When You Forget That They’re Dead

Yesterday, I was sitting at my desk; head down and plowing through both the literal and figurative piles of tasks before me, when I took a quick pause to breathe and clear my head.

“I think I’ll call dad.” I thought to myself, yet before the sentence had even reached its conclusion—everything stopped abruptly and I felt sick to my stomach.

“Damnit.” I answered back out loud and sighed heavily. Tears clouded my eyes until they spilled out onto the papers below me.

It had happened again.

My father’s been dead for almost five years now, and this still happens more times than I care to admit: when I’m busy or stressed out or angry, and that heart muscle memory kicks in and prompts me to reach for the phone—and then I remember.

For a millisecond, it’s as if I forget that he is gone.

It’s sounds ridiculous that I could “not remember,” this even for a millisecond; that I could possibly forget that one of the people most dear to me in this life isn’t here anymore, but if you’ve ever lost someone you understand.

You know the way grief sneaks up on you in the middle of an ordinary moment, when you least expect it to arrive—and it levels you.

You know that reflexive move to call them or hear their voices or to check in to see how their day is going, and what a kick in the gut you get when you remember you can’t.

You know the fresh wave of grief that comes in the wake of the impossible “mistake” of your memory loss, and it’s as if they’re dying again for the first time.

As with all grieving, it’s strangely those excruciating moments that somehow console you, too. They hurt like hell, and then they comfort.

As painful as it is to be surprised by grief, it’s a reminder of just how deeply connected your lives were, just how much a part of the daily rhythm of your days they had been, and just how beautiful it was just to be loved by them in a million nondescript seconds.

As you look back, it’s those middle of the day phone calls, those surprise drop-in visits, those quick caresses to your hair, those seemingly meaningless conversations that become the most meaningful.

Maybe that’s why you forget the people you love are gone. Maybe it’s a gift to remind you of how it felt when they were here, when you were together, when nothing was out of reach.

I sat there at my desk crying, first in anger, then in gratitude. I had someone worth missing.

I know this is going to happen again. For as long as I live, whenever I have exciting news to share or when I’m frustrated or simply when I’m in the middle of an ordinary day, I know I’m going to forget and I’m going to reach for the phone.

I’ll catch myself forgetting and I’ll wonder why it still happens.

Again I’ll feel stupid and tears will cloud my eyes.

And just like that, I’ll remember how much I miss him.

And in a way that no words can measure, we’ll be together again.





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86 thoughts on “When You Forget That They’re Dead

  1. It is more than 50 years since I lost my dad when I was 9. All of my “ firsts” that he was not there for: college graduation, my marriage, the birth of my 3 sons and their accomplishments; holidays, his birthday and the anniversary of his death- the grief returns. I cherish my mom who has endured this grief- raising 4 daughters alone and living without him still at age 97. Now that I have lived 11 years longer than he did, I cry more freely when I place flowers at his grave, but there is peace in believing that he watches over me, and a part of him lives on in the next generation.

    • Losing a parent is never easy, regardless of age. I’m admittedly a bit distracted by the idea that he had you when he was 75 – that’s remarkable!

      • Lol no he was 39 when she was born. Your math is way off. She was 9 when he died, which was over 50 years ago (but let’s just say 50). So that means she is 59. She stated she’s now lived 11 years more than him. Which meant he was 48 when he died. Minus 9 years to when she was born, and he would have been 39.

        You got thrown off by the mom’s age. 😉

      • She’s roughly 59, and she says she’s lived 11 years longer than he did. That means he would have passed away at roughly 48. She was 9 at that time, which means he would have had her at roughly 39.

  2. I am very new to this journey having lost my partner only 6 months ago but this post is exactly what I feel and I fall into the trap so often. I hope I can learn to truly appreciate what we had and be privileged I get to miss him so much.

    • My dear, I lost my husband over fifteen years ago, but I still have these moments. More common to me than forgetting he is dead, is remembering he is at the drop of a song – or lines from a film we both loved. The simplest triggers can still set me off into what feels like the fresh grief I could not express when he died. I was trying so hard to hold things together for our son. I cannot have been hiding things very well, though. My twenty-one year old son (from my first marriage), moved in with his Dad and stepmother because he “got tired of me being so sad”.

  3. Every single day I start to reach for my phone to send my son a text about something… or expect to get one from him about something in the news.
    He was 19 years old and has been gone 7 years.
    Every. Single. Day. there is love

  4. Oh my gosh, John, I thought it was only me. Thank you for sharing this. My husband has been gone 5 years and I still pick up the phone to call him.

  5. It’s bittersweet reliving the painful and the good memories. I’ve had a health problem for a while and at times have thought for a second that I would call my mother. But then I remember that she was forced out of this world in very sad, frustrating circumstances beyond my control. I’m trying to focus on the good memories but damned if it isn’t hard to ignore the painful ones.

  6. Your dad was such a nice man. I knew him from the shoe store in Baldwinsville. Such a patient and kind man especially towards my special son. Working with a kid with autism is very difficult I know and many people were not so nice but your dad was always patient and so kind with him. My boys loved going in there.

