I was 11 years old. I was so young that I remember playing with Legos on the family room floor. At the time, I found it a point of pride to answer the phone in the house, but at 5:15pm that day a quarter-century ago, I didn’t know that the man on the other end of the phone would reply “Ummm…is your mother there?” and likely be a police officer or firefighter looking to deliver terrible news to my family. That evening was a blur, with friends and family coming to the house, and me being whisked away with the distraction of games and other fun activities.
As I discussed in a blog post back in 2015, my father was a passionate pilot who came to Cincinnati in 1979. Nearly all of the planes he flew were based at Lunken Airport, and that’s where I spent a weeks of my childhood with him. We also traveled as a family a lot; I look at my time like the career of The Beatles: a partnership built on love and care with many good memories but which also ended too soon. He died in a plane crash on September 17, 1996.
Now 25 years later, I have learned a lot from my father’s death, but I also have many questions. Because of my loss, I’ve also had to help, assist, or grow with people who have experienced tragedy. If you’ve lost someone you care about – whether it was recently or years ago – I want to share some things I’ve learned as an unfortunate veteran of loss.
1) It’s okay to grieve, and you should grieve. Weakness – including sadness of frustration – are often dismissed or frowned upon in the world. There is a seemingly constant pressure everywhere to be strong and resilient. But – despite what everyone tells you – you should and must grieve when you experience a loss. Pushing hard-to-deal-with feelings aside only prolongs and delays the pain and keeps the healing that it found through hardship away. If you don’t take the time to process the loss or emptiness you’re feeling, your grief will just be waiting for you until you get to it, and the lack of resolution within will bring you down eventually. Grieving is not something you should fear; in the end, you’ll see that it was a path to your own peace. If you’re a person of faith, know that Matthew 5:4 says “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
2) You’re going to need to re-visit grieving sometimes. During the pandemic and through months of stress and strain, I realized that I never fully grieved. Grieving isn’t a process you go through and just put away; losses you experience – to some degree – last a lifetime. There will be many times you realize you didn’t resolve all of the issues or needed help. I wish my father was around when I was growing up to teach me about relationships or how to deal with highly political job environments. It would have been nice for him to guide me through career changes, too. He wasn’t here, and sometimes it’s just nice to have that voice to guide you…including when everyone else is quiet. In those moments, it’s easy to get frustrated or even angry. Why did he or she leave? Why where they taken from me? You can’t be too busy to work through it; you need to talk to someone, but you also need to understand that you can’t just deny feeling sad or frustrated – which you should be. You didn’t know that 20 years after they were gone that you would win an award and they would not be there. You didn’t know that after a tragedy would come a celebration that just felt emptier than usual because you just lost someone. There’s no way around it; you must work through it. Grieving is like rest; when your body and mind need it, there’s no substitution for it. And when you help others with your grieving, you’re going to need something constructive – perhaps even your own grieving – to heal and recharge.
3) Mentally prepare yourself for supporting others and their losses that may be bigger than yours. I remember I was in college when I got a call from the family member of a close friend. He said my friend wanted to see me immediately. He was grieving. His sister had just killed his mother, and he said I could help him with the grieving and calm him down. While I was happy to help my friend, my loss was far more extreme than mine. I had lost my father suddenly, but he had just lost his mother and likely contact with his sister for many years to come. How was I to help a friend through this? Somehow, when I walked up to my friend minutes later, I assured him we would get through this no matter how awful things seemed right now and gave him a hug. Outside of sleeping, I spent the days that followed sitting next to my friend. That experience reminded me that giving someone a hug, holding someone’s hand, and listening to them helps both you and others grieve. You don’t have to solve their problems, even if they are bigger than yours or what you think you can handle; the goal is to be their friend and support them unconditionally.
