The loss of a father, whether sudden or expected, can be devastating. Most of us find ourselves wading through memories and emotions, looking for comfort and meaning. This fine little book grew out of Jonathon Lazear's own bereavement. A baby boomer who'd always found comfort in the wisdom of the written word, Lazear turned to his own reservoir of stories, talked to his friends and family, and mined his bookshelves to come up with this wise and comforting collection.
On Love Alone is the tranquil place you've been looking for. It is a heartfelt collection of quotes, poems, and passages. On Love Alone is a book to give to others when a simple card is not enough.
There's no one way to grieve the death of a father, and while On Love Alone offers some advice, it's really a coming together of stories, compassionate words from such diverse sources as C.S. Lewis and Bruce Springsteen.
"I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow however, turns out to be not a state but a process." --C.S. Lewis
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On Love Alone
Words to Heal the Heart on the Death of a Father
By JONATHON LAZEAR
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 1994 Jonathon Lazear
All rights reserved.
"You have to dig deep to bury your father."
When it happened to a friend of mine, he crawled into the darkest, deepest space inside himself—a place I did not know existed until that day. He began to feel rage. Why me? Why us? How could this happen?
He tried to impose order on his life. He clung to his calendar, a schedule, anything that created a sense of the expected that could chase away the fear of random occurrences.
Finally his rigidity began to crumble away, and months after his dad's death, he began to see that his need to control had been a self-imposed tyranny. He realized that his dad's chance car accident had given him a new kind of freedom.
Little by little he began to accept the randomness of how life begins, and, finally, how it ends.
Many feel so confused when a father dies, probably because their relationships with him were so complicated. Unresolved anger, disappointment, and thoughts unspoken surface and commingle with more pure, more lucid, more positive feelings. The mixture is a strange brew, and one that we must teach ourselves to accept before we can move on.
When my uncle died, I asked my cousin what she missed most about him.
She said, "You know, I miss his silence."
I thought that was almost funny, because she'll never have to miss it again, considering he'll be silent for the rest of her days.
She went on, "It was his strength, or what we assumed was his strength. He was strong and, as I said, silent. Not really silent, of course; more like quietly intuitive. When he did speak, he almost always had something really smart and to the point to say. I will miss what I need to understand as that strength, and that willingness to listen. I don't know anyone else who has that trait."
His silence will be sorely missed.
"Shadow and shade mix together at dawn But by the time you catch them Simplicity's gone So we sort through the pieces My friends and I Searching through the darkness to find The breaks in the sky.
"And the reason that she loved him Was the reason I loved him too And he never wondered what was Right or wrong "He just knew He just knew ..."
–PHIL COLLINS AND DAVID CROSBY, "HERO"
This new reality took my friend by surprise: There is no one left who remembers him as a child. There is little tangible documentation of his early years. A few photographs, some drawings, old report cards from school. But no one to recount his early enthusiasms, his fears, his first friends, or his first words.
In a way, he feels lost. He had not realized how much of himself he would lose when he lost his father.
"If my father is dead, or if he was absent and cold, or if he was a tyrant, or if he abused me, or if he was wonderful but is not there for me now, then who is my father now? Where do I get those feelings of protection, authority, confidence, know-how, and wisdom that I need in order to live my life?"
–THOMAS MOORE, CARE OF THE SOUL
As I write, I think of my own father, who is now eighty-seven. Last week I wandered among Dad's things and found myself in his library. Books. Books of all kinds are Dad's passion. Other men may have been avid armchair sports fans, or active participants, but my dad loves a great novel, a new book on science, or a brilliant autobiography.
In a way, looking through his library is like viewing his life. All of his interests, passions, and politics are displayed on his bookshelves. Maybe you can judge a man, at least in part, by what he reads and how much he reads.
I am certainly not as interested in the sciences as he is, but I will never be able to part with his Asimov, his Hawking, or his Lewis Thomas books. They will always be tangible remembrances of a richly curious man.
"My father's house shines hard and bright, It stands like a beacon calling me in the night, Shining and calling so cold and alone Shining across this dark highway Where our sins lie unatoned ..."
–BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, "MY FATHER'S HOUSE"
Even though Kate's dad was sick—no, terminally ill—for almost two years, she couldn't get used to the idea that she couldn't lean on him. As sick as he was, he tried so hard, especially with her kids.
