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.