remembered how my dad used to pull the soft white part of the bread out, and leave it to the side, because he only wanted the crunchy crust. I was always the lucky recipient of that soft inside. I smiled thinking of it, but then the thought that David would never have that kind of small memory of he and I invaded my thoughts. This continued to happen. As I brushed my teeth with my electric toothbrush, something I’ve been using for decades ever since my dad brought the family home an electric toothbrush in the early 70’s, I realized another influence he had had in my life. When I used my electric razor to shave, I remembered the mornings watching my dad shave with his electric razor, and thinking that was so cool, and that someday I would shave just like him. As I tied my necktie the morning of his funeral, I tied it just as my father had taught me 40+ years ago. There are many ways to tie a tie, but I always tie it the same way he taught me. That morning cup of coffee from the hotel “free breakfast” was a drink that the first time my father let me try made me want to wretch because it was so harsh a drink. But the aroma, which I always associated with my father, was a strong motivator, and I had learned to love a good cup of coffee, because that’s what my dad drank. All these things, and countless others, were things I had done because my dad was my hero, and I wanted so desperately to be like him growing up. I would never see that in David as a grown man. And, almost as importantly, I would never see the things that David would do differently than I did. Those things that he would do against my suggestions, because he knew better. Though I idolized my father, and so many of the things I did to emulate him, there were scores more things I did differently in my life. The things that caused discord between us from time to time, in hindsight, were often the things he was proudest of in me. Things I had achieved and pursued that he never understood. As the years passed he gained respect and appreciation for my individuality. David was only 10 when he died, and though he certainly was very different from me in many ways, he had yet to really have an opportunity to spread his wings and do something that was truly baffling to me and how I see the world. I imagine it might seem strange that I would long for those moments of argument and independence one sees as their children grow, unless you have been denied the privilege of those moments as I have.

The truth is, the most tears I shed for my father came in conjunction with thoughts of David. When I first realized that, if there is another side, my dad and David would be sharing a glorious reunion that I would not be witness to. When I stood at his viewing and touched him for the last time, I told him to “Give the boy a hug for me,” and the tears and emotion were so strong the words could barely fall from my lips. The simple concept that the two most important men in my life, my father and my son, are now gone from this realm has not yet fully sunk in, and I imagine it will be quite sometime until it does. Even seeing the other grand children, who I love dearly one and all, now grown and making lives of their own cast a pall of sadness because they had all been able to live so much more of life than David had been allowed.

I am glad that I made the choice to face the grief I had over David’s death, because if I had not, I imagine this reflective grief over my father dying would be exponentially more difficult than it has been. The coming year, with all the firsts without my father alive will be hard, and each event will bring forth the grief over David’s loss again. When David’s sister starts driving, and graduates from high school, and college, and gets married, I will think of both David and my dad, and how they would have loved to be there to see those things happen. I think the truth is that the grief over David’s death will reflect and resurface with every loss I face in my life, and every achievement. The trauma of losing him, my boy, was so unnatural and devastating that all other losses will be filtered through his loss, even the loss of my idol and hero, my dad.

Be good to yourself. Chose to battle grief and fight for your life. Carry the love forward. Peace, Light, and Laughter to all.

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About the Author
Bart Sumner's book, HEALING IMPROV: A JOURNEY THOUGH GRIEF TO LAUGHTER is available in the Grief Toolbox Marketplace. He is the founder & President of HEALING IMPROV, a nonprofit charity in Grand Rapids, Michigan that provides no cost Comedy Improv Grief Workshops to people struggling with finding the road forward. He lost his 10 y/o son David in 2009 to a sudden accident. He is an actor and writer who writes the blog MY STORIES FROM THE GRIEF JOURNEY at the website for
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