When I was fifteen years old my paternal grandmother committed suicide. Over the next two decades I watched my beloved father come undone, and on October 17, 2006, my dad followed in his mother's footsteps and took his own life.
Needless to say, I was heart broken. I was lost. And although there were many initial responses, one of the most memorable was my need, bordering on obsession, to become a collector (perhaps even hoarder) of all my father's stuff. It became my mission to gather everything he created or touched. I scoured my home for pictures and, when I found them, I scanned them into the computer for backup and made backups of backups just to be safe.
I searched for letters, and every one I found was like winning the lottery. I devoured them. I treated anything with his handwriting on it like a treasured gift. A sticky note with the words "love you," a to-do list--it didn't matter, because it was my dad's. They were his words in his handwriting. His hand had touched the paper, and what were merely words on paper took on sacred meaning. Something within me called me to serve my father's memory. I felt charged to carry his memories forward; I wanted to keep him alive and that meant preserving these keepsakes.
However, slowly it began to dawn on me that no matter how many pictures I stockpiled, it was never enough. The artifacts of his life that I crammed into a shoebox, the letters I discovered, anything he touched, and any product of his hand would someday disappear. The pictures would eventually fade or be lost. Even if they were passed down, at some point they would be forgotten, or unrecognized or thrown away.
I vowed to talk to my children about him and to tell them his stories. I even saved a voice mail message he left for me, but no amount of audio or video satisfied what I was searching for. After a year of furiously writing about him, trying to articulate every memory, I realized that none of it would keep my dad alive. The sights, the sounds, the memories, and even the will to keep on writing about him began to dissipate. I was forgetting, and that was perhaps the most painful part of losing him. It was a death upon a death and I felt like I was failing to fulfill my duty and keep his memory alive.
In time, through much self-exploration, grief-work and soul searching, I began to understand that nothing I did could keep my father, nor his legacy, alive. However, it wasn't until I read a passage within a book, "The Road," by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy, that I fully articulated what I was trying to do. The Road is a story about a father and his young son. They survive a nuclear holocaust in which the majority of humanity is wiped out. A handful of stragglers try desperately to stay alive by foraging for food and shelter in the dangerous environment. The father thinks about taking his son's life and then his own to escape their miserable reality. As he's about to die, not of his own hand but from the ravages of his physical condition, and leave his precious child alone in a cruel world, the following conversation ensues:
Boy: I want to be with you.
Dad: I want to be with you, too, but I can't.
Dad: You have to go off on your own now. You have to carry the fire.
Boy: I don't know how to.
Dad: Yes, you do. You know everything about it.
Boy: Is it real? The fire? Papa?
Dad: Yes, it is.
Boy: Where is it? I don't know where it is.
Dad: Yes, you do.
Boy: Where? Dad: It's inside you. It was always there.
When I read this passage I understood my mission in a way that I had not been able to articulate. My dad was calling out to me, his soul was calling out to me, not to carry his "things," not to carry his pictures, not to carry the sound of his voice, not even to carry the memories of him. Rather, my dad was calling out to me, calling from within me - to carry the fire:
The fire of his values, his character and his example;
The fire of his compassion, his kindness and his love;
The fire of his soul, not above me, not beyond me, but within me; his soul and my soul, forever bound up as father and son, as soulmates, in this life and beyond. It was all there in me, in the fire, the fire that I was to carry forward as I lived my life.
Then, a bit later, I had another epiphany. This time it didn't come through a book, but from a teaching from my three year old son. My son was at the age where he's too heavy to hold but too little to keep up with the rest of us. When he could no longer keep up, he would tug on my pants, and my heartstrings, imploring me with his impassioned plea, "uppies, uppies!" And every time, of course, I would pick him up and carry him home.
Obviously uppies means, "Pick me up. I'm tired. I don't want to walk anymore."
However, deeper than that, "uppies" means, take me in your arms where I can rest, where I feel secure, where I know I will arrive safely to my destination, because you daddy, always have and always will carry me, not simply with your arms, but with your love."
In that moment I sensed my dad's presence. I remember my dad giving me uppies when I was a little boy. I remember receiving what my son was asking for and always feeling safe, sound and secure in my father's loving arms. And I knew in that moment, as I carried my son just as my dad carried me, I wasn't only carrying my little boy, I was carrying my father's fire. This was what I was supposed to carry of my father's, I would carry his fire. I would carry him home.
My friends, we all need uppies and we all give uppies.
We all need to be carried by our loved ones and we all need to carry our loves ones.
Your loved one may be dead but they are not gone. They are around you. They are within you. They are you. You are them. Their fire is your fire, so carry their fire until the day you are reunited, in your eternal home.
Until that day, carry their fire and carry on.
If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.
Rabbi Dr. Baruch HaLevi (aka "Rabbi B") has guided thousands of people - Christians, Jews, spiritual seekers & rational atheists - through "deaths darkness," as well as having navigated it himself after the losses of his grandmother and father due to suicide, as detailed in his most recent book,"Spark Seekers: Mourning with Meaning, Living with Light." Rabbi B is known for his compassionate, motivational and inspirational style and is now devoted exclusively to Spark Seekers Ventures - lecturing, writing and counseling. You can learn more about Rabbi B or contact him to begin working with him in phone/online Grief Guidance, Soul Coaching, Divorce Direction and Spiritual Guidance, at www.RabbiB.com
This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let's talk about living with loss. If you have a story you'd like to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.