My dad died. He was in an assisted living facility outside Orlando, Florida, caught the coronavirus, and nine days later his heart stopped beating. He was 77.
My father was brilliant, but flawed. He was generous with love but loathed obligations. He could be the life of the party one minute yet spark its abrupt end the next. He was quick to apologize but slow to admit fault. We were close, but he made a habit of keeping his distance. He was intelligent (Ph.D. in physics from Brown University) but made so many bad decisions. He was easy to love but difficult to endure. In short, my father drove everyone who loved him insane.
Because of the pandemic, there could be no visits to the hospital or bedside good-byes. There could be no calling hours or a funeral service. There could be no expressions of condolences or fond memories. There could be no eulogy or carrying of the casket. There could be no closure.
My kids were not particularly close with their grandfather. By the time they were old enough to get to know him, he had already been placed in assisted living, and visits were uncomfortable. Though they were sympathetic, my father’s death and my subsequent grief were abstract phenomena.
A week after my dad died, our dog was diagnosed with lymphoma. A week later, he died. The speed at which the disease took him was incomprehensible and upsetting to witness. My family, who had become so reliant to our dog’s unconditional love as to consider it as solid as the ground on which our home stood, was inconsolable with grief, and his loss is profoundly felt.
If you have ever lost a pet, you know that dull, empty ache induced by the absence of a pet’s unconditional love. If you have ever lost a parent, you know that unmooring feeling of being left behind by someone who, good or bad, guided you through life. You have felt that pain of losing a loved one.
Sympathy is imagining what another person is experiencing. Empathy is knowing what they’re feeling. Empathy promotes compassion, which leads to understanding and support, which leads to fellowship. Empathy provides perspective and becomes part of the collective wisdom that can strengthen the community. Empathy not only comforts the bereaved, it offers proof they can endure.
The day after my dad died, two of my closest friends came over to see how I was doing. They never knew my dad or even met him, but they had lost their fathers and knew how it tough it could be. And, it helped.