I found my father dead

Now that death has come, words that used to seem trite sound unexpectedly profound.

Published March 21, 2007 10:35AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I don't pretend to be a novelist, nor can I eloquently voice my thoughts. I just found my father dead at the age of 65, my family is coming back home, and the proper arrangements are being made.

I always thought it so hollow when someone said, "I'm so sorry for your loss." But now I know that sorrow. I do not think I will ever get the image of him lying in his bed out of my head, ever.

You seem to have seen a lot of pain in your life, judging by your narratives. Is there any advice you can offer, other than, "This too shall pass"?


Dear Sean,

You know, considering all that our poets have said about death, I do not feel all that eloquent either. What small observations I might add are like little scraps of paper on a heap of gold.

But the one thing that has surprised me about witnessing death is how physical it is for the witness. You hear people talk about this heaviness in their chests, a heavy heart, a sinking feeling. I have in the past thought of such expressions as metaphors for a mental phenomenon. I would think to myself: This person is going through something intense in his head and trying to dramatize it by using a metaphor of the physical.

But now I find that such expressions are literal: When I think of the recently departed men in my family -- no, not when I think of them, for thinking doesn't bring it on! It comes uninvited; I do not summon it with my thinking! -- it is a palpable heavy absence behind the breastbone. It is as if I were carrying extra weight. And it slows me down. There is a slowness to my moving and a leadenness to my limbs. This surprising heaviness is like the heaviness of the coffin itself, as though in carrying the surprising weight of the coffin we found an expression of the heaviness we feel inside.

Perhaps you are feeling this too.

I was surprised at how much the coffin of my departed uncle Hall weighed; there were six of us men carrying him into and out of the house during the wake, and he had lost a lot of weight before he died. The heaviness of the grief and the heaviness of his absence are also the heaviness we felt going up and down the steps, as though his body had been replaced with stones.

Why do you weigh an extra stone when you are dead? Why does your death weigh upon us so? You would think with you gone we'd be lighter but no. We feel heavier, as though you had draped yourself over all of us, weighing us down. It's tempting to say that in this way the dead must experience the carefree joy of flight -- leaving us with all the weight of their lives. We become their sullen but devoted porters, carrying their baggage to the hotel. If so, it would be a wonderful feeling for them, to leave all this behind, to leave it behind so palpably that we are so bowed down with what they discard.

That has been the great surprise to me about death, how physically it weighs one down. It is simply a heavy absence -- pierced, at unexpected moments, by upheavals of unimaginable sadness.

So what do we do, how do we help? Again, literally: We support. We hold each other up.

So we do need people around us when there is a death. We need the strength and we need the support and we also need the food. People bring food when there is a death and there is always too much to eat. That seems the right thing to do, to bring the food.

So we stand and regard the absence together. People have their moments when it washes over them and makes their knees buckle and we allow for that.

I'm so sorry for your loss.

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