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Fight to Laugh: How Grief Has Changed Me

My grief is old, but never far from the surface. I use it to approach every day that I live. Because of grief, I look at my family differently; I look at life differently; I look at joy differently; I look at everything differently. It’s not only a function of age; it’s a function of experience.

I was 36-years-old in 1996, the year I lost both my parents. They died four months apart; my mom in April, my dad in September. It wasn’t as if one couldn’t live without the other – they had been divorced for 30 years. It was a fluke of life and timing.

My mother had smoked for 40 years. There was so much to love about my mom and to be proud of, but I believe her greatest achievement (not to minimize the others) was quitting smoking eight years before she died. The day she died, she went to see her doctor; she hadn’t been feeling well.  He told her to go to the emergency room immediately upon leaving the appointment. (Why he didn’t call an ambulance, I’ll never know.)

My mom went back to work instead. At the end of the day, she drove home and had a heart attack in the driveway, walking from the car to the house. She died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, just 68 years old.

My father never wanted to live past 70. He made it to the 6-month anniversary of his birthday. He died of ‘necrotizing pneumonia’ at 70 years and 6 months old exactly.

My wife and I had been traveling in Italy in late March/early April that year – a trip we had planned and were very excited for.

I called my Mom from Rome five days before we came home. She said they were fine, but that she wasn’t feeling well. I asked her to please go see the doctor. She said she would. When we got home on Monday, I called again. She still wasn’t feeling well. She hadn’t called the doctor yet but said she would ‘tomorrow’ (Tuesday, the day she died, April 23, 1996).

Two weeks after that, our daughter was conceived.

At the end of May, my father came to Seattle for a visit. I was so glad to see him, and we had a great time.  But when he turned to go into his hotel after we said goodbye, I thought to myself, ‘that’s the last time I’m going to see him.” The next months were spent getting ready for our baby’s arrival. I’ll never know what kind of father I would have been if things hadn’t happened in the order they did.

I was smitten with my daughter from the moment she was born. I like to think there was little way I could have been more involved in her life. When Anna was six, I took a job in Seattle after having worked on Bainbridge  those first years. Friends would invite me out for a beer after work; I’d say, “I can’t, I have to go home; my daughter’s moving out soon. Turns out I was right. Anna was 18 when she went off to college. I have never seen years go by so fast.

“Fight to Laugh”; I have always told my daughter. The more you fight, the easier it becomes. I’m better at deflecting the tough times. I try to savor every moment, especially the casual conversations that I have.

My daily visits with others make up some of the best parts of my day, whether at breakfast, at the grocery store, on Winslow Way, or on the Ferry. (I’ve come to realize that the very last person I need to talk to is myself.)  I practice ‘early retirement’, a technique I’ve developed to help me lengthen my actual retirement, which, as I see it, is twenty years away.  I’ve also promised myself I will die laughing, no matter when that might be. That promise is enough to keep me in a good mood (mostly).

That’s how grief has changed me. All best wishes to you. May your grief eventually succumb to joy. Grief is rich compost from which, perhaps, future joy grows best.

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