Grief is a sacred journey

Sorrow in the Dark Season

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My dad, Lon Ware ~1943

On mid November days, loneliness and hopelessness descend like evening fog. Is it the darkness, the limited light and long nights? Maybe, but my inner gloom lifts in December.

When I first explored these feelings in my thirties, I understood. My dad had died in November. Tears and comforting talk weren’t allowed in my stoic family. Grief went underground.

I remembered standing on the cement steps of my friend’s house after hearing a knock at the door. My brother and mother had come to get me after spending the day at the hospital. Every day that week, I’d gone to my friend’s house after school and waited for their knock. Outside with no coat, I shivered in foggy winter twilight.

Dad died this afternoon,” my big brother said.

With Dad and my brother at my grandfather’s funeral, 1955

Until a few days before, I hadn’t understood death was near. Secrecy and hiding hardship from children was the way of the times. No one admitted Dad was dying, at least not to me. Yes, he was sick. Yes, he’d been hospitalized the year before and the year before that. Yes, he’d been sick much of the time since I was a baby. Before dialysis or kidney transplants, he suffered with kidney failure that began as an untreated strep infection when he was in the Merchant Marines.

But die? That’s not the same as sick. Not when you’re fourteen. I believed in life and miracles. My heroic dad would make it. He always did. Again and again and again.

“I love you, Lanie,” he said the last time I saw him. It was just after Veteran’s Day, just before he lost consciousness, a few days before his death.

Lon & Iva Ware, 1946

My family, ~1957

Like many World War II soldiers, Dad didn’t say much about his military experience. “I enlisted in the Merchant Marines, because I wanted to help with the war but didn’t want to shoot anyone,” he said.

“My ship took supplies across the Atlantic and returned to New York with prisoners of war,” he told me another time. “Those kids were teenagers and broken. I felt sorry for them and gave them cigarettes, the only thing I had to give.” I remember the heartbreak in his voice. He shook his head from side to side as though he couldn’t understand.

On dark November days, as my feelings sink, I remember him. His death day was Nov. 17, 1959. Six days before on Veterans Day we remember soldiers’ sacrifices. Although it took twelve years for him to die, Dad gave his life in that war.

Meeting at home port in New York City (Dad on L, Mom in middle)

On his death day, I’ll light a candle and spend time with old photos. I’ll remember how much he loved me and how safe it felt to be Daddy’s girl. I’ll remember the never-ending horrors and sacrifices of war.

A few cousins remember my dad from childhood, but since my brother’s death, I’m the last living soul to remember the dates of Dad’s birth and death. I feel stronger and kinder when I remember him and feel how he still lives in me.

***

Until this year, I had one  photo of Dad and me. In a new box of photos discovered by relatives of my mom’s second husband, I found more photos of us. I’m glad to share some here. For a related article, see When Dad’s Die Young.

Do you feel a sinking sadness a certain time of year? Does it help to pinpoint the source? How do you support yourself at those times?

If you’re grieving this year or know someone who is, I recommend a new free video called “The Ghost of Christmas Past: Tools to bring the magic of the season back after losing a loved one.” You’ll find a sign-up at this link for the video which will be available on and after Nov. 21. I was interviewed by Justina Gioia about including rituals to honor loss as part of the celebration. Remembering those we miss deepens our ties with the living.

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14 Comments
  1. Oh my dear Elaine. I am struck by your statement that “Although it took twelve years for him to die, Dad gave his life in that war.” I could say the same about my own father. I was born in 1943, shortly after my dad enlisted in the Army Medical Corps. My mother always said that my dad returned as a completely different person from the man she had married. The trauma (which today we recognize in our veterans as PTSD) only revealed itself when he drank, but his nightly struggles with alcohol became worse over the years. Whatever memories he tried so hard to bury haunted him until he died too soon of cardiac arrest at the age of 69. He never talked to us about whatever horrors he must have seen as a doctor serving in that war, and I regret to this day that I didn’t know enough to ask him. Still, like you, when I think about him now, I remember how much he loved me, and how safe I felt to be my Daddy’s girl. ♥

    • Thank you for telling this poignant story, Marty. As you know so well, there are many variations from every war. We recognize things like PTSD now, but I’m not sure we’re a bit more effective at helping the soldiers who return broken and demoralized. I also regret not having asked more, although I don’t think my dad had grueling personal stories like yours or saw the worst of the battlefield. On a Merchant Marine ship, things were calm unless the ship was bombed. I know his ship was never hit. Here’s to those brave stoic men who had no help digesting grief and trauma. And here’s to another Daddy’s girl.

  2. I’m glad you are unearthing hidden treasures, blessing both you and your readers here.

    “I enlisted in the Merchant Marines, because I wanted to help with the war but didn’t want to shoot anyone,” he said. And also, “I felt sorry for them and gave them cigarettes, the only thing I had to give.” It’s clear to see where (at least in part) you got your empathy from, your father’s gift to you.

    When the weather feels less like Florida, and more like Pennsylvania as it does these days, I feel sadness – missing my loved ones who now have become my ancestors. What do I do? I include them in my blog posts, a bit of wisdom here, a photograph there.

