My dad died 14 years ago, on my brother’s June birthday. My friend Jane’s father died on her June birthday. Not surprisingly, when Father’s Day comes, it underscores the shocking and ill-timed departures of those guys we loved so much.
Even though at first we couldn’t really talk about our emotions, Jane and I have learned to share them just about every year since 1997 at our annual Dead Dads Dinner. Each May, when we know we’re heading into the blues that come with those anniversaries, we hit them head on with a tried-and-true Southern ritual of dealing with sadness: Let’s eat!
This gives us the opportunity each summer to celebrate the memories of two beloved men with a good martini and the best steak Atlanta has to offer at Bone's steakhouse.
Because of Jane’s friendship with the owners, Susan DeRose and her partner Richard Lewis, we got the royal treatment the night we launched the Dead Dads Dinner. The wait staff – always consummate professionals – knew that we were celebrating, or, rather, burying our grief in a good stiff drink – and could not have been more attentive or caring. When they delivered our first drink in individual silver cocktail shakers with the restaurant name engraved on one side and each of our dad’s initials on the other, well, of course, we lost it.
Since that first memorable dinner, we’ve both lost other family members and friends, and we toast them, too. We have come to realize the value in celebrating someone who’s gone and encourage others to do that, too.
I had written my share of obituaries as a young reporter at Newsday on Long Island, but not until my dad died suddenly, in the middle of the night on June 28, 1996, was I faced with writing from the heart.
At 4 a.m., with no resources to pull from other than the heartbreaking calls to my sister and brother, the end result was underreported and overwritten. Oh, of course, we knew the basics but had little time to make sure we had dates and titles right, much less to try to due justice to his colorful life in black and white print. I never needed an editor more!
Since then, I’ve had a hand in dozens of obituaries – as writer, editor, researcher, friend and family member – and know the value of having something to refer to, whether a list of achievements and attributes or thoughts that might be spun into a meaningful eulogy.
When my father died, we scattered some ashes off his beloved beach in Ponte Vedra, Fla. and read the following passage:
I am standing on the seashore. A ship appears and spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the ocean.
She is an object of beauty and I stand watching her till at last she fades away on the horizon and someone at my side quietly says, “She is gone.”
Gone where? Gone from my vision, that is all; she is just as large as when I saw her last and just as able to bear her load of living freight to its destination.
The diminished size and the total loss of sight is in me, not in her; and just as the moment when someone at my side says, “She is gone,” there are others who are watching her coming and other voices take up a joyful shout, “Here she comes!”
The warm welcome portrayed in this passage sustains my siblings and my self, each year as we face this tough month of celebrating dads – loving the ones here and missing so much the ones who are gone.
Susan Soper is the founder and author of ObitKit™, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she was formerly the Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief" shortly after her father died. Susan lives in Atlanta with her husband.
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