An Essay on Grief

Human beings are social creatures. Not only do they need companionship; they derive satisfaction from helping and supporting one another. Human beings, and indeed all mammals to some extent, are naturally nurturing creatures. They are drawn to protect the weak and the frail. Usually, this impulse to nurture finds fulfillment in the care parents take of their children. That’s the origin of the phenomenon of “empty-nest syndrome,” the feeling parents experience when their children first leave home, when there is no longer anyone for them to take care of, no one who needs their care.

This need to nurture, wherever it originally came from, was undoubtedly reinforced by natural selection. Human beings need a particularly extended period of parental care before they are able to survive on their own, much longer than is required by any other animal. Parents must care for their children for many years before those children have any hope of being able to care for themselves. This arguably creates an enormous debt on the part of children toward their parents. Of course, parents rarely expect to be repaid for the care they take of their children and most children rarely have an opportunity to do that.

I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to repay my father for at least some of the care he took of me when I was a child. My mother and sisters expressed concern for my father’s situation when we were all together for the last Thanksgiving my father hosted a few years ago. It seemed to them that my stepmother was already showing signs of dementia. I hadn’t noticed because I lived closer to my father than they did and saw my stepmother more frequently. They saw her only once or twice a year, if that often, so the changes in her behavior more obvious to them. I lived only a couple of hours away from my father, so I promised to visit as often as I could. For five or six years, I spent every other weekend with him. 

I adored my father and throughout my entire adult life, I would bring him things I thought he would like, just like a small child who delights in sharing her discoveries with her parents. I always brought something with me on my visits. Often it was a loaf of bread from the Metropolitan Bakery, a local Philadelphia bakery. I’d brought him a loaf of this bread once, years before, because I knew he would like it. It was a heavy crusty loaf like French peasants eat, or used to eat. He was duly appreciative, so whenever possible, I would bring him one of these loaves.

I brought him other things as well. I was always on the lookout for things I thought he might need or like. I would bring him DVDs of televisions shows I thought he would enjoy, small kitchen utensils I found on my frequent trips to thrift stores, small glass pie plates because he said he never had enough of those, the Mason jars my commercially prepared spaghetti sauce came in because he used them for canning. 

My father loved linguini with white clam sauce. Good chopped clams are increasingly hard to find. I had discovered a very good brand at the local food co-op, though, so I would bring him a couple of cans whenever I was able to get them. I would also sometimes bring him candy from Shane Confectionary, a local candy store that makes its own candy. He especially liked malted milk balls and chocolate covered cherries. I would also always bring a good bottle of red wine. Nothing terribly expensive because he was not a connoisseur. He had developed a taste for red wine, though, after he married my stepmother who was Swiss and always drank wine with dinner. 

My father was a cook. He enjoyed frequent visits to the grocery store and followed food—and particularly produce prices the way some people follow sports teams. 

“Aldi has blackberries for $1.99 a pint!” he might announce when I arrived. So we would make a trek over to Aldi to buy blackberries. Usually, he bought his produce at Giant. Aldi was for more exotic things such as chocolate, musli, or European coffee, things that would be expensive at Giant if they could be found there at all. 

My father, like most retired people, was on a tight budget. It was one of the greatest pleasures of my visits to pay for his groceries. He had done so much for me when I was a child, had made so many sacrifices to give me the things I needed, and then later wanted. It was a joy to me to be able to do something for him that I knew made his life a little easier. In the beginning, he would always try to pay himself. Later, though, after the pattern had been established, he would let me pay without protest. 

I also helped him maintain his little fishpond, helped him to clean it and stock it with plants and fish. I got him little balls of barley straw to control the algae and would occasionally help him empty and scrub the sides of the pond, as well as clean the filter. I bought him fish and even a little frog we got as a tadpole from a local plant nursery. He would report sightings of this little frog to me in emails. I’d had a particular affection for frogs as a child, so he liked to update me on the little frog’s comings and goings.

It was my job, as the child who saw my father most frequently, or at least who spent the longest stretches of time with him, to report on how he and my stepmother were doing. (My step-siblings lived even closer to my father than I did but their jobs did not allow them to spend the extended periods with him that I could.) I bought him his first cell phone and taught him how to use it, so my stepmother would be able to reach him when he was away from the house on short errands. I bought him his second and third cell phones as well, and paid his monthly cell bills. I reported to my siblings when I realized that he needed a new computer, then new hearing aids, and finally, a device that would amplify the sound of the television by sending the signal directly to his hearing aids. And I reported on my stepmother’s deteriorating condition as part of a collective effort to convince my father to move to a retirement community.

