Sorry for your Loss

A friend from high school died this week. Everything we all hope to be, she already was. She left this world at 33, leaving behind so many who loved her fiercely.

I can’t count the number of funerals I have been to. I lost my dad at a young age. I have been to the funeral of my first prom date and to the funeral of a friend I had loved from the first day of kindergarten through graduation. I have watched friends carry the caskets of their babies. In my lifetime, I have experienced loss. We all have and we all will. The more loss I experience, the more I realize how difficult it can be to talk about grief.

I have never understood the phrase “So sorry for your loss.” Maybe it’s because I have experienced deep loss early in my life. Maybe it’s because I have dedicated the last 16 years of my life to studying expressive and receptive language. I love language and the power words can have on the world. Grief is hard to express, so incredibly hard. What if we found a way to express it in a way that others can understand? What if we found a way to say these words with depth and meaning?

I quit saying, “I’m sorry,” at funerals years ago. I know why people say it; they say it because at least it is something. It is acknowledging a loss, but ‘sorry’ is what I say to someone when I accidentally bump them with my shopping cart. I always felt that “Sorry for your loss,” would be fitting for a lost wallet, but not the love of your life or a parent you’ve never lived a day without.

When my dad died, I wanted someone to use words that made sense. I didn’t like the cliché sympathy card sayings. Actually, I couldn’t stand those sayings. Time wasn’t going to heal anything and while things might happen for a reason, I just wanted my dad back. My friends all had one and I didn’t understand why I was the one who didn’t.  I wanted someone to say, “I know what it’s like to miss him on this big milestone days, but to miss him even more every day in between.”  I wanted someone to say, “I know what it’s like to miss him when you drive by his office and his car isn’t there, but you still look just to make sure it’s not a bad dream. I know what it’s like to see a tie you know he would like, wishing you could buy it for him. I know what it’s like to watch your teammate’s dads walk into your volleyball game and you look up every time those doors open, even though your dad won’t be walking in.” The summer after high school, I sat next to my friend’s casket, alone in the funeral home before the visitation started. I wanted someone to acknowledge the way my heart hurt. I felt as if my heart had truly broken and “sorry for your loss” didn’t recognize that I would never hear his voice again. I wanted someone to say, “I know you are going to keep dialing his phone number for years to come, I’ve been there, too,” and “I know you’ll miss him all over again when there’s an inside joke or an event he was supposed to be at, and for a fleeting second you forget he isn’t here to share it.”

This week I will go to a funeral to say good-bye to one of the sweetest girls I ever knew. I was lucky to know her. I was lucky to call her a friend. I will tell her family that I loved her and that I will miss her. I will tell them that for years to come. I will make sure her husband knows that I will be cheering for their son at his future football games. I will make sure her best friends know I will be thinking of them when her birthday rolls around this fall and it’s the first year in 20 years that they haven’t spent it with her.

I wish that when people offered sympathy, the conversation would change. Rather than approaching someone to offer condolences, we would share a favorite memory and follow it with, “Moments like that are what I’m going to miss about him.” Maybe we could do more to check on grieving loved ones, not just in the days that follow, but in the months and years, too. The greatest thing we could do is not be afraid to mention their names. I love nothing more than hearing stories about my dad, whether I have heard them before or not. When you know there will never be a new memory, you never tire of the old ones. Maybe when we think of a grieving friend, we can actually take the time to let them know. When we say, “Sorry for your loss,” what we really mean to say is, “I’m sorry my life and schedule will resume when I leave this funeral, but your house will be dark and quiet when you return home. I’m sorry the household duties you once shared are now entirely up to you. I’m sorry that you’ll keep waiting for the sound of the garage door, wishing he would come walking through the door.” Maybe when we said, “I’m sorry,” we could find a way to really say it.

Grief is real and raw and deserves so much more than the empty cliché quotes. The memories we had left to make deserve to be said aloud.

Twenty Years

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 6ae4bccbe6e89a1f143269536d7b96936e050e16.jpg

This week will mark the 20th year since I lost my dad. I can’t wrap my mind around that concept. The days and weeks and years just continue to keep going. February 9th creeps up on us every year and suddenly one day you realize this year means two decades.

I was thirteen years old when his glioblastoma took him away from us. My friends were spending that winter of our 7th grade year excited about seeing the Titanic a dozen times or comparing Backstreet Boys to Hanson. I was making frequent trips to the rehab hospital, grateful for those afternoons after school when I could stop in and see him and we would watch a syndicated show together. We could sit in silence and know that just being together was enough, because those afternoons in that hospital room would be as close as we would get to normal.

