Two weeks ago, my dad passed away unexpectedly. He was 73, and all of us in our family felt it was way too early. He could have stuck around just a little bit longer. For me the saddest thing is that most likely my two young children will not remember much of him and will grow up without the experience of having a grandpa around. If there’s anything positive, it was that there was little or no suffering. It happened relatively quickly and quietly. He was a quiet man, so he left this world in his own style.
Fifteen years ago I made the decision to put the center of my life in San Francisco on the West Coast, which meant there was a minimum travel time of 15 hours to get from home to my parents. When you make choices like this you become very much aware at one point you’re going to get a phone call that somebody you care about has passed away or is about to pass away. I had to accept it would most likely go this way, and the likelihood was high I wouldn’t have the opportunity to say goodbye. Sure enough, this is exactly how it happened.
Well, almost exactly. I was in Cuba at the time my dad got into hospital, which is a country that has no cell phone service and very limited Internet. Because of the circumstances and how this country operates, it took 36 hours for the news to reach me. I booked the next available plane, trying to get to Europe in the fastest possible way. When I finally arrived in my hometown, it was about 14 hours too late. My family told me he’d passed away quietly and peacefully. I felt if I’d just received the news a day earlier, I would have been able to talk to him, even though he was unconscious and asleep.
Since then, many people have voiced to me that it must have been horrible. I was so close, and yet I missed the opportunity to say goodbye to him. Why wasn’t I reeling from this? I didn’t feel sad, guilty, or disappointed. I honestly had none of those feelings. I was surprisingly calm. In fact, while still in Cuba I told my mother and brother to let him know that it was okay that he could let go.
Looking back, there are two thoughts that help me continue in my life without regret when it comes to thinking about my father:
1. We must forgive ourselves for the past and let people know how much we love them.
The first thing I made sure of is that I said everything I ever wanted to say to my parents. This wasn’t always easy. There were challenging aspects about my parents, just as there were challenging aspects about me. This had never been worked through—the love that needed to be expressed, the thankfulness and appreciation, and things that needed to be forgiven. The forgiving part was the most important.
So in 2008 I had an opportunity to take a road trip with my father from San Francisco out to Vancouver. I used that time to talk quite a bit about things that needed to be said where forgiveness was required. Those conversations weren’t easy with a man as quiet and reserved as my father. Nevertheless, I made it happen, and the experience I had from that point on was an immense calm when it came to my relationship with my dad.
2. Look at goodbye as if it could be the last time: have you said everything you wanted to say?
Whenever I visited my parents and it was time to go our separate ways, I always looked at it as if it was the last time we might actually see each other. I was saying a much deeper goodbye and was comfortable in the knowledge that I had voiced what was important and that they had heard me. I really looked at them as we parted, taking a snapshot in my mind. It made those times feel a bit more sad than I wanted to endure, but looking at it today, I’m so glad that I did. It became easier later on for me to tell my family, “It’s okay. You can tell him to let go because I’ve said my goodbyes already.”
If there’s anything to learn from this experience, it’s to make sure you’ve expressed what you need to say to the people that you love. If you’re feeling some regret over what you haven’t said, you still have an opportunity to do so. You can tell your loved ones today, and it will be powerful when you do. Otherwise, use the earliest opportunity you have to bring up those conversations. It may take a little effort, but the sooner you can start this process, the sooner you’ll feel a release from holding it in. My father was relatively young at 73, with his dad passing away at 78. It always seemed there would be enough time, but something caused me to act, and today I’m happy that I did.
In memory of my father, and as a tribute to family, if you have anything you still need to say to your loved ones, reach out and tell them. Even if you feel you’re not skilled at forgiving or you find yourself needing to apologize, don’t let pride stand in the way. Let them know that you love them. Do it today. Don’t wait.