The Death You Die When Someone You Love Dies

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At one time or another you’ve probably heard someone say that when a person you love dies, a part of you dies too.

I used to think that was just a beautiful figure of speech, a touching poetic image that spoke symbolically to the depth of our profound sadness and loss.

That is, until this week when I died.

My father passed away suddenly nearly two years ago, and I’ve written a great deal here about the road I’ve traveled since then. It’s one that’s meandered from the night-time depths of heaving sobs, to sweet sunrise moments of incredible gratitude. Most of the time I’ve naturally grieved his loss from my life; the absence replacing his presence.

Recently though, I came face to face with the me who also left for good, on the day that he did.

Over the course of our 44 years together, my dad and I did lots of really great stuff—just the two of us. As you do when you lose someone you love, I often find myself randomly rewinding to those places and times in the past, to remind me of the love and adventures and the laughter we shared. One of those cherished memories was of the Saturdays in my early teenage years, when I’d accompany him to a local indoor flea market at the New York State Fairgrounds. Times were tough for our family then (though I was quite oblivious), and my father was selling athletic shoes on the side to help keep our heat on and our pantry full.

It was an incredible struggle for him and I’m sure from his perspective, a pretty rough time. To me it was like Christmas at Disneyland.

I’d get up before the sun on Saturday and help him load up the shoes into massive hockey bags and off we’d go. We’d usually eat breakfast from one of the vendors on site in the damp cold of the early winter morning. (I can still taste the bagels grilled on a huge flat top with gobs of butter and smell the bacon that had been crisping up next to them). Once things were up and running at my dad’s booth, I’d head off to explore the flea market, which may as well have been an amusement park to my ninth grade brain. I spent hours and hours looking through racks of record albums, digging through old comic books, trying out stereo equipment, making handmade buttons with silly catch phrases on them, and checking out cute girls at the other booths.

Between all of that, I’d hang out with my dad and watch him do his thing with customers, trying to be helpful where I could. Later we’d pack up everything and usually head back home after lunch. They were precious times.

There are lots of other things that happened during those weekends he and I spent together at the flea market; more stories, more conversations, more meals, more funny anecdotes—but I no longer have access to them. 

That’s what people never tell you, about the real, fundamental, life-giving stuff you lose when someone you love leaves.

You lose the part of you that only they knew.

You lose some of your story.

It simply dies.

My dad was the only one there with me during those special Saturdays, and now that he’s gone there’s no one to go to to help me relive or revisit or remember them when I want to. There’s no one to help fill in the gaps of my memories, no one to give me the pieces of life that belonged only to the two of us—and I hate that.

Any part of those days that exists outside of my memory is now dead and buried.

If you haven’t walked the Grief Valley yet, just trust me on this.

One day you will miss someone dearly and when that cold reality hits you; the truth of just how much of you is gone too, you’ll grieve the loss of yourself as well, even as you live.

One of the great things about having people who love you and who’ve lived alongside of you for a long time is how they can surprise you, how when you’re with them they can dig out a story or unveil something about you that you had totally forgotten about or had never known at all. My dad would do that all the time, matter-of-factly tossing off a random memory that allowed me to see myself through his eyes. It was like having a small lost part of you suddenly and unexpectedly returned to you.

As much as I miss my dad (and I do miss him terribly) I miss the me that he knew, too. I grieve the loss of our shared story.

I mourn losing the childhood me who napped with him on his bed, the teenage me who spent those priceless Saturday mornings with him, the college aged me who fell asleep while he drove the four-hour trip back to college, the middle-aged me who made him laugh with silly stories of his grandkids.

Just as sure as he isn’t coming back, neither are those parts of my story because he was their co-owner.

Friends, as you grieve for those who are gone, know that it’s normal to also lament the part of you that they’ve taken with them.

While those experiences formed you and reside deep in the fabric of your very heart, in ways that certainly transcend your memories, the painful gaps will still be there in what you lose without their eyewitness testimony.

Those aren’t just flowery words meant to simply paint a picture of grief, they’re a vivid description of real, personal loss.

A part of you does indeed die when someone you love passes away.

May they, and the unique part of you they’ve taken with them, both rest in peace.

 

38 thoughts on “The Death You Die When Someone You Love Dies

  1. What a great reminder. While my father, physically, is still with us, we lost him a few years ago. We watched as he slowly forgot us, one by one in a rare reverse order that started with my mother. I understand that loss of not just who he was to me, but also who I was in my relationship with him. As he lost his memory backwards, we have grieved backwards also, coming to grips with the part of ourselves that is gone before we deal with his physical absence. Thanks for your words and transparency.

