Image Credit: Mother and Child by the Sea / The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The morning Dad died, my hardest phone call was to Mom. They had separated in the mid-1970s. Dad remarried a few years later, and remained happily coupled with my stepmom for 42 years, the rest of his life. Mom knew the call might be coming because I had recently visited her to relay his cancer diagnosis. She shifted in her chair. “Tell him I wish him well,” she had said. She still loved him deeply. In her mind’s eye, he forever remains the handsome 30-something father of her two children.
In Dad’s final days, my sister really stepped up to get him out of the cold environment of his local rehab facility, and into home hospice, where he died barely eight hours later. She held his hand as he passed from this earth, surrounded by people he loved. I arrived 45 minutes too late—delayed by a long and weird bus problem at Logan Airport. When I gave him his final kiss, his forehead was still warm.
Dad and I had a wonderful relationship. There has been a beautiful and sad simplicity in mourning that. Yet I found myself wracked by other memories and experiences, rooted in other conflicts, frictions, and complications in our blended family, decisions made, and opportunities lost.
Love and grief are not zero-sum games, but they sometimes feel that way in complicated, blended, or fractured families. We so easily bring receipts from decades of past choices, mistakes, misdeeds, and the normal frictions that make up our lives. In a strange but human way, someone else’s grief and reminiscences become a painful accounting: Whose graduations and soccer games were attended, and whose were missed? Whose pictures and cards were casually stuck to the refrigerator when relatives came to call? Every complicated family has its stories, its own receipts, which make mourning correspondingly more painful and complicated.
It can be particularly difficult to embrace loss and grief experienced by former spouses and partners, estranged children, step-siblings, fictive kin, and others. Witnessing such pain, we don’t know how to provide comfort or consolation, how to acknowledge ways people we love are hurting, mourning precious things they have lost. We’re tempted to move awkwardly past these experiences, because we don’t know what else to say or do.
Mom quietly grieved at home during the days after Dad died. I called a few times, but I was naturally consumed with practicalities, and the need to support my stepmom—who was herself not only grief-stricken, but also experiencing her own nonagenarian health challenges. Mom misses the life she and Dad once had, and mourns the life they could have—but didn’t—have together.
I suspect she mourns the time the two of us never had together too. I was 16 when I moved out of her house, traveling eight hours away to join Dad and his new family. That move was in many ways an opportunity for me, even though I knew it would hurt Mom very deeply. It remains the single most hurtful thing I have ever done to another person. Now, 43 years later, I’m still stabbed by random memories and regrets from those days, as I was the day Dad died.
Corinthians asserts—at least, it admonishes: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
Love, when experienced in actual human life, doesn’t tick every box in this scriptural checklist. We are not always patient and kind. We envy others, and we boast. We are easily angered. We keep careful, if generally unspoken receipts of family wrongs.
These records are all too accessible in our deepest moments of grief and loss.
We must use these receipts, these difficult moments, to find kindness and grace. We can seek moments of reconciliation when people are in pain. We can also honor the self-sacrifice of others who have enriched our lives. We can honor and respect everyone’s complicated love and grief, even when it’s sometimes awkward to embrace in the moment. As we ponder our various grievances and dark memories, we can present other receipts, too, ones that honor acts of kindnesses by others that have cast light into our lives.
Mom never reproached me for moving out. She never reproached me for my teenage unkindness, inflicted during the years she was rocked emotionally and economically by separation and divorce. Instead, she quietly chose to forgive me, her only son. I pondered that grace during Dad’s final days. I made sure to include her among the named mourners in his death announcement. We included the children of my stepsisters and others who loved him and called him “Papa.”
I had a reservation to fly home not long after Dad passed, but I never used it. My sister was in every way exhausted—from the mundane logistics, as well as the hard work and heartache from Dad’s final illness. So I rearranged my flight, grabbed her car keys, and drove the 400 miles back to her home, in my old hometown, two miles from Mom. I’ll always remember that precious drive. That trip provided a serendipitous opportunity to visit Mom. We reminisced about her life with Dad as a young married couple: the earring she lost on their first date, their rookie mistakes buying their first house, the days they brought my sister and me home.
I thanked my Mom for her grace, and noted my own regrets from those teen years. Since that time, I’ve tried to thank others in my life for acts of kindness that remain precious to me, first and foremost my wife of 30 years, Veronica. I shared receipts with my sister, who stepped up for Veronica and me when my mother-in-law unexpectedly passed away. I shared receipts with my college roommate, who taught me to wrestle, another friend who helped me out of a grad-school financial jam. I shared receipts with my high school sweetheart, who was so kind to me when I was mugged and beaten in New York. I thanked my editors at American Prospect, who protected me from myself, who spent hours to fix a poignant, heartfelt, but sprawling and terrible essay I wrote when Veronica was hospitalized with a scary heart problem. I thanked my boss from my first job, and others. I made sure to include Mom’s picture in my dad’s memorial video, rocking it out on the dance floor with my daughter at my niece’s bat mitzvah.
Frank expressions of gratitude for long-ago kindnesses catch people off-guard. People didn’t always know what to make of it. “Dude, are you ok?” was one natural unspoken question.
It’s a hard question to fully answer. Grieving brings mental pain, anger and regret, not to mention intimations of one’s own frailty and mortality. Whatever the answer, gratitude, forgiveness, and renewed relationships are part of the process of healing, and bring their own forms of consolation.
The loves we experience in our lives can’t always provide reason to trust or hope. We can’t always rejoice in the truth. We can, however, always persevere. When we mourn, we can honor, treasure, and emulate the acts of kindness and grace that enriched our lives.
These are not small things.
Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice, University of Chicago. He is also an affiliate professor in the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division and the Department of Public Health Sciences.