by Elana Kupor, MA, LMHC
I carry several one-free-drink cards from Peet’s Coffee and Tea in my wallet. They were given to me by my father, who used to hand me a stack of these business-sized cards every time I visited my family in Berkeley. My father bought his whole-bean coffee from Peet’s once a week, but he would save the free-drink cards that they provided with each purchase for me. He never used them because he believed that his preparation of coffee at home tasted better than any cup of coffee that he could buy at a café.
My father was a man of particular tastes and strong opinions. He died nine months ago after a long battle with Chronic Lymphatic Leukemia at the age of sixty-nine. Over twelve years passed between his diagnosis and his death. For many of those years, he lived a relatively normal life. The last three years grew harder and harder, as the cancer took hold of his body and we ran out of treatment options.
Losing a parent is a profound experience, even for people who have disowned their parents and think that they don’t care when their mother or father dies. For those people, the actual death of the parent compounds the loss that they have already experienced — the radical disconnection or rupture of the primary relationship with those who gave birth to them.
I was very close to my father. He read stories out loud every night to me and my older sister, from the time before my conscious memory to the time we were thirteen and fourteen years old. He loved camping and bicycling. For years I believed that my father was right about everything. I felt that I understood him better than anyone else. Inevitably, he disappointed me, and I disappointed him. We both made choices that the other didn’t agree with. But I always loved him with the kind of love that comes before thoughts or words, that runs through your body as completely as blood.
The experience of grief is different for everyone, yet some elements of it are the same. Grief is a loss of part of who you are and your life as you knew it to be. It takes you down past the business of the daily world to a place that shakes you. Some of us run from it or bury it because it feels like it can shatter us. Grief can seep or ooze through our pores. It follows our heart beat. It reminds us of the person we love, or sometimes hate, whose heart is no longer beating. I was not present when my father died. My mother and older sister were, as well as a hospice nurse who had called them into the room because she saw that he was in his last few moments of life. When someone dies, you realize how absolute the distinction is between life and death.
I had visited my father five weeks earlier. He was lying in my parents’ guest room in a rented hospital bed. He was too tired to talk much, and he spent most of the time sleeping. I sat with him one day with a cup of tea. I knew that he was dying, and I tried to absorb the feeling of being in his presence, maybe for the last time. My mother called from the other room, “Ask him what he wants to drink!” I leaned over and asked my father, “Do you want something?” His eyes moved beneath his shut eyelids. After a pause he said, “Novelty.”
After a parent dies, you are left with two things: their legacy and their absence. You are left with all the things they gave to you and all the things they can no longer give. Sometimes we needed things from our parents that they could not give to us because they had not received those things themselves. Acceptance, tenderness, understanding — all of these need to be learned in order to be passed on. Grieving a parent means realizing that we can survive their deaths because we are separate even though we would never have existed without them.
The above article expresses the opinions of the author and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of other members of the Women’s Therapy Referral Service.