She thought because denial can be so strong she lost sight of how ill he really was. She needed to hang on to the notion that he'd be there when she wanted his wise advice: "Should I get all-weather tires? What do you think of term insurance? How much should we put away for college?"
Certainly she could find the answers to these questions elsewhere. But hearing the answers from her dad made her feel secure. She trusted his opinions. They seemed thoughtful and measured. She feels like she's lost her closest, most compassionate friend.
"Human beings are afraid of dying. They are always running after something: money, honor, pleasure. But if you had to die now, what would you want?"
"It takes so many years To learn that one is dead."
–T. S. ELIOT
"I am bitter. I have been lied to. Cheated on. Left behind.
"Dad's gone without as much as a 'good-bye.' Nobody told me his time was near. I am bitter. I am alone.
"I turned around, left town, and now he's gone. I am angry.
We were supposed to have some final time together. Get his house and mine in order.
"But I was cheated. Left behind. And I'm burning mad.
"Make sure you catch him before he goes. Your dad won't tell you because he may not know. Keep an eye, 'cause if you're left, You'll feel cheated, just like me."
So many of us experience anger when we first encounter loss. Part of the anger has to do with a sense of abandonment.
We see our fathers as our true protectors. How can we go on without his shielding us from life's haphazard encounters?
Real or imagined, we feel like acrobats who suddenly realize they have been performing without a net. Perhaps our fathers' protection was imagined, but we feel the absence of that protection when it is suddenly gone.
There is a father-child bond regardless of how distant the father may have been during the years the child grew into adulthood.
Those of us whose fathers were self-revealing, or who were involved in daily family life, probably have deep, vivid memories of who he was and what he meant to us.
For the less fortunate, Dad may have been a shadow figure. Perhaps he died or left home before he was known to us. Those who have only mismatched puzzle pieces of memories, fragments of "who Dad was," must do their best to create an image to mourn.
How fortunate some of us are to have lasting memories of fathers that are more substantial than shadows.
"The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever."
"It's strange," said a friend. "When my father died, he was living in another city, three thousand miles away. I hadn't spoken to him for a week or two, and hadn't seen him for a year. But when he died, that very night, I felt so lost, so alone."
It becomes difficult to identify the loss, to pinpoint its exact effect upon our current lives. We still get up in the morning, take a shower, get a cup of coffee, go to work, come home. The routine of our lives hasn't changed. Yet something is forever transformed.
We search for answers. If we weren't close with our father, if we spent little time with him, why do we feel such a void in our lives? Perhaps it is because we assumed he would always be there, sitting at the head of the dinner table, or behind a newspaper. If we needed to reach out to him, he would be there. When he is no longer within reach, the loss is intangible, immeasurable. It is infinite.
Our friend Amy told us that she needed to mourn silently, and that we should understand that her silence was not a rejection of our love, caring, or bereavement for her father.
Sometimes we need to look for signals—things that tell us what a survivor needs. Our best gift may be silence. The bond and support we have with dear friends sometimes do not need to be communicated with words. To be present, to be on hand when we are needed, may be enough.
Amy knew how we felt. We thought we understood her feelings. We did, however, have the grace not to tell her that we "knew" how she felt. When it was time for her to begin verbalizing her grief, we were there to hear her.
"There is something about the Himalayas not possessed by the Alps, something unseen and unknown, a chain that pervades every hour spent among them, a mystery intriguing and disturbing. Confronted by them, a man loses his grasp of ordinary things, perceiving himself as immortal, an entity capable of outdistancing all change, all decay, all life, all death."
When your father dies, you may try to replace his strength with your own.
You take charge. In the days that follow his death, you are grateful that you can fill your days and hours by letting others lean on you. You may lose yourself in preparing the funeral arrangements, making airline reservations for incoming family members, or writing his obituary.
Through these activities you fulfill your need to be strong, organized, and in control. Your own sense of command is a comfort to you, restoring his presence.
There will come a time, however, to take charge of your own mourning.
"We know too much and feel too little."
These days families are scattered all over the country. The days of two or three generations living under one roof or even in the same neighborhood are long gone.
Carol, who lives outside of Chicago; her sisters, each living of different coasts, and her brother, up from Houston, came together when their father died. Their lives had dispersed them not only geographically but emotionally as well.
The first two days after they gathered in Columbus it was as if four strangers had arrived to mourn the loss of a man who had been a different person for each one of them.
