Brian Sandford: Many things unite us — including painful loss
April 28, 2013
"He wouldn't eat the fish or the soup; he just wanted to sleep and make me turn out the light. Which I can't, because it's the sun."
My sister, who's at my dying grandfather's bedside in Grindsted, Denmark, texted that to me. By the time you read this, I'll be at his side, too. And I'll have to tell him the most painful thing I've ever told anyone, that it's OK to stop holding on. It's OK to die.
My sister and I are his only two descendants, given that his only child — our mother — died in 1993. He has been a father figure to both of us since, supporting us emotionally and sometimes financially as we made our way through our 20s and 30s. His advice about how to overcome my grief over my mother's death still resonates daily.
He advised me to always be active — to play tennis and basketball, travel, meet new people, write frequently and always be learning. I've especially embraced the latter, as I'm not satisfied by just being casually aware of a new topic. I need to learn everything there is to know about it. My current area of study is our state's fascinating history.
My grandfather, like my mother and many other Danes, suffered severe depression, and he learned how to beat it — which is how he has lived to be 91. He spent every moment he could in nature after a career as a forester, and he walked multiple kilometers every day. In his late 80s, he took bus tours to Berlin and Prague, a great distance from his home. There's a photo of him looking up at the great trees on Washington's Olympic Peninsula during a visit about 10 years ago. The look on his face says more than anything I could put into words.
At the time, I lived in Oregon's capital and my sister lived in Washington's. After a three-plus-hour drive from Olympia down to Salem, my grandfather's travel companion assumed we were in the middle of the United States because we'd spent so much time in the car. Our nation's vastness — both the physical size and the fact that we function very well as a society while serving as the world's melting pot — is too much for many people elsewhere to wrap their heads around. Despite cherry-picked evidence to the contrary, we're doing quite well as a society.
This column is aimed at both honesty and the unseen things that unite us, and we're united by the fact that all of us have either lost one or more loved ones already or eventually will. Rather than dread that, we should appreciate those closest to us while we can.
Editor Brian Sandford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.