  7. My mom lived to the ripe old age of 85,and went quickly and peacefully in 2005, but she was my best friend and every day I think of something I want to ask her or tell her about. But I also rejoice in the knowledge of how fortunate I was to have that kind of relationship with her. So many of my friends are still dealing with the damage their less-than-loving mothers did.

  8. I was 40 when my Dad died in 1980 and in 2020 I will have lived as long without him that I lived with him. I remember him everyday, his laugh, his generosity, his kindness, his love. “Grief is just love with no place to go” as said by Jamie Anderson in lessonslearnedinlife.com

  9. I was 40 in 1980 when my Dad died so in 2020 I’ll have lived the same amount of time without him that I lived with him 40 years, and I recall something about his laugh, his generousity, his mannerisms, his love. “Grief is jus love with no place to go.” As said by Jamie Anderson in lessonslearnedinlife.com

  10. It was 2 years ago on July 11 when the light in my eyes went dark. That was the most devastating loss of the 10 family members that year. I feel very numb.
    I’ve experienced so many deaths from close friends and family but I know there is something after here so that makes the impact softer. I know I will see them again but I will not give up on life now!
    I’ve begun dating again but I have let it be known that I will never be able to love anyone else like I did the cherished sunshine that brightened every day for 25 years.
    Thank you for your time and may you be truly blessed.


    • I envy you having the opportunity to date again. I have been out with two different men since my husband died fifteen years ago, but it was like I was trying to live in a world that has changed so much. One date each was enough. I would not turn down the opportunity to try again, but there are simply no single men in my age range who even seem to be interested. I’m sure my age is part of it – I am sixty-four now. I am not working, I am not a church goer and I very rarely go out, usually once every couple of weeks for a girl’s day, grabbing dinner and seeing a movie. Other than online, I don’t know where I would even meet someone. The two dates I did have were from online sites. I was not encouraged with how that worked out. Oh well. Just like my great-grandmother and my grandmother and my mother, I had better adjust to spending the rest of my life alone. But it sucks.

  11. My mother died eleven years ago. More than once I’ve picked up the phone to call her and share some news that brought her instantly to mind. About a year ago, the phone rang while I was looking at her photo and I shocked myself by answering the phone, “Hi Mom,” then immediately saddened by the impossibility…
    It never ends.

  12. I lost my husband of 45 years in early 2016. He and I loved to discuss politics, and would get each other quite “riled” up on occasion. I cannot count the times I have picked up my phone to call him to discuss the current political situation. Your essay was absolutely on the mark. I have read it every day since I saw it on FB. Thank you.

  13. My mom’s been gone for 30 years now. I still think of her every day and sometimes when its around dinner time and my phone rings I pick it up expecting to hear her voice.

  14. I lost my belove husband 2 months ago. The grief is excruciating. I still can’t get past the loss. My husband was one in a million. The perfect in every way. Gentle, calm didn’t drink, never smoked, never uttered a curse word. Was extremely considerate, to a fault.it was only me before him. I miss him so.

  15. So many have said that they know they will be reunited with their loved ones after death. I too believe that, because I have been contacted by my mother, uncle and wife after they died. I have met others who have had similar experiences. So, I feel fortunate to know that they are not dead, just invisible and inaudible to most humans.

  16. John,
    I lost my dad 6 years ago Thanksgiving weekend. I have decided that I can still “call dad” just by talking to him. It kind of turned into the way I talk to God. I figure they’re both hangin’ out in heaven, so why not.

    I don’t get to hear his voice which is what I long for, but at least I feel like I’m leaving a voice mail or something.

  17. John my dad passed in 03 and Istill have conversations with him! His psyche is so engrained in me that I can ask any question and, from prior talks, I can “extrapolate” what his answer would be. Dad walks beside me still, giving personification of the axiom, “If our loved ones are with Christ, and Christ is in our hearts, then they are never far away from us!”

  18. My loss is so fresh that sometimes I wonder why I feel so good until a wave hits me like a freight train. My dad lost his fight to Mental Illness Jan 30 2019. I wish at times it was not real but sadly it is. I am and was daddy’s girl we spent oodles of time together all of which I remember as happy. He managed to make me feel loved even through his fight with Bipolar. Through all his ups and crushing downs he was the kindest most considerate person I know and I miss his hugs. I wish he could have found the life saving help this last time around so that he was still breathing. My family suffers greatly because he was still a support to all of us. We needed him. We have found that we can live without him but I wish we didn’t have to especially my Mom who is recuperating from a recent hip replacement surgery without his support. He was supposed to be here and everytime I remember that I get hit by grief. It is nice to know I’m not allowing in my feelings.

  19. It’s nearly 9 years since my dad has passed away. My heart still hurts like it was yesterday. I have so many questions for him. The hardest thing to come to terms with is that death in this life is forever.

    Thank you John for providing an avenue to express ourselves. Your words on many subjects hit home for me.

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