(Originally published on old blog on Sunday, December 6, 2009)
On Monday, I attended my first support group for “Adults Who Have Lost a Parent.” Due to confidentiality, I cannot talk about the specifics of the six people who sat at the table with me, but according to the agreement, I can discuss “what I learn about myself and my own journey.”
So here’s what I can tell you about the group in relation to my own experience. Out of the 7 of us:
- I am the youngest;
- I am the only one with children;
- Only two of us are married;
- My father was the only one to die without warning; and
- My dad was the youngest parent to die by over 20 years;
Perhaps the most interesting thought I left with after those 90 minutes, though, is how lucky all 7 of us are: We have language that communicates to the world the gravity of our situation.
We can say that we lost our dads or moms, and people can at least imagine how awful that is, even if they don’t yet know the pain from firsthand experience.
But I left the meeting thinking about the people for whom no support group exists to help them deal with my father’s death because there is not a convenient, fitting label for their relationship to him.
Take the patients who had tears in their eyes at the wake because my dad gave them their confidence back when he fixed their teeth. Some of them neglected their oral hygiene for decades because of a previously bad experience with the dentist, and it was only at the urging of a friend who claimed my dad was the best dentist they’d ever been to that there people timidly returned to the chair. I wonder if the loss of my dad will send these people back into hiding from the dentist. Will they be brave enough to find another dentist they can trust? (And for that matter, will I?)
I think about the friends with whom he lived in college and the friends he made in dental school – those who thought of him like a brother. As far as I know, my father was the first to die in his many circles of friends, so some of his longtime buddies are not only dealing with the loss of their best friend, but also the loss of any illusions of their own immortality. Have they made any life changes as a result of my dad’s death? Have they found someone else with whom to go golfing, discuss books, attend football games, or exchange funny e-mails?
I think about the colleagues he mentored and inspired – the people in his office and the dental community who he loved teaching and learning from. This is the area of his life that I know the least about. Therefore, I really wonder what his colleagues have taken away from their conversations with my father. Did he leave as big of an impact on them as he did on his patients? Who do they now go to for advice about difficult cases? How will Yankee Dental, the annual dental conference held in Boston every January, be different for them this year, especially since this was the last place some of them saw my dad alive?
I think about my husband, for whom the loss of my father has been particularly hard. People ask him how I’m doing – assuming, I guess, that the loss isn’t as deep for Brendan since he was “just” the son-in-law. From the start, though, my father did not treat Brendan like an “add-on,” but rather as another one of his children. I remember my father recalling how his aunt kept in touch with her son’s ex-wife long after their divorce, and then him telling me, “You know, if you and Brendan ever got divorced, my relationship with Brendan wouldn’t change. He’d still be part of the family.” I marveled then, as I do now, at the complete, unconditional love my father had for Brendan. I look at my own children and wonder how I could ever love someone else as much as I love them, and yet to my father, it was effortless to think of and love Brendan the way he thought of and loved me.
How are these people handling my dad’s death? Who is helping them survive their loss?
Language is not on their side.
They can say they lost their dentist, their college roommate, their peer, but they weren’t mentioned in the obituary. Hallmark doesn’t make sympathy cards for these relationships. Companies don’t often include “friend” in their guidelines for time off for bereavement. Support groups are hard to find for dealing with the grief of a non-family member.
In capturing the particulars of these relationships, our sophisticated language falls short. Examples in literature display the devastating effects of a societal linguistic deficit. In Ayn Rand’s futuristic novella Anthem, for example, the word “I” and any derivatives of it (self, me, mine, etc.) were eradicated from civilization centuries before the story takes place to discourage selfishness and encourage people to think of the “greater good.” The main characters are unhappy with their lives but have no language to help them explain why. A similar scenario is depicted in George Orwell’s dystopic novel 1984.
Being around a toddler will give you firsthand experience with the ideas Rand and Orwell were trying to convey. Pediatricians tell us that a lack of language contributes to temper tantrums. By 2, a child has more thoughts and emotions than she has the words to describe them, resulting in lots of tears and foot-stomping frustration.
Conventional wisdom claims that Eskimos have over 100 words for “snow.” This notion is actually false; the different derivatives of the word really stem from different dialects rather than distinctions among types of snow. But wouldn’t it be wonderful to have more words to describe our relationships with people that conveyed not just how we know them but also the degree to which we are close to them?
Then we wouldn’t need to add clarifications like, “He was my dentist – and he changed my life.”
“I met him in college – and we’ve been brothers ever since.”
“He was my boss – and he taught me everything I know.”
“I was his peer – and he renewed my passion for my profession.”
“I married his daughter – and he was my dad, too.”