It is incredible to me what our memory is able to retain and what it chooses to let go. I can’t remember what I wore yesterday, but I can tell you everything about that cold February morning when he left. Every single thing. I can tell you what the sky looked like that morning and hear the voice of the hospice nurse say, “Time of death…” I can remember calling my best childhood friend and telling her the news in such a matter-of-fact way, because it seemed like I should tell someone. I remember writing a note for my dad as quickly as I could, because that’s what 7th grade girls do, but this one would be buried with him forever, so I had to make it count. I remember looking at the clothes my mom selected to take to the funeral home. I remember the funeral home arriving with an unmarked minivan, thinking this is not what minivans are for. On that first day, the day your life changes forever, you can’t possibly imagine all your life will consist of, this new life, and that’s a blessing. It would be too much.

I was 13 years old when he died. This means I’ve now lived far more years without him than I did with him. That being said, I realize how much love and commitment he put into my life in those short years. He went above and beyond to provide for his family. He was the guy everyone wanted to talk to when he entered a room. He was the guy who made everyone laugh. He absolutely adored my mom. He was the patient who brought the surgeons donuts on the morning of his brain surgery. He helped coach my teams and he drove us late through the night to get to horse shows. He treated everyone with respect and kindness, always offering a hand to those who could use it.

What I couldn’t have understood at age 13, is to what extent that year would change every aspect of my future. I would sit in the hospital room, fascinated by the speech-language pathologists and the way they seemed to work a magic, the way they could bring words out him even after the glioblastoma had taken his speech. Twenty years later, I became that speech pathologist. Twenty years later, I still remember what it feels like to be the family member as you hold your breath and pray your loved one could say something, anything of meaning to you. My dad had a love for Make-A-Wish. While in the university hospital, his roommate was a teenage boy also battling a glioblastoma. I sat on the floor in the hallway with tears pouring down my face as I listened to Make-A-Wish volunteers ask what he would like for a wish. Twenty years later, I have the honor of being a wish granter for this organization my dad loved so dearly.

At age 13, I couldn’t have understood what it is like to be a single mom. At age 30, I learned what it was like. Twenty years without a parent gives you a tremendous respect, the deepest appreciation for a mom who did it all – and mine absolutely did it all. After I became a mom, I had a realization that changed my life. Prior to parenthood, I had never thought about his perspective as he battled brain cancer. I thought of the memories I had yet to make with him, but I had never once thought about the memories he had yet to make with me. Twenty years ago I didn’t think about the decades of parenthood he hoped to experience, and the joys his future granddaughters would have brought him.

One of the most fascinating aspects of then and now is seeing how much his granddaughters share the traits and characteristics of a man they never met. My oldest has his frown when she’s deep in thought and his sense of humor. My youngest shares his passion for good-looking cowboy boots and a sharp suit coat. They both inherited his love for music, even the kind he loved in the 70’s. They both talk about him as if they knew him, as if they had the privilege of his pony rides and listening to his bedtime stories. They love him and they miss him, too, as if they somehow know how worthy he is of being missed.

The day a loved one leaves you, you can’t possibly prepare yourself for all of those milestones they’ll miss, the holidays that will seem so quiet. Yet, when they leave, you also have no idea how much their life is forever embedded in yours. You will one day find yourself grabbing a bag of candy he loved at the gas station or downloading a song you remember him singing to you on the way to school. You will one day realize you chose this career because of him. You will one day be volunteering for something he loved and you realize just how much you love it, too. I couldn’t change the outcome of his cancer, but I could change the outcome of my life without him. I could make sure he was remembered. I could make sure that the things he loved so much with his giving heart, would be honored. I don’t love all of these things only because he did, I love them because what was part of him innately became part of me.

This week will mark 7,300 days without him, which was over half of my life. What I have come to realize is it’s not just the day I want to think about him, honor him – it’s those minutes that have made up the 7,300 days. It’s the minutes that will make up the rest of my life and the lives of my little girls. It’s the way his life shaped every aspect of mine. When you lose a parent as a child, you have no idea how that will impact how you parent. You have a deeper understanding that these days aren’t promised.

One winter day, my parents left a doctor appointment and our plans were diverted. Life is a combination of moments and certain moments will change everything. We will live our moments with compassion and kindness. We will find humor even on the toughest days. These moments go too fast, whether we want them to or not, but we will make them count.