By Lisa Sugarman
The first time my dad Jim died, it was the first of August, 1978.
His death came with no warning. On Monday night he tucked me into bed, said he loved me, kissed my mom, and went downstairs to watch his Red Sox play a late-evening summer game. By Tuesday morning, he was gone, taken by a heart attack in his sleep and leaving a gash through my heart that would never fully heal. Could never fully heal. I was barely ten years old when my dad died that first time and I was the textbook definition of a daddy’s girl, so it toppled me face first. I was lost and shattered and confronted with the unbearable reality that the person who I felt most secure with in the world was gone.
Whether it was peak bagging together in the White Mountains or handing him tools while he changed the oil in his ‘77 Datsun 280Z or berry picking on the trails behind our house or watching Star Trek squished in his leather easy chair every night after dinner, I savored every chance to be by my dad’s side. Always.
I once heard sports commentator Stuart Scott call an athlete cool as the other side of the pillow and that always reminded me of my dad, because that’s who he was to everyone who knew him. Especially me. From what I remember from our time together as father and daughter, he was soft spoken and kind, loving and genuine, with an adventurer’s soul. He always wanted to be in nature or driving fast around a track or testing his body’s limits on the tennis court or with his tattered red Eastern Mountain Sports daypack on his back. And he gifted his passion for those things to me. So, as you’d expect, there hasn’t been a single day since he left us in the summer of ‘78 when I haven’t felt the pain of that loss deep in my bones.
That was how his first death changed my life.
The second time I lost my dad I was in my mid-forties, when I learned he’d actually taken his own life. The heart attack was just a story my mother invented to spare me the pain of living out my life knowing that my father had chosen to leave us. In her mind, it was devastating enough for me that he was gone; she just couldn’t bear to pour more kerosene on an already raging fire. So needless to say, this impossible truth blew me to pieces. Because this new and ugly narrative required a completely different kind of grieving, starting from scratch all over again. The kind of grief you can never prepare for at any stage of life.
The thing about grief is, it’s deceptive and irreverent and it shows up both when we expect it to and, most often, when we don’t. See, the grief we carry for our people really does stay with us for the rest of our life; it just oozes more on some days than on others. That’s why, in the decades since my dad left us, I’ve endlessly searched for ways to feel close to him—ways of keeping his memory and his presence alive in a world where his physicalness is gone forever. As a way of softening the grief. And that search has led me to discover a couple of powerful ways to stay connected to someone we’ve lost, regardless of how or when we lost them.
One thing in particular that instantly brings me closer to my dad is saying his name out loud. This simple little gesture just buoys my heart when the name Jim hits the air and there’s another human there to receive it. Even better is when someone who knew my dad shares a memory or a story or says his name on their own in casual conversation. That’s a one-of-a-kind kind of gift. Because being without your person for over four decades means you’re left without a part of yourself for all that time—a vacant space that can and should never be filled by anyone else. And it sucks. It’s akin to finishing a jigsaw puzzle and finding one of the pieces is missing. The image is still represented, but the empty space makes it incomplete. So, hearing or speaking my dad’s name somehow fills that empty space for me, if only for a few short seconds. I might even go so far as to say that moments of intense grief bring my dad back to the present moment, making him feel a little less gone somehow. Even all these years later, I find that certain things and places and people help to temper that loss, if only for a blink. But I’ll take even a flicker of time when I get to feel him closer to me.
Whether you’re experiencing a new loss or, like me, you’ve been grieving someone’s death for most of your life, accepting that grief is cyclical is just a core tenant of the whole grieving process. Because grief is for life, we just experience it in different ways and at different levels along the way. And I’ve learned we need to honor and make space for the ebb and flow of that river when it comes throughout the course of our lives, without trying to avoid or dismiss it. Because, when we reject feelings of sadness or loss that are attached to someone we’ve lost, those feelings don’t just evaporate over time. Instead, those murky emotions will just continue to pool up in our hearts until, eventually, they spill out all over us when we least expect it.
Now, I’m by no means a grief counselor, but I have lost a parent, a cousin, and a close friend to suicide. I’ve also said goodbye to my share of friends and family members starting when I was nine. So, I’ve spent the better part of my life accompanied by grief, and it’s given me a pretty unique perspective through which to better understand the emotions we cycle through when we lose someone we love. And it’s because of that that I’ve learned a couple of valuable lessons that may help you better navigate your own individual journey through grief.
Lesson #1 : There’s great comfort to be found when you say someone’s name after they’re gone.
By using a loved one’s name after they die, we actually honor the life they lived and the impact they had on us and the world around them. Because when we say their name, we create space to talk about our person and share the memories that helped make them so important to us. And that’s food for the soul.
Lesson #2 : Grief isn’t linear, it’s more like a circle that we travel around again and again over the course of our life. So, we need to embrace the waves of sadness and loss when they come because we’re always going to double back to points when our grief feels more present regardless of how long our person has been gone.
No matter where I’ve been along the timeline of my life—as a newly fatherless child or as a bride walking down the aisle or as a new mother holding my newborn daughters for the first time—grief has been right there with me, in moments of extreme sadness or joy or fear or accomplishment. And what I’ve realized is that grief is like a translucent film that rests on top of our day-to-day life. It’s always present but it’s often undetectable to the naked eye, until there’s a happening or an occasion for it to rise and become tangible again. Then it recedes back into the shadows. And that back and forth is the only real constant about grief. Either way, it’s always there.
We need to give ourselves permission to grieve how we grieve, regardless of how long it lasts or what it may look like or how it might make us (or others) feel. We need to embrace the suck and allow ourselves to sit in our feelings and feel all the feels. Then we need to share with the people closest to us what we need and how we need it by encouraging them to talk about our person, to ask questions, to mention their name, to remember them. These are the things that will keep us tethered to our person and give us a way to keep them alive. And saying their name aloud when we feel them is one of the most powerful ways I’ve found of accomplishing that, because it’s a reminder that we can grieve and feel joy all at the same time.
So please, say their name. And say it often.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
#Grief #Loss #Stories2Connect #Suicide #SuicideSurvivor