When you lose someone you love, the loss becomes part of you. As time passes the loss changes shape, weight, texture, but you carry it everywhere. It’s experience that changes you, wisdom to share in measured doses, depending on how willing another is to receive.
My father died of cancer seventeen years ago today: February 13th, 1995, the day before Valentine’s Day. We sat shiva for just three days before we felt him urging us to get back out into the world and live—on his behalf, on our own. I remember walking outside on February 17th and thinking what a lonely place it was without Mel Williamson. Lonelier still for those who’d never known him. And then something happened—I don’t remember what—I saw some interaction between strangers on the street: something Dad would have made a comment about or laughed at, and I remember smiling. A private smile, between me and Dad’s memory.
Since the day he’d died, I’d been getting back memories of the real him—not the fragile man who’d been in his bed for the past year and a half—but the hearty, brilliant, loving and funny guy my Dad was before. But that day, walking, thinking of him, imagining his smile, hearing his rich bass laugh in my head, it was suddenly clear: I’d be okay.
In the beginning, I cried every day—many times a day—missing him, longing for him, saying angrily, he should still be here! But mindful of his pain, I’d add: not like that. The first year was hardest; there was still so much I wanted to ask him and tell him. The next four years were the next hardest. With every milestone, including my wedding in 1999, I’d think it: you should be here, Dad.
Once I met a woman who lost her father before I lost mine. She told me: the first ten years are the worst. Then it gets easier. And it’s true. Sometime after the tenth anniversary of my father’s death, I stopped feeling angry that he was missing so much of my life—and by then my children were born. I actually started enjoying the wistful moments: what would Dad have thought of this? What would he have said to that? My children enjoy hearing about him; I enjoy seeing traces of him in them. It is easier now.
As I gain distance from my father’s death, I want to share the balm of time that’s made my loss easier to bear. But when I meet others who have recently lost parents, or who are losing them, I hold myself back from saying things like “you’ll get through it,” or “it’s hard, but it will be okay.” Everyone’s loss is their own, as is their pace of recovery. I can’t tell you how it’s going to turn out for you and your loss. I can only say, you’re not alone, and if you need to talk, I’ve been someplace similar.
In June 2010, I published Soul Food Shiva, a more detailed essay about losing my father to cancer, in the Defenders Online. You can read it by clicking here.