  2. How so very true. We are because of others. The Hindus say “Namaste” – I honor the God within you – in acknowledgement of our essential connectedness. Buddhists by this gesture acknowledge that our separate selves are illusion.

    Both my parents are gone now – and as time passes I realize just what you have – how much of me was held in their memories – and how that is no longer mine, or never was.

    Excellent piece, John.

  3. You have said it so well….what is true….I lost my parents and my youngest sibling in a 12 month period 10 or so years ago….Huge pieces of me died with them…..I felt lost for so long and am just now realizing what you said here. Thanks for putting it into words for me….namaste

  4. There’s a line from the movie “My Favorite Year” with Peter O’Toole where O’Tooles character tells another a secret, something he doesn’t want leaked to the press. He looks at the other character pleadingly, there’s a pause and his listener says “It dies with me, Clarence.”

    I never really thought of that before, although I had hear people say it many times… ‘it dies with me’. I realized, after watching a much forgettable movie with this unforgettable line, that if people I love and care about die, all of the secrets and special ‘private’ moments literally do die with them. But, I remind myself that the memories ‘live’ in me…

  5. Love your blog but felt I should offer another perspective on the subject of grief. The One Question You Should Never Ask was right on. But this column left me with tears, not because of what I lost when my parents died, but because it pointed out all I never had. I grew up in a Christian home. We were in church several times a week and both of my parents were in leadership. Yet, behind closed doors my mother was abusive. I don’t remember abuse from my father, but neither do I remember every hearing an “I love you.” There was never a hug. When I was three years old he took me to see The Birdcage with Shirley Temple. I still treasure that memory today because there was never another one to follow. We traveled and played games as a family, but my father never took the time to have a conversation with me, to ask how I was doing in school, or to ask about my dreams. I have no idea what he thought on important subjects, nor did he know anything about me. For years I struggled believing God was like my father. He was up there, all powerful, but had no desire for a personal relationship with me. This leaves a different type of grief when he passed away while I was still in college – grief that my father never knew me nor would I ever know Him.

    • Shirley, you are in my prayers. I want to offer a suggestion that may help. Consider taking each of your parents in prayer and in your mind go back with them using what little you may know about their parents and their early life and watch them grow up in your mind’s eye. What was it like for them? Did they have a chance to develop the skills that you so desperately needed? Probably not. Their own childhood’s were probably pretty bleak. Pray for the child they were. Pray for them in heaven , love them in THEIR need and you may find forgiveness and peace.

  6. Both my parents died years ago. I performed both funerals. I have no brothers or sisters. In my youth of mountaineering and extreme rock climbing I lost several close friends. As the decades have rolled by I have learned to live with loneliness, passing friends, and family you really can’t count on. Jesus is the only constant in my life.

  7. Thank you for this. SO true and so beautiful written. A friend sent me here, as my daughter died two and a half years ago, and I explore, contemplate, and write about my experience with her in life and in death.

    I am so sorry for the loss of your father, and the loss of those parts of you that went with him. Even though I have another daughter, there is no one on earth whom I shared this unique relationship, experiences and memories with other than Elizabeth. And that is gone. I do find photos, her cards and writings to be some comfort in bringing some of those memories to life again, and I’m grateful for that!

  8. Beautiful blog article John. Your dad must have been a very nice person. I would have liked to have known him. However, he might not be quite as gone as you think he is—and I am not talking about retained or lost memories.

    Please allow me to recommend some introspection. Your dad lives on within you—not in memory—but in genetics that translate into abilities, temperament, natural talent, skills, and demeanor.

    My dad was a cabinet maker and a furniture maker—like that guy on PBS. He had a day job when I was growing up, but he was sometimes unemployed. In those times and on weekends, he also made cabinets and furniture in our back yard for various people. His tools were in a sawmill board shack in our back yard. From the earliest times in my memory, I would watch his every move—the careful measurements, the tight fitting of wooden joints, the way he used his table saw and tools with care and great precision, and how he would put an item through the saw a second time to make sure it was razor sharp and dead on the measurement.

    For the past 27 years, I have had a dual career as a technical editor. I do not show my talent at this here on your blog because I have to type quickly, but I am a true master at turning a sow’s ear manuscript into a silk purse document. One day I was in my office going to town on a document—going over it with a lice comb. I was having great fun trimming, correcting, and smoothing out everything in that document with extreme precision and care. Suddenly, an image of my dad at his table saw—carefully trimming down a piece of wood—came into my mind and tears welled up in my eyes. I was doing to that document precisely what my dad did to his wood. Then I realized something important. What I was experiencing was not really memory. What I was experiencing was the portion of my dad that literally lives within me—his natural or gifted talent for working with great care, precision, and attention to the very smallest of details. It was him quite literally living within me and taking expression in my work. My dad was going to work with me every day of the week. I have almost zero talent at working with wood, but this part of my dad cried out for and gained expression in the way I work with scientific research, technical writing, and technical editing.