During the time they spent together, they traded wonderful, important, heartfelt stories of their father. No longer were they strangers; never were they closer, nor had they ever felt more compassion for one another, that at their father's funeral.
"People sleep, and when they die they wake."
"We must face what we fear; that is the case of the core of the restoration of health."
"Beware of undertaking too much at the start. Be content with quite a little. Allow for accidents. Allow for human nature, especially your own."
The numbness of disbelief soon enough turns into the isolation of grief. Your relationship with your father is unique. Your sister or brother or mother knew him, but not in the same way that you knew him.
While it is good to honor the uniqueness of your relationship with your father, it is also important to grieve with others. Loss is a frightening, isolating, and cold reality. It may help if your family pulls together now, for strength, solidarity, and to share the commonality of bereavement.
The children of a friend of ours who died seemed to feel responsible for their father's death. Young children often feel responsible for loss, divorce, illness, and other family traumas.
It was very important for David's wife to explain to their children that his death had nothing to do with them. Moreover, it was equally important for the children to see and hear their mother's grief. She needed them to know how profound her loss was. When she opened up to them, the children shared their loss with her as well. Sharing grief was the beginning of healing.
Our friend Elaine told us that she was so sorry not to have been at her father's side when he died.
She tried desperately to get to the hospital, but by the time she arrived the priest had already delivered last rites and her father was dead.
"Dad should not have been alone. I know that death is a singular and final act, but I still believe that had I been there it may have made a difference to him ... or to both of us."
Guilt is certainly part of the grief process. But we must let it pass, remembering that Dad would not want to have it burden us for the rest of our days.
"Let us no more contend, nor blame Each other, blam'd enough elsewhere, but strive In offices of love, how we may lighten Each other's burden, in our share of woe."
–JOHN MILTON, PARADISE LOST
Grief counselors tell us there are phases that everyone who mourns must pass through. They remind us that we may not progress through them one by one, and that there may be days when we take a few steps back. Forcing oneself through them too quickly may lead to a false sense of well-being. Everyone must allow grief to follow the course that is right for him or her. Some need to stave off the reality of loss by remaining in denial before moving on. Others may feel that solitary mourning is right for them. How we grieve is as individual as who we are.
Each child in a family grieves for his or her father in a different way. Although they share the loss, they have seen his life in their own terms. They have had a different relationship with him.
Perhaps out illusions of who and what our fathers have been are as strong as the realities of their lives. Because our fathers are unique to each of us, our grief and our loss are unique, too.
"Nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love, and it would be wrong to find a substitute. We must simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation. For the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bonds between us ... The dearer and richer our memories, the more difficult the separation.
"But gratitude changes the pangs of memory into tranquil joy. The beauties of the past are borne, not as a thorn in the flesh, but as a precious gift in themselves ... In this way the past gives us lasting joy and strength."
Our friend Diane enjoyed the sense of control she had had over life. Her father's death sent her into a tailspin of depression. Embarrassed by her inability to regain her strong sense of self, she began to hide even from her mother, who needed her at the time.
Diane finally acknowledged her depression. No doubt it was due to the unresolved issues she had with her father. She felt anger and disappointment, and she had questions that would probably go unanswered.
Diane had to sort through her loss to find the salvageable, important memories for her to hold on to. She fought hard against the depression, consulted a wonderful therapist, and survived.
Her father would have been proud.
Steve had been given the name of a professional grief counselor. He was reluctant to attend a meeting because he didn't trust the group process. It seemed too "Oprah," too open, too exhibitionistic.
After his second meeting with a group of adults, all of whom had recently lost a parent, he began to feel strength and genuine support from these people.
Not one to share his feelings easily, it was difficult for him to talk at first. But soon he realized that these people had experienced the trauma of loss, and they had much in common.
He finally realized that the grief process need not be borne privately. It can help to have the support of peers, especially those who have suffered a similar loss.
"Compare your griefs with those of other men and they will seem less."
"Don't waste your time trying to control the uncontrollable ... Solve the problems you can solve with the wisdom you have gained from both your victories and your defeats ..."
Sometimes the grieving process is like running a marathon.
The day starts out sunny. You do your stretches and your warm-ups, and you start out your run with great anticipation and positive expectation.
Excerpted from On Love Alone by JONATHON LAZEAR. Copyright © 1994 Jonathon Lazear. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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