As the Photographer-in-Residence at Oakwood Cemetery, I knew I would be participating in this project, but I did not expect to do so in this way. When the Executive Director of the cemetery asked me if I was going to write a letter, I said, “No. My contribution will be the portraits.” But then, as we were preparing the project for the public, my father died. And so, I’m writing a letter.
I thought I had a good grasp on it. My mother passed on now more than 20 years ago, and I had been spending time with other letter-writers, talking to them about their experiences with death and loss as I snapped their photo. I was pretty confident in my abilities to deal with grief.
While my father’s death was unexpected, it did not come as a surprise to me. His health had been declining. When choosing a new battery for his pacemaker, he opted for the less expensive 3-year model, not the 10-year one. “How much time could I possibly have left??” he said.
When I saw my aunt’s name displayed on my iPhone’s caller ID that day, the same phone I’d been using to take the portraits for this project, I knew exactly what she was going to say when I answered. My dad was 82.
I’ve learned three things since that day:
1.) Death is dizzying.
As with most life-changing events, there are a seemingly infinite number of tasks that must be done. Decisions needed to be made and in most cases quickly. Choosing a time to travel, deciding what clothes to pack, and writing an obituary all made my head spin. That feeling continued throughout each day prior to the funeral and even for a time after. I’m forever grateful to my wife for being a stabilizing force during that time.
The dizziness happens less frequently now, but I’m fortunate I have someone I can hold on to when I’m feeling off balance. Who’s your person? If you don’t have one, find one.
2.) Death is heavy.
In the days and months following my father’s death, I felt as if there was a giant weight on me, pressing down, requiring me to exert extra effort to perform even the simplest tasks. I remember wondering if anyone could see it.
In the days before the funeral, my family and I stayed at my father’s house, several hundred miles away from our home. I went to get coffee each morning, to the same place he, no doubt, did countless times, and each morning I realized that no one I saw there knew how I was feeling, what I was carrying, or even what tasks I had to do during the rest of the day.
I wondered if they wondered why they hadn’t seen him in a few days and if they knew I was coming in because he no longer would.
Once we do know that a person has suffered a loss, we’re pretty good at doing what’s prescribed: we send a card, bake a cake, say “Sorry for your loss.”
After my mother died, I remember my father saying, “The hardest part was when the cards and calls and casseroles stopped coming.” How many people do we pass on the street, at work or even in our own family who are carrying a weight that we don’t see? When you meet someone, treat them as if they are carrying a weight. There’s a good chance they are.
3.) Death stirs up love
Jamie Anderson wrote, “Grief, I’ve learned is just really love. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot. All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.”
I think love is stirred up in those who are grieving. I know I felt it. I found great comfort in hearing stories about my father at his wake. Especially ones from people I didn’t know. Their memories of what he did, things he said and how he made them feel made me love him even more.
The way we live our lives sends out ripples into the world, and, while many times we don’t consider the impact we’re having, we make a mark.
I also think love is awakened in the dying.
During her final hospital stay, as she neared the end of her life, my mother asked my father, “How does your mother know my grandmother?” My father replied, “They don’t. They’ve never met.” But she was adamant, “No! I saw them talking together today. My grandmother was wearing a pink dress.”
Both of those women, people my mother loved, had passed on. Their paths never crossed in this world, but she was seeing them. Together.
On another occasion, during that same stay, she told of seeing one of her brothers, one of my father’s sisters and, again his mother, all of whom had left this world. “I saw Eckie, Mary and Baba today. I could see them, but I couldn’t get to them.”
How wonderful to know that those we’ve loved wait for us. My father died alone, and I can’t help but wonder which of his loved ones he saw and who was there to welcome him to the next life.
As Death Letter Project – North Carolina evolves, my hope is that, as you read each letter, you feel a sort of solidarity with the writers. No two lives are the same, but as I have more conversations with those who have lost a loved one and learn more about death and how we deal with it, it’s becoming increasingly clear that we have much in common.
If you haven’t already, you will get dizzy, and when that time comes, don’t hesitate to reach out for someone to hold on to.
You will feel the weight, but it will be less when you surround yourself with people who can help you carry it.
When you lose a loved one, let love and beauty and gratitude stir you and guide you in the rest of your life, as we wait in joyful anticipation of what is next.
Michael E. Palko