In the months before my father died, I asked him a version of that question: How will I live without you? If this sounds strange—asking a person you love to give you tips on how to grieve his death—let me offer some context.
My dad was a phenomenal father, grandfather, husband, and loyal friend to many. He had a dry sense of humor, a hearty laugh, boundless compassion, an uncanny ability to fix anything around the house, and a deep knowledge of the world (he was my Siri before there was a Siri). Mostly, though, he was known for his emotional generosity. He cared deeply about others; when we returned to my mom’s house after his burial, we were greeted by a gigantic box of paper towels on her doorstep, ordered by my father the day before he died so that she wouldn’t have to worry about going out during the pandemic.
His greatest act of emotional generosity, though, was talking me through my grief. He said many comforting things in recent months—how I’ll carry him inside me, how my memories of him will live forever, how he believes in my resilience. A few years earlier, he had taken me aside after one of my son’s basketball games and said that he’d just been to a friend’s funeral, told the friend’s adult daughter how proud her father had been of her, and was heartbroken when she said her father had never said that to her.
“So,” my father said outside the gym, “I want to make sure that I’ve told you how proud of you I am. I want to make sure you know.” It was the first time we’d had a conversation like that, and the subtext was clear: I’m going to die sooner rather than later. We stood there, the two of us, hugging and crying as people passing by tried not to stare, because we both knew that this was the beginning of my father’s goodbye.
But of all the ways my father tried to prepare me for his loss, what has stayed with me most was when he talked about what he learned from grieving his own parents’ deaths: that grief was unavoidable, and that I would grieve this loss forever.
“I can’t make this less painful for you,” he said one night when I started crying over the idea—still so theoretical to me—of his death. “But when you feel the pain, remember that it comes from a place of having loved and been loved deeply.” Then, almost as an afterthought, he added, “Beyond that—you’re the therapist. Think about how you’ve helped other people with their grief.”
So I have. Five days before he died, I developed a cough that would wake me from sleep. I didn’t have the other symptoms of COVID-19—fever, fatigue—but still, I thought: I’d better not go near Dad. I spoke with him every day, as usual, except for Saturday, when time got away from me. I called the next day—the day when suddenly he could barely talk and all we could say was “I love you” to each other before he lost consciousness. He never said another word; our family sat vigil until he died the next afternoon.