The Honesty I’ve Learned From Grief

Family photo,  circa 1960 - me, my father, grandfather and great-grandfather

My father is drifting away, a slow dissolve into dementia that will take months or years. I find myself grieving in several ways.

I am grieving the loss of my father as an intelligent, capable man. A math and physics major, he worked 38 years for the same company as a quality engineer, constantly finding and fixing problems. He taught me how to work with wood and build furniture. He could fix any plumbing or electrical problems around the house. It’s hard to watch a man whose mind was so strong and active struggle to hold a spoon and feed himself.

Coming into his room on any particular morning, I don’t know if he will recognize me, and it is wrenching to know that the days he does are dwindling. Seeing my father drift this way is like watching a flowing river empty out onto a large plateau, meandering into a web of broken streams, petering out, coming to rest in a marshy lowland.

There is another layer of loss I am grieving, and that is the relationship I had hoped I could have with him but never did. Dad was an introverted thinker. I was a hyperactive fidgeter. He, a cognitive processor; me, a swirl of passion and emotion. When I was fearful and sought reassurance, he would look for the problem that needed fixed. I wanted relational, he offered rational.

Mom and Dad raised my brother and me in the culture of their time. They were kind, upbeat, friendly, optimistic. They cared for us, came to our little league games, paid for piano lessons, but did not treat us as projects to perfect. They did not use the word “parenting,” which would have been as foreign to them as “truck drivering” or “mailmaning.” Tending our emotional lives or building our self-esteem was not within their sphere of responsibility. We were allowed and expected to roam the neighborhood, seek our own adventures, and fend for ourselves.

On the days he can converse with me, I try to make the most of it. We relive snippets of memory from our camping vacations or funny stories about childhood mishaps. On the days when he looks past me to the figures in his hallucinations, I feel the sucking weight of our separation. I am losing him, along with my hopes of what I wanted our relationship to be.

The clearest thing Dad taught me was bedrock honesty. Truly, he’s the most honest person I have ever known. It is woven deeply into his character and shines outward in the way he lives. The least I can do as we near the end of our time together is to honor that honesty by grieving what I need to grieve and accepting what that grief brings me.

My father gave me who he was, not who I wanted him to be. That was always unfair of me to ask. He loved me in his way, now I need to love him in mine. If my true self is emotional and relational, then that is what I can bring to him, even as our ability to connect cognitively disappears.

When his eyes retreat into a vacant stare, and he stops responding to my voice, a wrenching pull in my gut screams for me to shut down, to back away from the mountain of pain that lives in the fact of losing him. But to shut down would be unfaithful to the truth of who I am, the swirl of passion and emotion that he has always known. To stay open and feel what is here, to allow the waves of anger, to enter the hollow of my aching heart, to let the mountain fall and crush me, that is what I need to do to be present with my father and let him sense my love for him.

To do that selflessly, as he has given himself selflessly to me, seems like the most honest thing that I can do.

Family photo, circa 1960 – me, my father, grandfather and great-grandfather

6 Replies to “The Honesty I’ve Learned From Grief”

  1. My heart goes out to you Steve. Thanks for the courage to wear yours on your sleeve and to write with such candor and eloquence.
    I’m watching my 91 year-old mom wrestle with her own decline. Trying my best to be fully present for her. It’s not easy!
    Sending warm thoughts, Eileen

  2. My dad is very much like your dad- an introverted engineer. He’s 95 1/2 and has lost most of his memory, though he remembers his wife and we children. He can’t walk anymore and has a full time caregiver. Like you, I used to wish we could connect on a feelings level, but that just didn’t happen. He was never interested in any of his grandchildren. Now he is in hospice, but I’m not feeling sad about his eventual death. I think I’ve made my peace with the father I have, and not the father I used to wish for.

  3. Steve, this is quite beautiful and a worthy tribute to your father, who truly is a very special man. I’m sure he would be moved to read what you’ve written of him here (and elsewhere).

    I continue to be amazed at your ability to identify and elucidate emotions that we all feel. Bless you, Steve, and thank you for sharing with all of us your powerful ideas and wonderful writing.

    1. Thanks Chris. Yes, he was and is an amazing man. The journey is painful much of the time, but beautiful in some ways as well. I am glad to accompany him on this last leg to wherever it goes. Thanks for your kind words.

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