Two days after my dad died, a friend gave me a piece of advice that became an anchor. Do something new. It doesn’t matter what it is, but do something you’ve never done before. My friend was well-acquainted with grief — the kind that’s not only about what you lost but about what you won’t ever get to have and (the biggest grief of all) what you never had in the first place — and as she went on to tell me about teaching herself to knit and starting musical theater and the first time she dyed her hair an outrageous color, all of these fragmented pieces of our adolescence came abruptly, viscerally into focus and I was able to see: all of this was her living her grief right in front of us without any of us knowing it.
The following year, I trained for and completed my first triathlon. Then I had a baby. The next year we bought a house, and the year after that I had another baby. In 2017 I changed jobs, and last year I changed careers. I wouldn’t say that this has all been borne out of grief. But I also wouldn’t say that I would be where I am — spiritually, emotionally, practically — without it. All these new things helped me live through the grief of what I lost.
It was last year on the anniversary of his death that I realized the accumulation of things that carried me through loss had yielded a new grief, the grief of what I would never have. I’m now living a life that’s wholly unfamiliar to him. I’m raising children he never met in a house he never saw while working for a company he never heard of with a job title he never knew. These are things I will never get to share with him. Twenty-seven years with him and yet these seven years without him feel like a chasm.
And yet. When I look back on what we had I am humbled not by my grief but by gratitude. In writing to a friend who lost his mother, Henri Nouwen wrote:
“Real grief is not healed by time… If time does anything, it deepens our grief. The longer we live, the more fully we become aware of who she was for us, and the more intimately we experience what her love meant for us.”
If it’s likely that I wouldn’t be where I am without grief, I most certainly wouldn’t be here without his love. He believed things about me that I will spend the balance of my life living up to. By the time I’m 58 — or, God willing, 65, or 75, or 85 — I hope to have become all the things he spent 27 years telling me I was.