During my Dad’s wake last year, my long-time friend took me away from the crowd. She’d lost her Dad a decade prior, in her twenties, a time when friends aren’t the best equipped to help with the serious stuff. I still wonder if we helped her at all. She gave me a hug and said, “Welcome to the Dead Dad Club. No one wants to be a member, but at least we have each other.” Tracy and I met in high school, but we are NYC friends, which means no bullshitting. She was the only one who would say “dead.” Even the nurse who called just before midnight, softly told my Mom, “Phil has expired.”
Tracy spoke the truth, and the word “dead” stuck to me, as did the welcome to a not-so-exclusive club, though the meaning didn’t surface until months later. After a loved one dies, you’re expected to relive the emotion incessantly, as every well-intentioned person in your life asks “How are you doing?” Sometimes, they put a hand on your shoulder; usually, they look directly into your eyes, silently pleading with you to open your heart. Unable to conjure the energy to genuinely deal with this question, I simply numbed myself. Banal replies worked best.
“Oh, hanging in there.”
“It was a relief at the end.”
“He’s in a better place.”
Sometimes I used my newly half-orphaned status as a personal defence weapon. In response to the person who said, after my 2 week retreat to Bali,
“It must be nice to take such a long vacation.”
“Well…my Dad died a few months ago.”
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I started to swap passed and died, depending on whether my conversation partner seemed truly interested or just morbidly curious.
There is one place where these mental gymnastics aren’t necessary — the Dead Dad Club. Or maybe it’s the Dead Parents Club. Its members say most of the same things as everyone else, but are more visceral in their delivery. They are perhaps less empathetic, but their rawness is more comforting.
So for those of you who are not part of this Club that no one wants to join, I offer some tips for handling its newly inducted members. We don’t want to welcome you into the Club, because we love you and your parents. But we are as sure as the Earth goes ‘round the sun that someday, we will.
Share your memories. Your experience with the deceased was unique, with some moments shared in private. In the days immediately following my Dad’s death, so many people who loved him emailed and texted us with little stories and thoughts. His favorite pastry was sfogliatella. Everyone in his orbit felt special and loved. He never got mad. Tiny mysteries of my Dad’s life were uncovered in those notes, and I consumed them greedily.
Reach out. Text, call, put that emoji heart on the Facebook post. It matters. And please, don’t try to relate this experience to your own death experience. “When my Grandma passed away…” It’s not your moment.
Write cards. I received a handwritten card from every member of the Dead Dad Club that I knew. From now on, I will never skip this step, of taking the time to write my love and thoughts on a piece of paper.
Send food. One dear friend trekked to my Dad’s favorite Middle Eastern restaurant to provide a feast for the night before the wake. Another sent a basket full of comfort food to eat in the middle of the day. One more shared a spread of bagels before the funeral procession. On the days that no one sent food, my Mom and I got by on donuts and Chardonnay.
Don’t apologise. Some friends sent cards and flowers several weeks after my Dad had passed away, and they always came with an apology. “I’m so sorry this is late.” We didn’t take inventory, of who sent what, when. The flowers that came a few months after his death reminded me of his love, the thing Dead Dad Club members try so very hard to preserve.
Be forgiving. Newly inducted Dead Dad Club members might be terrible friends for a while. Some might not be very diligent at work, others will throw themselves into it. A few will want to party, several might go into a hole. They might be different, maybe for good. Forgive them, and stick by their sides.
Remember. Months later, a friend took me to lunch and asked “Okay, how are you doing now? I know this doesn’t go away.” She caught me off guard, a realization that I wasn’t actually doing so well. For me, 1 year later feels a lot worse than 1 month later. So it means a lot when people still remember to remember him.
And seriously, I hope your membership card gets lost in the mail.