This week I witnessed a close friend’s brother die suddenly and far too young. It’s the sort of event that makes you stop for a moment and think about the constancy of death. We are either going to lose the ones we love or they will lose us – there is no way around it. There is not much that we can say to our friends when it happens except be there for them, be present and offer what support we can.
I went to my friend’s brother’s funeral not because I knew him – I had never met him – but because I wanted to be there for her. My own father died (suddenly and far too young) eleven years ago and I still remember, at the memorial service, the friends of mine who had never met him, who came just to support me. My memories of that day are dreamlike and patchy but I can see the faces, still, of my friends. I didn’t realise for years how much I appreciated them being there.
Leaving the funeral this week I thought of how when people we love die they become more constant in our thoughts rather than less. I still think of my father frequently – nearly every day. I think of his gruff, distant way of expressing love to my sister and I: the scratch of his beard when he kissed us goodnight, the wicked smile he had when he told a funny story. I see in my son his pale blue eyes, his way with words and languages. I see in my daughter his love of solitude and self-sufficiency. And I seem to have inherited his black humour, his penchant for jogging, his long, knobbly toes. When he died I tried harder to please him than I ever did when he was alive. He was no longer there to fight against, as I had spent my adolescence doing.
Not long ago I read the collected advice columns from “Dear Sugar” (Cheryl Strayed) called Tiny Beautiful Things, a book that I can’t recommend highly enough. In answering people’s letters she writes about her own struggles and one of those is the experience of losing her mother. She writes:
Finding a way in my grief to become the woman who my mother raised me to be is the most important way I have honoured my mother. It has been the greatest salve to my sorrow. The strange and painful truth is that I’m a better person because I lost my mom young…I’d give it all back in a snap, but the fact is, my grief taught me things. It showed me shades and hues I couldn’t have otherwise seen. It required me to suffer. It compelled me to reach.
When I read that I felt as though she had made a fist around my heart and squeezed. While I still miss my father every day, I have worked much harder to be my true self since he died. And part of that work has been writing – persevering in spite of rejection. I feel like he would have appreciated my effort. And this is what loss taught me, I suppose, to honour the memory of a person.
After all, we only experience loss because we have been given so much.
(And if you’re in Sydney, Cheryl Strayed will be at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in May.)