    My point is this John. A portion of your dad lives on within you—not in your memory—but in the very fabric of who you are as a person. If you will turn your mind inward on yourself and condition yourself to observe the things about yourself that you rarely do consciously—you can get in touch with your dad again. With your sensitive, loving, and caring frame of mind, you would probably be better able to do this than most people. Relax, be sensitive to it, and give it a try. When you get attuned to this and are conscious of doing it—so that the conscious slips onto the back burner of unconsciousness—you will be doing some activity, and in a moment of epiphany, your dad will come in, shake your hand, and say, “Hi son. I have been here with you all the time. You were just not aware of it until now.”

    • The Christian fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals thought they were getting off the hook easily with that post. You will notice that I did not mention them. A number of the fundies I have known would respond to that post in the following ways:

      1) Your dad sounds like a very nice and responsible man. It is just too bad that you will never be able to see him again in Heaven because of your apostasy.

      2) This process of getting in touch with your dad that you mentioned sounds to me an awful lot like conjuring spirits and witchcraft. I do so hope that you will recognize this sin, realize you cannot get in touch with your dad like this, and repent of the sin of trying to do it—and move closer to God.

      You see. It is not just the gay people and their mothers that they are after. These people, in the depths of their stupidity and unkindness, are relentlessly hounding after and nipping at the heels of everyone in even the smallest and most sentimental corners of our lives. If you are a gay person, a gay mom, or a gay dad, the thing I want you to understand is that they have not singled out just you for abuse. In one way or another, they specialize in abusing everyone—even themselves. I have visited a number of fundie websites and blogs where their pastors were locked in verbal combat with each other over the smallest and most inane of things in life. Rarely have I ever witnessed the spewing of such vitriol. The really bad ones are equal opportunity abusers. Just rest assured dear people, the problem is not nearly so much you as it is them.

    • I love this response to John’s incredible blog . His blog just popped up on my face book feed this morning …someone from Option B shared it. It absolutely spoke to my grieving heart! I lost my beloved husband of 39 years just 6 months ago …and my beloved brother almost 3 years ago …they were an integral part of my every fiber. I am walking the grief valley every minute of every day…and I am strong, yet certainly vulnerable. I am sharing this blog with special friends/family in my life who have these feelings ….and now reading this response was the icing ! Bless you both .

  9. Thanks for sharing this with us. I really needed to read this today. Tomorrow is my son’s birthday…..he passed fifteen years ago….and I still have a part of me that is missing still.

  10. Thank you John for sharing! This is so true and exactly how I feel since loosing both by Mother and Father. They have been dead for 9(mother) and 10(father) years and I’m still in grief valley. I miss them more today than the day they died and I will never be the same again because truly a big part of me died with them. Don’t get me wrong I am still living with hope and the wonder of this life but it truly is a less sweeter and nicer place without them. I long and look forward to seeing their sweet faces again because I even miss their face. Be blessed John for all you do for others. I am a gay Christian and have so appreciated your support of the LGBT+ community and your wonderful words of wisdom. Thanks for sharing that part of you that is still alive and well and me for one I am so thankful to have you in my corner since loosing my two greatest supporters and champions.

    Mitch

  11. I almost lost my father last week, John.

    I know that I am truly blessed that “our shared story” will continue to unfold and be walked out…together.

    Blessings to you, friend.
    And prayers lifted up on your father’s behalf.

    With heart,
    Dani

  12. I’ve experienced loss in my life, but not so that the person was a sole carrier of parts of my story… This blog was a huge eye-opener to me. Thank you for sharing such a deep part of your life.

  13. So many pieces of me are dead at this point, that I have no idea what still lives. I have no clue what breathes, or if I breathe. Mom, dad, only sibling…. all gone. Three funerals, all planned by me. Do I still live? Nope. Just a shell of a human. Struggling to exist. How does one go on? I continue to try to live every moment to the fullest, but I know I am such a shell of a human. I get up and follow the routine and even live to impact the lives of others. But who am I really? Who lives inside? No. idea.

  14. “You lose the part of you that only they knew.

    You lose some of your story.

    It simply dies.”

    TRUTH! That’s what happened when I lost my husband. I have found some solace in recording parts of our lives together in a memorial page, but other than that, I have had to move on and find out who I am all over again.

    The grief process is long and difficult, but you can move on into recovery. I found I could not go around it or avoid it. I had to persevere and go THROUGH it. However, I also found I could not stay in it and live……

  15. “…when a person you love dies, a part of you dies too.