    Trent Gilliss has said in On Being, “What’s given must not be possessed. It must be passed on.” Thank you for doing just that in this precious post, Elaine.

    • Thank you, Marian. My dad was a kind man. In a racially divided Missouri town where he was raised, he dared to cross the color line and help people who needed his support. I was proud of that, even as a kid

      I just looked up FL weather and it’s cool there–for FL. Here, the ground was covered with sparkling frost this morning and there’s snow in tomorrow’s forecast. I hope you don’t get any of that.

      Aunt Ruthie and maybe your mom, too, saved lots of junk but also saved the treasures. Since you’re a writer and also because you have a big family, it’s wonderful you can share. Your family history is fascinating through your eyes to the eyes of your ancestors. Thanks for the beautiful quote. I don’t know it. I’ll look to see if there’s an article about this quote. I see he’s an author on On Being. (An added note to say I found the article by Trent Gilliss. https://onbeing.org/blog/trent-gilliss-to-possess-and-to-pass-on-reflections-on-fathers-day-and-creative-imagination/

      • I’ve hung onto this quote for quite a while. I didn’t realize I first saw this in June. Thanks for researching the quote, a fine one. I enjoy reading the comments that have come up since I first posted. 🙂

  3. Oh, how I dread the Christmas season and especially hearing all those beautiful Christmas carols. BEcause they make me weep. I mean, miserable moaning-groaning weeping that I can’t control, that sends me racing for the nearest restroom or place to hide. And I’m not even Christian. But something about hearing all those songs I used to sing with my kids turns me into a drowning inconsolable idiot. Pretty embarrassing. Definitely not pretty.

    • It’s a rough time of year, Robin. I wonder if your son will be home for Christmas. I can’t sing anymore, but imagine you inviting a few close friends to your home for an intimate evening of candles, Christmas songs, and tears. As you know, I believe in the healing power of turning sadness into ritual.

      Your blog this week is wonderful. I read it last night, but was too tired to comment. After 9 hours of sleep and with the sun shining today, words flow a bit better. I look forward to reading about Australia when it’s time to share those stories.

  4. Dear Elaine, Thank you so much for sharing the touching story and photographs of your father’s brave life and long, unhurried death. Twelve years is such a long, long time to die, and with you being only fourteen years old at this time. I read the heartbreak in your own voice and the irony of your father offering kindness to many a broken teenager himself … yet so pleased to read he was able to tell you he loved you before he died. What a beautiful man!

    You remind us well of the sacred rituals we can all make use of to honour loss as an integral part of celebrating life. For me I have always found January and early February particularly hard to navigate. It seems to be a time of the year when my own inner gloominess descends. Thankfully though, I can lit myself a kindly fire, grab a blanket and sit in my favourite place as I turn in depth to beloved poets, and my ancestors, ancient and recent, for deeper healing.

    Yay! Last week I signed up for the “The Ghost of Christmas Past” video. As it had such a wonderful eye-catching title, this poet couldn’t resist! I’m so pleased to read that a new box of family photos has turned up. What joy it must be to unpack those unseen photographs! Warm and wild blessings, Deborah.

    • Deborah, I have lots of experience with long unhurried deaths. Both my parents were sick for more than a decade–my mom with Alzheimer’s, my brother and husband had long bouts with cancer, and now my mother-in-law who sinks ever, ever, ever so slowly with the weight of years. I’ve only experienced sudden death with pets. My dad was always affectionate and I had no doubt he loved me. I had good training in affirmation and mutual love, but poor training in saying goodbye. I know that’s common. Western culture somehow lost the art of saying goodbye, but I think we’re finding it again.

      I feed my wood stove with logs and feel my connection to Hestia in the silence of home. Willow loves baking her bones on the hearth. At night, I often sit on the floor with my back to the stove reading poetry or memoir. Thanks for signing up for the video, Deborah. I haven’t seen it yet, but will a few days before it’s released. Justina interviewed 5 people who write about grief or work in bereavement. I hope it’s helpful to you and many. There are so many possibilites coming at us that it’s hard to know what to try. No promises, but it’s free.

  5. Yes. Today is the first sunny day for days, yet it, too, feels shadowed by gloom, since I know my Dad is dying now. So, thank you for sharing your story. Our parents were born in a very different time. I am trying to understand it, and him, as best I can. Understanding him and how he changed helps me understand myself.

    • Ira, I hope your dad is on the other shore now, but this dying can take a long, long, very long time as I’m experiencing with Vic’s mom. I hope your heart is at ease and his is, too.

  6. What a wonderful piece to read on this cold and blustery November day. Needed my chicken noodle soup for lunch today and then I sat down to read this. You touch me as a reader.

    • Thank you, Jill. I know you’ve been through it, too. (I had lentil soup with the last kale from the garden for lunch yesterday. It’s soup season.) Because my dad died young, I didn’t rebel against him as a teenager. I doubt he would have been happy with my hippie days, whereas my mom had pulled back from the mothering role by then and called me her “Little Flower Child.” Thanks, too, for your support and encouraging words.

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