The Human Experience: Dealing With The Death of a Loved One and Healing Through Love
Aunt Lois died when I was six in 1954. Grandpa O’Dowd died in 1956 when I was eight and Grandma O’Dowd two years later. Grandma Holland died in Charles City, Iowa on Christmas Eve, 1962 and her oldest son, my Uncle Donald Holland, died in 1965.
My father, Dale Leroy Holland, died in January, 1969 and his brother and my Uncle Les in 1973. Aunt Vi Holland in 1974. I am uncertain when my Uncle Miles O’Dowd died but I believe it was in 1990. My mother died in 2003 and my sister, Darlys, in 2007.
Both parents, my sister, all grandparents and all uncles and aunts, dead; some of my cousins, my son, my nephews and my nieces all remain but of the Holland and O’Dowd families I stand as the oldest remaining family member. I am in fact the patriarch of the family and that in itself is a strange thing for this author to write. How could that be? It seems only yesterday I was the baby of the family; now that family has all passed on leaving me the elder statesman for a legacy started so many generations ago.
Along that same path I have lost countless close friends, several by suicide, many to cancer and heart disease, and I stood at the gravesite of a fiancé in 1997. I held my father in my lap as he died from a heart attack, held my mothers’ hand as she passed on and stood in numbed silence as casket after casket was lowered into the ground over the years, leaving me at times angry, at times sad, at times helpless and searching for any semblance of a grand plan that made sense of it all.
IT STARTED WHEN I WAS SO YOUNG
Perhaps I was just too young when I lost my relatives in the Fifties and Sixties. Death really has very little meaning when you are an adolescent. I remember spending countless hours at the hospital on a “death watch” as several slipped on but I don’t recall any deep emotions over it. They seemed ancient at the time and I suppose a part of me expected people to die at a certain age; add to that the fact that a strong emotional bond had not formed with those relatives. They seemed to be on the periphery of my life when they died and I do not recall grieving over their deaths but rather a feeling of normalcy, that one should expect the old to die and that was just the way things happened in the natural order of life.
I was definitely not prepared for what happened on January 9, 1969. Nothing could have prepared me for the death of my father when I was twenty years of age.
A COMPLETE REALITY SHIFT
The foundation of my life died in my arms and I simply was not prepared emotionally or psychologically for the death of my father. How could I be? It’s one thing to lose a grandparent who always seemed to be on the outside looking in and quite another to lose a parent who had supported you, sacrificed for you and loved you in every way possible. I had no safety net to fall back on; my mother was in worse shape than I was and in no way could she provide comfort for me. Instead, it was I who had to be her pillar of strength, leaving me little time to properly mourn. His death shook me to my core and left me with unresolved issues for decades. The sense of loss was overwhelming and I quite literally lost my compass by which I had always navigated.
One thing was for certain: I would never again take life for granted. I walked away from my dad’s gravesite with a firm grasp on the fact that life was tenable at best and there were no guarantees. I also believe I walked away from his grave that day with protective armor firmly in place. If I couldn’t prevent death from happening I could at least detach myself emotionally so that the pain I had experienced would never again visit me.
THE DETACHMENT CONTINUED
Do we do that intentionally? Detach from our emotions? I don’t believe so! Not once did I sit down after my dad’s death and make a conscious decision to protect myself from harm, but looking back I know for a fact that’s what I did.
Death continued as the years went by but they did not affect me with such force; they were not allowed to. The deaths of other relatives and friends were simply pages in the book of life. I was saddened of course but certainly not struck down with grief. The page was turned and the book of my life continued, for I had erected a formidable fortress around me to keep out heartache.
There is a price that has to be paid, however, when we take such actions for self-preservation, and that price is paid in so many ways. Detachment by its very nature means an absence of feeling; it is to negate part of what we are. Although protected from crippling pain we also cheat ourselves of the joy that comes from total emersion in the human experience. It is a system of bartering whereby we trade away the risk of pain and receive in return only a small measure of happiness.
AND SO WE COME FULL-CIRCLE
Eventually, for me, the loss of happiness was worse than the possibility of pain. For my own survival I had to once again embrace life and all the pain that is inherent in it, for only by doing so could I possibly embrace complete love of another. I had to be willing to risk excruciating pain if I could ever experience the kind of love I so desperately needed. What kind of rotten deal is that I asked myself! It did not seem fair and yet I knew it was the only way if I was to completely enter the game of life once more.
So today I risk it all by loving completely. I have opened my heart and soul and invited the pain that is sure to come but at the same time I have found unbridled happiness. One cannot heal without first bleeding and I have bled far too often but I am in fact healing. I love my son completely. I love Bev completely. Is there a risk? Of course! There are no guarantees and I could lose one of my loved ones today. That is why it is so vitally important that I make the most of my time with them. Sudden death like the death of my father is an excellent lesson in not taking life for granted.
Today I savor every moment I have with my loved ones. My heart swells when I am with them and when I am not I miss them and look forward to the next time. I tell them continually that I love them and then I show them with my actions. I am on a mission, to squeeze every ounce of enjoyment out of my remaining time with those I love.
And if I lose one of them today? What then? Well, then I will celebrate the time I was allowed to spend with them and remember the wonder that occurred when two people opened their hearts and welcomed the arrival and cultivation of love.
My sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous died two years ago, as kind and loving a man as I have known in my lifetime. He unselfishly gave me support and unconditional love for seven years and single-handedly taught me how to reclaim my life. I was able to see him the day before he died and he told me then that we would not waste our last moments together wallowing in sadness but instead we would sit in gratitude for the time we had spent together. Isn’t that beautiful? I was at an AA meeting today and I saw his face on the Memory Board and I thought of that last time and I smiled in joy for having shared a part of this great man’s life.
Yes, I am the patriarch of the Holland/O’Dowd family. The baby of the clan finally grew up and now contemplates the years to come when eventually the torch will be passed to the next in line. It has become important to me that the legacy of that family not only continue but that it be remembered as a legacy of loyalty to one another…..of commitment to one another…..and of unconditional love for one another.
To my son, my nephews and my nieces, I say this: this legacy of which I speak will soon be in your hands. Will you treat it with the reverence it deserves? Embrace your family members. Tell them today and often that they are loved! Wring every last drop of life out of the time you have here on Earth because it is a precious gift not to be wasted. Allow yourself the risk of pain for the rewards of love.
2012 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)
For more on The Human Experience:
- Lifestyle Choices: Becoming The Man I Want To Be
What kind of person do you want to be? That is the question the author asked himself. Follow along as he finds the answer.
- A Pleasant Journey Back In Time
The author takes a trip back in time to re-live a great childhood.