4) Life goes on quickly for others and far more slowly for you. By the way, no one tells you this, and it’s frustrating. A week after my father’s death in 1996, I went back to school. People were happy to see me, but they didn’t know my father, and they didn’t understand my loss. From their point of view, I was just not at school for a week. My teachers came to my father’s funeral, but – again – they were just there to support me; my loss was not their loss. In hindsight, all of the adults that came to my father’s funeral and visitation over the previous weekend were back to work on that Monday; they were likely sad or still reflecting that day, but some had moved on. Fast forward to the clock 6 or 12 months in the future, and even more people had moved on. They were healing a lot faster than I was. At some point, your life, too, must continue. Being alone or isolated in your healing is not ideal. You’ve been dealt a blow, and it doesn’t seem fair. But this reality means it is important for you talk to someone, including a medical professional. There is no shame in talking to a psychiatrist or psychologist. Talking to friends is good, too, but you must quickly realize that they will grow tired of listening, especially without incremental progress; friends are not designed to keep you afloat after a significant tragedy or loss. As this blog post shows, you are not alone. A network of friends will help, but your help from them will be limited. Do not hesitate to talk to someone, and stay connected to the ones you love.
5) Keep your memories in a form that is up to date. I still have the C-tapes where my father recorded home movies. Physical media breaks down over time, so those C-tapes have gradually worn out. During the years I was grieving, recovering, and going through life, my memories on video have been sitting in a drawer…slowly breaking down. I realized this a couple of years ago, and I have converted over many of the individual tapes thus far. Those tapes are one of only a few ways I can hear my father’s voice again. I’m glad I remembered about these tapes and got the tools to keep the memories alive; I encourage you to do the same. Put your memories in a form where you can enjoy them for years to come. More importantly, keep a record of dates, times, and who is in the photos and videos you keep. You may not want to hear this, but other people you may know may die in the years that come; this is a reminder to not just treasure your time with them, but this is also a reminder to use their knowledge to help you know as much as you can about your memories. Who is in that photo? When was that video taken? Is there a good story that goes with that photo that you’ll want to tell your kids?
6) A loss is a great time to see who really cares. When the funeral is over and people have to go home to their home and job, who will still contact you? Who will send cards? Who will call and see if you’re OK? Who actually cares about your happiness and well-being? A loss or tragedy can really do a number on you, but it’s also a teaching moment. You deserve friends that care and want you to be happy. Don’t make drastic moves, but take note of who just says “I’m sorry for your loss” and who actually cares about your health and peace.
7) Your mind will likely work differently after a significant loss. The times of loneliness in life seem longer than the times of joy. You’ll spend many hours of your life after a significant loss searching for answers, trying to understand why the healing isn’t coming faster, why you don’t feel better, why others around you never seem to bear the burdens you have, and why everyone else has seemingly forgotten about the loss you all just went through. You may also wonder what you could have done to prevent your loss. Why did my father go flying that day? Why did he fly an experimental plane? Why didn’t he tell me about that plane? I could be angry and upset; I have every right to be. But I’ve also learned that I could better spend my time talking to a professional, talking to a friend, or grieving. Your loss is part of your story. Being bitter will not help you; you can’t just wish them back. Life goes on, not backward. Your story, however, will be different because of the losses or tragedy you experience. Let that be your strength, not a weakness.
8) Days will get better, but the loss never completely goes away. As you get older, the memories become less clear, the number of days you don’t think about them or think about them as much increase, and the pain and frustration go down. Despite this, there will be days where you wish you were there to learn from or listen to the person you lost. Some days will feature reminders of those you lost, and some days will go smoothly without these memories entering your mind. As days go by, you also see what people told you along the way – “you will get through this,” “brighter days are ahead,” and “life goes on” – become true.
I’ve learned a lot about happiness, success, and joy in the last few years. Many would say my father died doing what he loved. He did love flying, and it brought him joy. I could be upset from losing him in my life, but I – instead – am thankful for the limited amount of time we shared; we accomplished a lot in our years together. In time, you have to find a way to let the pain go and focus your life on what is good.
Rest in peace, Dad.