Losing a loved one is a catastrophic event. It’s so catastrophic that its occurrence inevitably divides one’s life into a “pre-” and a “post-“; in my case, that is, there are two high-level categories of events: those that happened before my father died, and those that happened after. Everything else is minutiæ

I’m prompted to revisit these feelings because the father of an old acquaintance died on Saturday, relatively suddenly1 of a brain tumor2, and being at the wake today made me think once again of my own experiences in May. The friend’s father was 53, a scant two years older than my father. It doesn’t help that I dreamed last night I visited my father just before he died, and called him on the day it happened, warning him: I have no idea how the dream ended, but clearly I know how things transpired in real life.

Dad and his granddaughter Isabella

There’s a lot of talk about moving on with life, and I’m doing that. But there’s a certain level of guilt associated with doing so, because every action of mine is now existing in this “post-” era. My puns evoke memories of long-winded punning matches with my father at dinner; talking about the student module of our administrative computing system at work invariably leads my co-workers to say “Well, when Eric was here…”

The difficulty, then, is coping with the invasive nature of this “post-” era, wherein the idea of death so morbidly taints everything we do. Dad’s death, and every death since dad’s death, reminds us selfishly of our own mortality. It was easy, by comparison, to accept my father’s death when I imagined him as a superhero, as an übermensch, who solved our childhood ills and occasionally lost his temper as superheroes are wont to do. It is infinitely more difficult to imagine my father as a grown-up version of me, and I suddenly worry as I never did before that maybe he was scared or lonely; that maybe he was frustrated, angry, or anxious. As long as I kept my father in the abstract, apart from the vagaries that are life as Ben, he was impermeable, even in death. He was more like a viking, sailing off in a burning boat, his sword laid across his chest; it was only us poor schlubs in the land of the living who were dealing with sleepless nights and inestimable sadness, the coal-dark periphery of a dream which persists into breakfast.

Most of the immediate family at my sister's baby shower

So what of life after catastrophe? I am not the first person to deal with it; certainly my loss was even minor by comparison to some of the choice bits on the highlight reel of human misery. “Post-” Ben realized rather swiftly that any remnants of childish behavior had to go; he realized with some bewilderment that he is 23, gainfully employed, with a 403(b) and independent investment accounts. He is an uncle, a beloved cousin3; he is a loving boyfriend; he is a brother to two siblings with whom his relationship has never seemed so important as now. He is a son to his widowed mother—the close son, and hence the primary means of aid; the tool-wielder, the dinner-maker, the technology-fixer, and one of the most important available means of emotional support. This from one of the least-demonstrative, most inward-turned people you’ll ever meet. Post-catastrophe living is something strange and jarring.

Dad and my cat Tiamat

Dad’s death gave birth to all these epiphenomena. I find myself somewhat adrift, prone to fits of melancholy. I do not know how to effectively comfort my mother when I internally rail against the injustice of it all; that constant presence of loss provokes me to despair. The very act of contemplation, post-catastrophe, is painful, even funereal. I dwell on the new physics imparted by death, which casually remove the laws of permanence to which we so naïvely subscribed; they steal the very gravity of our beings, and we sit bereft of locii or control, noting only absence in every aspect of things.

But the world has no time for death: it ushers us forward from the moribund, threatens us with statues of salt for our remembrance. My brother looked at Dad’s bare new grave and recalled Whitman, who called grass “the beautiful uncut hair of graves,”4 and I have not been back to check the progress of dad’s metaphorical beard. I suppose I could fault my schedule. In truth, I dread it; I cannot stand graveside and pontificate, I cannot derive any comfort from flowers or slants of sunlight or picturesque butterflies. Every entity in this universe speeds away from his grave and toward its eventual own, and I along with them, a stunned bird pointed forward by instinct and flapping dumbly in the sun.

  1. As compared to a heart attack[]
  2. A grade 4 glioblastoma[]
  3. This, too, blew my mind. My young cousins at some point decided that I am the cat’s meow. I have precisely no natural rapport with children, so how this came to be, and how I managed not to destroy their illusions, remains a mystery to me.[]
  4. Leaves of Grass, line 102[]
§2313 · August 31, 2008 · Tags: , ·

3 Comments to “On loss”

  1. Nicholas Tam says:

    I may only know you through your book reviews, but that was beautiful, and I thought I’d thank you for sharing. My parents are still around, and I’m not at all ready for them to go.

  2. Conor says:

    Technically (or is that word overused?), I only know you through book reviews, too. But this was an awesomely deep post, so maybe I do know you a little better now after all.

    In the years since leaving home to go to school, I, the youngest, have realized how very, very much my mother needs tools, dinners, and technologies. She wouldn’t say she does, of course, nor would she ever imply that I’ve failed on these counts. This weekend I went home, for the first time in a long time, and got in much later than anticipated on a Sunday night. It was 1am by the time I pulled into the driveway. There was a fresh pizza in the oven, and she tried to act like she’d made it for herself.

    I wanted to stay up forever and never sleep again.

  3. Brady says:

    I used Dad’s death in class with my seniors the other day when beginning a unit on the nature of suffering. We were talking about whether or not everything happens for a reason.

    I mentioned the terrible effects of Dad’s death: the trauma of his sudden loss, his painful absence in the lives of those who loved him. I also mentioned the positive effects: the refreshed importance of family, the appreciation of mortality, the maturation and taking on of responsibility you and I underwent.

    So, I asked them, did Dad die for a reason? Was it part of a cosmic/theological plan that we should gain those positive effects? Or was his death a random event, and the positive effects simply a way of blunting the effect of the blow and moving on?

    Was the effect of Dad’s death the cause? That question has them ready for Theodicy, Candide, and The Book of Job.

    It was weird using Dad’s death as a pedagogical device, but isn’t that about the only way to make death palatable? I think he would have appreciated being able to educate even after death.

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