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How You Die When Someone You Love Dies

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.


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