On grief: A son copes with his father’s death

On Nov. 8, 2017, my dad died. We had known he was dying — had had weeks to prepare for his death. What I was not prepared for was the sense of irrevocable loss. My dad was gone. He wasn’t just my dad. He was my hero. He was my friend.

All of this came back to me recently, as I sat in a memorial service at the James J. Peters VA Medical Center in the Bronx, where my dad, who’d served in the Korean War, had been treated and died. The VA describes it as a last roll-call ceremony of remembrance. It’s meant to celebrate the veterans who have passed on and bring a measure of closure to those they left behind.

On arrival, each family received a single rose. During the memorial service, families were invited to share stories of the departed veteran, after which they placed the rose in a vase forming a “bouquet of remembrance.” The stories were warm, funny, touching and uniting in a way I hadn’t quite expected. Other fathers had died. Other children had loved and looked up to their fathers. Other children, spouses and grandchildren were hurting. I was not alone.

As I listened to those stories, I looked around that crowded room. There was such diversity there — a slender well-spoken white woman spoke elegantly about her tennis-playing husband; a half-Sicilian, half-Cherokee woman spoke about how she would kiss her father all over his face. “He’d giggle like a little girl,” she said. A Latinx man talked about his father’s history of abuse, a history that had not precluded love; a black family spoke about their stern father who’d brought them up well; a young girl talked about her rage and inability to process her grandfather’s death. She had, she confessed, remained confused and angry at God until she sat down and wrote a poem about her grandfather. I understood the release her poetry had given her. As a writer, as a communicator, I believe in words, and I use them to release everything I have pent up in myself. It is through words that I process my lived experience.

We were all so different. Yet we’d been brought together by a single facility — the James J. Peters VA Medical Center — which had cared for ours in a way we couldn’t ourselves, and who had done so with honesty, compassion and respect. We were strangers, yet we were united in our grief. Some people had lost their loved one months before, as I had; for others, the loss was relatively new, just weeks old. They were all looking for a way out of grief. I got up to share my story.
One night, I told them, I dreamt of my dad. I was in Grand Central Station walking and carrying a heavy box. I had no idea what was in it, but it was so heavy. I didn’t know where I was going, but I knew I had to keep walking. Then I saw my dad walking towards me. I stopped. Daddy! He smiled at me. I started to turn to follow him. “No, Lawrence,” he said, “I have to go this way to continue my journey. You can’t come with me. You have to go on your way. I’m OK.” He started walking again, and I started to walk in the opposite direction, as I had been before seeing him. I looked down and realized the heavy box was gone.

I was surprised by how many people came up to me after to thank me for sharing that story.

I asked my colleague, Judy Morrissey, LCSW, who is the director of Behavioral Health at Mazzoni Center, about grief. “The most important thing,” she said, “is to acknowledge what you’re going through is grief. Be kind to yourself. Know you may need extra support, or time. It doesn’t mean you’re weak if you’re sad, or lonely or missing that person. It’s healthy to talk about that person — talking about them can take the form of sharing a favorite memory or simply going to a place that was special to both of you.”

For some people, Morrissey said, grief is a linear process. “For others, it jumps around and for still others, it goes back and forth. Just as individuals, we express ourselves differently, so too do we express our grief.”

Larry Benjamin is director of communications at Mazzoni Center. He is also the author of three novels, a collection of short stories, an allegorical novella and the blog “This Writer’s Life.”