You hear a lot of words of comfort when you’ve lost someone close to you. You hear, “They’re in a better place,” “They were a good person,” or “I’m sorry for your loss.” They’re all cliche but that’s because there’s nothing you can say that will fix how the person feels. All you can do is be there for them.
When my father passed away six years ago, I was fortunate to have so many people there for me. Along with that came advice on how to manage the grieving process.
Some of the advice is very helpful. “Think of the funeral as a celebration of his life rather than a mourning of his death.” “Continue to tell stories about him to friends, old and new, and his memory will live on.” “Build traditions around him to help stay connected to those who knew him.” These ideas have all helped us with his passing (the last one is the reason we do shots of Jägermeister on Father’s Day and eat hot fudge cake on his birthday).
Some of the advice isn’t so helpful. Sorry, I’m not going to keep his ashes in a place that is visible at all times and no I don’t want to bust out a Ouija board to see if we can connect with his spirit using a piece of wood manufactured by the same company that makes Bop It.
There are things about losing someone that people don’t tell you about. They don’t tell you how big of a pain all of the legal work is going to be after the fact. Or that shady people will try to play on your emotions to try to get something out of you (jokes on them, I’m emotionally stunted so that won’t work anyway). Or that your own extended family members might put their own gain above anything else.
But the biggest thing they don’t tell you about is how the loss is going to affect you. Not just in the moment, but long-term. And the reason they don’t tell you is because they can’t. Loss is different for everyone.
You’re going to have days where you think about little else but that person being gone. Holidays, anniversaries, their birthday, and family gatherings may make them top-of-mind all day. We have the fun of his birthday (12/9) and the day of his death (12/11) being so close to each other and right in the middle of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Let’s just say December can be an emotional month.
You’ll have other days where you forget they’re gone. A few months ago, I went to the driving range for the first time in years. After I finished up and returned to my car, I instinctually pulled out my phone to give him a call because that’s what I would always do. I’d tell him how I did and that I kept slicing the ball. He’d remind me to relax my grip and keep my head down. I’d tell him I was still going to beat him in a round of golf someday. I never did.
You may have extended periods of time where you don’t even think about the person. You may go a few days, weeks, or months without them crossing your mind, and then when they do, you feel terrible about yourself wondering if you’re cold-hearted because you’ve seemingly moved on.
There will be certain things that trigger memories of the person. For me, anytime I’m in the grocery store buying chicken breast or ground beef, I think of him. My dad spent years working as a butcher and was the cook in our family. Once I moved away from home, anytime I went to the store I would call him from the meat section. I would ask him to remind me how to find the right cut, how much I needed for the dish I was cooking, and what percentage of “lean beef” best balanced health and taste. I’d still call him every time if I could.
You might find that certain things just make you sad. I never used be the type of person to cry in movies, but now anytime there’s a funeral or someone grieving in a movie, the waterworks flow. I thought I was safe watching Furious 7 (of The Fast & The Furious franchise) on an airplane. I cried more in that movie than in Bambi.
There are times when I’m going through something tough that I wish I could call my dad up and ask for his thoughts. He knew a great deal about construction, always had a clear head for making decisions, and could seemingly figure out any questionable flags I wasn’t able to solve in Minesweeper.
But the hardest part isn’t when times are tough. I have an incredible support network to draw on when I get stressed out or I can’t figure out how to solve something. My mom, my brothers, my girlfriend, my friends. They’re all there for me whenever I need.
No. The hardest part is when times are good. The highest of the highs, the celebrations, the moments you’re proudest of. And you just wish that that person could just see you shine. Not for yourself, not for your own ego, but so that they knew what they helped you become.
My dad passed away a year into my full-time speaking career, when the events were still small and my performance was still shaky. He only got to see me speak once. It was a talk I did for a retirement home, a group of 75 retirees all 70+ years old. The talk was on the value of humor for healthy aging. It wasn’t my greatest performance but my dad enjoyed it. His favorite part was when I made the mistake of asking the group if they had any good jokes they’d like to share and an 85-year old man proceeded to tell, and then explain, a very racist joke. My dad thought it was so funny (not the racist joke, but that I had to handle someone telling it).
That was the only talk he saw. He never saw either of my TEDx talks. He never saw me standing on a stage in front thousands of people getting laughs or applause breaks. He never got to read stories about me in the newspaper, hear my nerdy voice on the radio, or see my silly face on our Local 12 News that we watched growing up. He never read my subsequent books and was never forced to leave a review on Amazon for me.
And he’ll never see my new highs. He hasn’t met Sabrina, he won’t meet my future kids, he’ll never get a nickname from one of his grandchildren who can’t quite say Ted for some reason.
He’ll never get to see who I’ve become. And that’s what is the hardest because I know he’d be so damn proud.
Not because of what I’ve been able to do but because of how far we’ve come. My oldest brother was always shy and a bit reserved. Now he’s a loving husband and incredible father while crushing it in his work. My middle brother was diagnosed with dyslexia at an early age and now he’s one of the top-ranked lecturers at Texas A&M. I was a nerdy, socially awkward kid and now I speak on stages all around the world. He and my mom raised three boys who are all doing their part in trying to make the world a little bit of a better place. And he’s not here to see it.
Grief is a challenging emotion. Sometimes you grieve and you feel terrible because, compared to other people, your situation isn’t so bad. Other times, you don’t grieve at all, and you feel terrible because you think you’re supposed to.
I know I’m incredibly fortunate. I have a wonderful group of people that I’m honored to call friends and family. I got to know my father more than many others get the chance. There are plenty of people who lost one or both of their parents at an early age, or who never really knew them at all.
I also know I’m incredibly lucky that we got to mend our relationship before he passed, that it wasn’t completely out of the blue, that I wasn’t left wishing I had said more.
I just wish he was here to see where I am, where the whole family is, now. To see how far we’ve come and where we’ll continue to go. And so I could finally beat him in a round of golf.