I would take my father to dinner at least one of the evenings I was there. In the beginning, when my husband was able to accompany me, we would take both my father and stepmother to their favorite restaurant. Later, after my stepmother refused to leave the house and my husband was often unable to accompany me on my visits, I would take my father to Red Robin. Red Robin was close, so my stepmother would not be alone for long. And my father liked their fish and chips. Neither of us had a huge appetite so we would split one order. 

It was during these dinners that my father began to tell me about his life. He’d not had a happy childhood, so he’d rarely talked about it. He’d spent the early part of his childhood in an orphanage, a place he referred to, on those rare occasions when he did, as “the home.”

I think that was part of the reason these visits to my father meant so much to me. My mother used to refer to my father as a “poor little orphan boy.” That had apparently been one of the things that had attracted her to him. She wanted to take care of him, to give him a home and a family. He gave the impression of being a generally happy person and would often hum, or even sing, to himself. And yet there was something about him that seemed unreachable. It was as if he had carved out his own little private reality like children do who have no playmates. He would smile at you and talk to you from there, but he would never really come out of it or let anyone else into it, no matter how social or solicitous of others he became. 

He told me at one of these Red Robin dinners that he, and his siblings, had been very lonely as children. They’d been separated from one another when they’d been taken to “the home” because the children were segregated by age. The adults there had been kind to him, he said, but there simply weren’t enough of them relative to the number of children. An older woman who worked there had once literally washed his mouth out with soap when he’d used language she thought inappropriate. And yet it was this same woman he later presented with a drawing he had done in school. That earlier violent exchange had been the closest thing he knew to parental concern. 

He was a positive person, just like I am, but there was something about him, some ineffable quality that made one suspect the positivity had been hard won, that made it seem a veneer over a deeper sadness, something that made people want to take care of him, to love him. It wasn’t that he craved affection. It was exactly the opposite. He seemed preternaturally emotionally independent. That can appear a strength. It isn’t natural, though. Human beings are social creatures. People need the love and affection of others and most people need it pretty conspicuously. 

To be around my father was like being around a child who had learned to be content playing by himself. You were happy that he seemed content, and yet there was something heartbreaking in the realization that he had learned to make a friend of loneliness, learned it so well that he didn’t really know how to play with anyone else. 

It meant more to me than I can say that I was able to spend that time with my father, to take care of him in something like the way he had taken care of me when I was a child. I wanted to make up for all the loneliness he had endured in his own childhood. I wanted to show him I appreciated how much he had done for me and how much I loved him for it, what a pleasure it was for me to be able to do something for him. 

I think he appreciated what I was trying to communicate to him (we are alike, my father and I, in not speaking directly about emotional things), because he began to talk to me about his life. We became closer during that time and we had always been close, or as close, anyway, as he would allow anyone to be. 

My father died a year ago today, as I write this. 

My days feel empty now, purposeless. These feelings are less pronounced during the week, when I have my work and the love and support of my husband to preoccupy me. The weekends are difficult though. My husband doesn’t need my companionship or solicitude in the same way my father did, and I have no children. I cannot seem to cure myself of the habit of looking for things my father would like. I keep finding such things and, of course, every time I do, I remember with a sickening thud that there is now no one for me to give them to. 

My father was still able to take care of himself when he died. He didn’t need me to bathe him, or dress him, or cook for him, or do any of the things that eventually need to be done for the elderly. I’d willingly have done those things, of course, but it was never necessary. If it had been, then at least I would be able to feel some relief that I am no longer be required to do physically demanding and occasionally even unpleasant tasks. I don’t feel any relief, though. Only loss, terrible, heart-rending loss. 

I’m sure this feeling will diminish with time. Death is natural, and grieving generally has a natural course. That course can be longer or shorter, though, depending on the nature of the relationship between the bereaved and the one lost. Edward Myers writes in When Parents Die (Penguin, 1986) that “the conditions of economic or emotional dependency make a difference in what changes [a] death creates in your life” (p. 34). It is devastating, for example, to lose a spouse on whom one is financially as well as emotionally dependent, or to lose a child around whose care one’s life had revolved. “With a death of a parent, there are fewer tasks of role readjustment in life… [T]he shock of a parent’s death is therefore potentially less intense than the shock following a child’s or spouse’s death” (p. 34).

