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Why It Took Me Losing a Parent To Understand That Pain

The greeting line at my father’s visitation was tough. I was constantly switching hats – grieving, comforting, thanking. I made awkward small talk with people I’d never met. “Oh, you’re moving from Florida to Sioux Falls!? Better buy some snow boots!” they’d say. All of this was also hinged together with watching the door to see who would show up.

Tragedy struck our family on June 25 when my father suddenly passed away. Dad was mayor of our small hometown, Charleston, Illinois, so the story hit the news stations and it spread further thanks to today’s town crier, Facebook. A few short days later I was shaking hands with a large contingency of the town.

It turned out that losing a father was more painful than I ever dreamed and I quickly discovered how important friends’ support is at this time. But since most of my friends had moved out of town and out of state, there weren’t too many faces I was expecting to see at the visitation. But there were a few.

Nevertheless, Dad’s line was long, packed full of his friends from church and city government officials. There were classmates from high school, distant cousins, and many more in a wide spectrum of people. There was also one person who appeared out of left field. Let’s call him John.

John was standing by himself in the back of the slow-moving line, his hands behind his back as he eyed a couple flower arrangements. Seeing him surprised me, but it also didn’t. We weren’t good friends in high school since we barely even crossed paths, however his father was friends with mine and I therefore came to know his dad pretty well. Our family was saddened when John’s father came down with Lou Gehrig’s Disease. His health and body function slowly deteriorated and he experienced a couple excruciatingly painful years until he finally lost his life in 2007. It was very sad. I remember wishing there was something I could do. I was even living in Charleston at the time. And yet I somehow didn’t even show up at his visitation or funeral.

I can’t say what I was so preoccupied with. I had interacted with this man enough that I certainly should have set aside a couple hours to pay a visit. And my high school peer lost a father at a very young age. Isn’t that enough?

So when I saw John shuffling through the line, all of this came rushing back and I was overcome with awe.

He Doesn’t Know

In my last therapy session I was sharing with my counselor about my disappointment with one friend who still lived in Charleston. He didn’t show up at the visitation or funeral, or any other time that week.

“Oh, he just doesn’t know,” she said. “He hasn’t lost a parent yet. But one day he will get it. And you will be there for him.”

She’s right. It’s something that doesn’t become clear until it actually happens. No one’s been harsh or inconsiderate, but when the news comes up it quickly becomes clear who’s lost a parent and who hasn’t. Those first few days especially, I received an outpouring of support. Every bit of it helped me through those dark days. The messages that read “I lost my father five years ago, I know how tough it is” were akin to my mommy handing me a teddy bear.

My counselor is right. I can’t blame my friend. Not after my own missed opportunities like John’s father. Not after countless other situations where a neighbor lost a loved one. Now I understand the weight of losing a parent, and that changes everything.

The Gift of Empathy

I am a strong advocate for people who suffer from anxiety and depression.

“Wasn’t that insensitive? Wasn’t that rude?” people will say when another person’s interaction doesn’t line up with their social code. “I don’t know why anyone would ever act like that.”

I do. Many times they’re sitting under the bitter cloud of depression. And since I’ve been there myself I can now see that cloud from a mile away. I will always do my best to be there for anyone going through depression. I promise to set aside time for anyone who has been experiencing these issues. To pull up a chair beside a quiet friend and gently nudge them to explain what’s up. To speak on their behalf.

When I was going through my depression the thing that bothered me the most was my debilitation wasn’t apparent like say a person confined to a wheelchair or someone who is blind. Even the most compassionate person couldn’t squeeze out the empathy I needed to comfort my pain. Not unless they experienced it, too, and those people seemed to be few and far between.

So since I have experienced it, too, when I catch wind of someone suffering from depression, I’m there.

This has been a top priority for years now. And on June 25 I gained a new priority to place on the shelf alongside it. When someone loses a loved one, especially a parent, I will be there. I will reach out on Facebook. I will buy them a cup of coffee. I will stand in line at the visitation. Whatever it takes.