I am grateful for my Dad’s death on Christmas Day 1963. Before you get too worked up about what I said — I’m grateful, not happy about it. The two — gratitude and happiness — often work together but they are not the same.
That’s my dad’s photo above in Charlotte, NC, circa 1941. This was before he suffered a heat stroke in the swamps of Louisiana, preparing for deployment to the Pacific Theater in World War II.
His physical and mental health was never the same after that. This was before I was born. So, I never personally knew that healthy, courageous, compassionate, truly happy man. But I met him later.
It was 1963. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November that year. We silently watched the TV coverage in my sixth-grade classroom. Thanksgiving was hard, coming days after such a horror.
My dad died on Christmas Day, a little more than a month after the president was killed. He had just celebrated his 46th birthday. I was 11.
At the funeral, people came up to me to tell me stories about my dad. Stories I had never heard. A picture of who he really was started to emerge.
My uncle told me about my dad wading into a fight — this would have been in the 1930s in North Carolina — to help two teens who were being bullied and beaten by several others. The bullies were white. The victims were black.
Others told me similar stories about my dad standing up against injustice. According to my uncle, he followed my dad around to try to keep him from getting into similar scrapes.
I heard stories about how he helped people down on their luck with no conditions for paying him back. He owned a hardware store and a heating oil delivery service. Several folks told me that he had brought them oil during a really cold snap when they had no way to pay him. He told them not to worry about it.
It was good to hear these stories, but at the time they didn’t dispel the grief. It was years before I was able to face Christmas Day without going into a funk.
As I got older, I began to see how much like my dad I had become. I felt grateful for this role model who was there for me through the people he had affected. I was able to celebrate his legacy that was so much bigger than just our family left with pain and grief.
This helped me get happier, if not yet happy. I was able to embrace the holiday season again.
So, when you are next facing the death of a loved one, ask yourself what you can learn from this.
Did it bring you closer to someone?
What changes for the better did it bring?
Did it send you in a new direction?
I’ve had to ask these questions recently. My daughter, Erin, passed away in September 2018. It didn’t immediately erase my grief, but the gratitude I began to express is helping me get back on the road to happiness.
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