    “I used to think that was just a beautiful figure of speech, a touching poetic image that spoke symbolically to the depth of our profound sadness and loss.”

    Thank you for sharing the often overlooked truth that grief impacts us long beyond the funeral. When those we love die, our own lives are forever changed, too.

    I’ve lost many loved ones from my life, and each tears open your heart a little bit more. In the first hours after my husband’s sudden death, I remember thinking, “Oh … so THIS is what it means to have your heart broken, really broken right out of you.”

    The grieving gets “easier” in time. Or maybe it just seems that way as we learn to live with the grief.

    I was 29 when my mother died, and as I’ve mothered my own kids I’ve many times wondered what she thought or how she handled things when I was growing up. It hurts that only one of my children was old enough to have first-hand memories of Mom, that one has only a vague impression of a memory, and that one never met her at all. They’ve all heard her stories, but it isn’t the same as actually sharing those memories.

  16. this is so true… lost my beautiful son Dustin to suicide 10 years ago (forever 21)… however… the new me.. is a much better version and a much better mom to my 2 remaining children. When we know better, we do better… I know he saw glimpses of this mom and woman… but I wish i’d BEEn THIS mom and woman to him… <3 <3 <3

  17. It’s so great to hear a man’s perspective. So many grieving sites or blogs are just women. We need a voice too. I have lost both my parents and really appreciate your article. I do miss there memories of me also. I also have a lot of my own. Thank you again for putting it so well.

  18. Hey John –

    I missed this post when you first published it. Thanks for the tweet, ’cause there’s another missing piece too, at least for me.

    It’s the parts of the story that were never written, the longing for a deeper connection I would have loved to have had with my dad – but never did, and now it’s too late, and the older I get the more I realize what an incredible loss that is for me and has been for what is rapidly approaching half my life.

    When he passed I was 33. In a little less than two months I’ll be 60 . . . and among the parts of the really crappy that is really really crappy is that in the last few months of his life as his body was being eaten away by the cancer and the chemo, we really started to relate to each other in a way neither of us had experienced before. Part of it was probably the fact that his health forced him to stop drinking. Part of it was certainly my growing realization that I was losing the most important person in my life and I knew that I had a very short time to make up for lost time . . . and it wasn’t enough time to make up for the lost time.

    Yeah.

    It’s a part of me that not only will I never get back . . . it’s a part of me I never fully had, but wanted to so badly.

    Thank you for helping me identify it for what it is.

    Yeah . . . It’s a death I died when he did.

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  21. I have lost my parents. My Dad over 20 years ago, my Mom, 10 years ago. I remember how surreal it felt, to have been speaking with them one day, and gone the next. It took me many years to grieve my Dad. I still miss my Mom and sometimes cry like a little kid when I remember them. Most of the time I am so grateful for the love they bestowed. I had such a happy life with them and am eternally grateful. I have dreamed of them, young and in love, and hope this is how they are now. Being Catholic has given me a new spiritual home and life and helped me to forge a close relationship with my father, Jesus, who has loved me before I was here and will for eternity. I pray daily for my parents and know they are with God. Even though time has marched on, I still feel close to them and find comfort and peace they are together and happy. I love you Jesus Christ.

  22. This beautiful piece brings to my mind the countless number of Christian parents I know who grieve the death of a child still living; my friends who have children who are transgender not only navigate the accusations and the harm thrown from society and from religious voices like the Nashville Statement writers and signers, they must also say goodbye to the expectations they formed and learn to adapt to the reality of their child, and their “new” identity, and in some cases never to refer to or bring up past memories of their now “departed” loved one. If mercy is to be extended to those in peril. I hope we, the members of the Body of Christ, will allow ourselves to reach out to the families of transgender individuals since the only guideline to who gets mercy and who doesn’t is this: Extend mercy as your Father in heaven has granted you mercy.

  23. This was beautiful, and I’d like to link to it on my Alzheimer’s blog. We family caregivers die a little bit every day, as our loved one forgets his/her life and our life together. In my case it’s my husband of 35 years.

  24. The idea you describe here is one that is very frightening to me. I have been married to a wonderful man (who is 12 years my senior) for 42 years. He is 74 and I cannot imagine life without him. There is so much of me that only he knows. I don’t know who I will be without him. I would never trade the time I have had with my husband, but I cannot contemplate losing him without great pain and foreboding.

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  26. Well I think differently…. its the “me recall” that makes it real … its like looking back and seeing things you did that no one you are currently knowing shared with you… they are still real… to you… once that goes well … its gone… we also need to know that what we recall is possibly and probably not what anyone else present at that time recalls… its perspective… its a simple snap shot of a single second in time that no one else sees exactly the same.

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