Author Aaron Hamburger wonders how long is too long to grieve and reflects on how his understanding of mourning has evolved since the death of his father. Originally published June 2010 on Obit-Mag.com.
When my father died two years ago, my family went through a year of “firsts.” The first seven days after his death, we went through the Jewish ritual of sitting shiva. Then came the first Michigan football season without Dad, a rabid Wolverines fan. (We joked that our team was so terrible that year, he’d have been glad to miss them.) We celebrated our first round of holidays without my father: the Jewish New Year, Thanksgiving, Passover, as well as his birthday and my parents’ anniversary. Then 11 months passed, which according to Jewish law marked the end of our mourning period for him.
But even though our ritual obligation is over, the mourning goes on. Yes, the initial pain has receded. Yet at times the intense mix of admiration and anger my father inspired feels as raw as when he was alive.
So how long is too long to mourn?
I still hear my father’s voice clearly, though in life he wasn’t big on talking. When we were kids, Dad was mostly at work or in his study at home, focused on sports and business news on television. When we were adults, my mother occasionally put him on the phone for a few awkward minutes, before he’d make an excuse to hang up. I think we all felt relieved to end the exchange, or rather, the lack of exchange.
And yet, my father was a constant presence in our lives. He was there in the values of independence and integrity he’d instilled in us by example. He was there in the money he’d saved to help us get a start in life. Above all, he was there in the splendid mystery of his silences, which kept us guessing: What on earth was he thinking?
Now, we may never know for sure, but we still wonder.
Sometimes, an eruption of feeling occurs when we least expect it. Recently, after a dinner with my brother, we turned to each other spontaneously and said, “Can you believe he’s gone?”
A month ago, I flew to Detroit to visit my mother. On our way from the airport, we were chatting, and Mom suddenly said, “Sometimes I get so angry at him. I sit in his chair and ask why did you have to go so soon?”
At home, I saw that my mother had kept Dad’s study just the way he’d left it: a box of tissues by his leather chair, bridge books stuffed with scribbled musings torn from notepads, a TV screen the size of a blackboard, and a black and white picture of my mother in her wedding dress hanging above it. Mom told me she sometimes sat there and watched the Detroit Tigers. I told her I didn’t like baseball, and she said, “Neither do I really, but Dad used to watch it, so now I do.”
Over the past couple of years, my mother has slowly given away Dad’s clothes. My oldest brother wears my father’s gaudy black alligator shoes, in which he once took so much pride. Another brother has his gold watch. I have his wedding ring, which is too big for me, so I keep it on my desk.
Besides holding onto these mementos, the main way my brothers and I have mourned my father is by looking out for our mother. We’ve advised her on her investments, helped her sell the house my parents shared in Florida, and which now is too painful for her to keep. We take turns visiting her in Michigan, and plan trips for her to visit us in return.
Amid our concern for our mother, my brothers and I have sometimes forgotten that we too are mourners. I know religion has been some comfort for them, as have their children, and a new grandchild who shares a middle name with my father. As for me, I have gone to therapy and occasionally to synagogue. I’ve read New Agey self-help books and visited a hypnotist.
Nevertheless, we still feel our father’s absence. When we accomplish something, we want to brag about it to him. When something goes wrong in our lives, we wonder what advice or commentary he might give.
And sometimes we still get frustrated with him the way we used to. Why did he keep us at such a remove from his inner life? Why was he so afraid of change? And why, when for he’d been watching over our lives from afar for so long, did he suddenly abandon us?
Two years after my father’s death, I still mourn him, but with a difference: Now I better understand what the term means.
I used to feel that I ought to stop mourning, that it was a mistake or something undesirable, as in the dictionary definition, “to feel and show sadness because someone has died.”
But then, quite by chance, I came across quite a different take on mourning in a book called Reading Jesus by Mary Gordon. Gordon writes:
“To mourn is to mark. It is, in this, related to the artist’s work… A making of something of the nothing caused by the loss of the beloved… One of my most important identities is that of a perpetual mourner. Every day of my life, I mourn the loss of my beloved father, who died when I was seven years old.”
As I put down the book, I asked myself, why then, should mourning ever cease? The process and intensity of it could change, but the “making of something of the nothing,” as Gordon puts it, sounded like an honest, even healthy response to death.
Or as playwright Robert Anderson notes in I Never Sang for My Father, “Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship.” My relationship with my father continues to evolve, even if my father cannot witness those changes.
Today I mourn my father when I track the performance of his favorite stock, General Electric, when I watch a Michigan football game and imagine the look of delight he used to wear whenever our team scored a touchdown, or when I pick up his plain gold wedding band, the one he never used to take off.
And maybe because he is not here, I sometimes suspect I hear and see him more clearly now than I did when he was alive.
Aaron Hamburger is the author of The View from Stalin’s Head and Faith for Beginners: A Novel. He teaches creative writing at Columbia University and contributes to Obit-Mag.com.
Image Source: Flickr Creative Commons/Jeremy Bronson