I’m sure that’s true. It make sense, anyway, on paper. Myers also writes, however, that 

since you don’t simply cross a line into adulthood, leaving all your childhood experiences behind once and for all, you take some of the old attachment feelings with you. As a result, even a middle-aged son or daughter can feel strong attachment feelings for a parent. Thus the death of a parent can create an intense emotional reaction. (p. 33.)

The loss of a parent, writes Australian psychiatrist Beverly Raphael, “is essentially a double one—the loss of a parent who is around and known as an adult, but also the loss of the parent who loved and protected one during childhood” (as quoted in Myers, p. 33). 

My father didn’t simply do all the things fathers normally do for their children, things such as teaching me, despite that I was a little girl, to play baseball, basketball and football, to fish, and to drive a car. He taught me how to catch snakes with a small forked stick stuck just behind their jaws. He taught me to pick blackberries and wild mushrooms, to hold a saw, to cook, etc., etc.  

It was my father who insisted over the objections of my doctor that I be admitted immediately to the hospital when at around three or four years old, I appeared to be dying of a mysterious illness that a succession of doctors had been unable to diagnose. It was my father who rescued me when still as a small child I nearly drowned as a result of showing off in a swimming pool before I actually knew how to swim. It was my father who plucked the yellow jackets off me after I was swarmed by an entire hive on which I had accidentally stepped on a mushroom-hunting trip. It was my father who carried me to the doctor when I fell off a horse onto a barbed-wire fence. It was my father who used a large part of the money he made from selling his house to pay my college tuition and send me to Germany for my junior year abroad, and it was my father who drove me to Montreal for my dissertation defense. 

I knew, of course, that my father was eventually going to die, and I tried to prepare myself because I knew his death would be hard for me. I was still unprepared, though, when it came and my grief seems undiminished even now a full year after his death. In the beginning, I think I was simply numb, numb like I was that day I fell off the horse and didn’t even realize I had cut my head because I had gone into some kind of shock. In the beginning I was numb and disoriented. Now the pain is acute. Now my weekends, my weekends that are my own again, my weekends that no longer involve a two-and-a-half hour drive at the end of which was the joy of my childhood, weigh on me so heavily that it is sometimes hard for me to breathe. 

When the pain gets very bad. I try to remind myself that death is natural, a part of life. “For  everything,” it says in Ecclesiastes, “there is a season,…at time to be born and a time to die.” And then I remind myself, as well, of a strange incident that happened when I was staying in my father’s apartment just after his death. I’d stayed there, with my mother, to help clean out the apartment. Among my father’s things was a beautiful oak drop-front desk that he had made himself. My older sister, who lived in Tulsa, had claimed the desk, so we’d emptied it of its contents in preparation for shipping it to her. 

I knew the desk was empty. I’d emptied it myself. I was suddenly seized, though, by the thought that there might be a secret compartment in it. I told my mother that desks of that sort had often had secret compartments, that perhaps dad had made one and that we should see if we could find one. I began removing the drawers and looking behind them. At first there was nothing, but then, I saw something behind one of the smaller drawers in the upper part of the desk. I couldn’t tell at first what it was, but then realized it was a small piece of paper stuck against the back of the desk. I pulled it out, with some effort, and discovered it was a calendar page. 

It was a page from one of those little square page-a-day calendars. It had two dates on it, January 5/6, so it was clearly a weekend. 

I stood staring at it for a few minutes before I showed it to my mother. 

“That is the date of dad’s death” I said slowly as I watched her looking at it. “He died on January 6th.” 

“Yes,” she answered, “and actually, he died between the 5th and the 6th because he died in the wee hours of the morning of the 6th.”

I don’t know what my mother made of this, but I took it as a sign that my father’s death came when it was supposed to come. That no matter how devastating it was for me, it had not been a huge, tragic cosmic mistake that he had died when he did. 

When I remember that calendar page, it helps me to feel a little better. It’s as if my father, in saving that particular little calendar page, was planning ahead, was reaching into the future, to help me when he would no longer be there to help me as he done when I was a child. 

M.G. Piety teaches philosophy at Drexel University. She is the editor and translator of Soren Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs. Her latest book is: Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology. She can be reached at: