Things Weren't Perfect, & That's Okay
When someone dies, we collectively tend to only remember the good parts of them. At least, we only talk about the good parts.
A week after my dad died, we had calling hours for him. For most of two hours, I stood at the front of a seemingly never ending line greeting family, friends, and complete strangers. It was an exhausting but rewarding experience.
Many things from that day have stuck with me, but there’s one conversation that I’ve thought about almost weekly since then. This conversation wasn’t with someone who came to see us, though, and instead was with my dad’s sister, my aunt, who was standing next to me the whole time.
About halfway into the calling hours, two of my aunt’s coworkers came to support her. I was the first family member that people talked to, followed by my aunt. Even though I had never met these two people before, and they didn’t know my dad, I genuinely enjoyed talking to them. They seemed to genuinely care about me, even though they only knew my aunt, and offered kind words that I appreciated.
After talking to me, these coworkers went to talk to my aunt. Unlike most of the conversations that had occurred, which were solemn and sad, the conversation between my aunt and her coworkers was lighthearted and full of laughter. I’m sure that many people thought my aunt was crazy for laughing so hard at her brother’s calling hours, but I didn’t. I was jealous. Laughter was something I craved at that point.
At that point, I was already speaking to the people next in line.
“Natalie!” my aunt said.
I apologized to who I was talking to, and turned to my aunt. “Yeah?”
“I was just telling them,” she gestured at her coworkers, “do you ever remember your dad getting mad?”
I paused. The three seconds I took to reply felt like three hours.
I knew the answer she wanted to hear. No, never. However, I also knew the correct answer… which wasn’t no.
I rationalized with myself. It’s not like Dad was angry all the time. He got angry sometimes, like everyone does. My aunt just probably wasn’t around for that. Someone’s funeral seems like the best time to make a tiny white lie about them. It’ll just be this once.
“No, not really.” I replied.
“See, I told you!” my aunt said. It was the answer she wanted.
They started talking with each other again, and I turned back to the people I had previously been speaking with. We never mentioned that brief exchange afterwards, yet it was all I could think about.
At the time, I thought that my aunt just didn’t know. Or she just got confused in the moment. Instead of being the only time that happened, though, that experience was just the first time. In the weeks and months that followed, I didn’t hear a single bad word about my dad. It was like he had been perfect, and had never done anything wrong.
It makes sense, right? Focusing on the good things about a person after they die. I mean, I don’t want people to remember me for my flaws, and I doubt anyone else does. At the same time, though, having no one talk about the not so good parts is hard. Especially when you’re struggling with some of those things.
I quickly followed my family’s habit of only talking about the good parts of my dad. As I did this more, I started to notice that, not only was I only mentioning the good parts, but I was trying to hide the bad ones. I found myself leaving out parts in stories where my dad said or did something wrong, and defending him to others when I accidentally slipped up.
On the outside, it seemed like I was only remembering the good things. Internally, though, I kept on thinking about the bad things. One thing in particular kept filling my mind, but I never brought it up with anyone because I felt like I couldn’t show that my dad was less than perfect.
My dad was less than perfect, though. Like every single person on the planet, he had flaws. One of his bigger flaws was the one that I silently struggled with after his death: How little he cared about his health.
As a kid, I used to beg my dad to get healthier. I’d sing him little songs and beg him to make better health choices. He would laugh off my efforts, though, and tell me that it was okay.
I eventually gave up on this seemingly unwinnable battle as I grew older. Nothing really bad had happened to my dad because of his health, so I started thinking that he might be one of the few people who could be unhealthy without any big consequences.
Years later, when my dad got sick, I slowly began to realize that his sickness was related to how unhealthy he was. Conversations I overheard and noticing my dad’s sudden change in diet confirmed what I had known since I was a kid. Everyone in my family knew, so I wasn’t the only one, but no one said anything.
Then he died.
Still, no one said anything.
While everyone praised my dad and told me how amazing he was, I hardly heard their words. I was full of confusion, sadness, and anger. Confusion over how my dad hadn’t realized how badly things could go, when even I as a child did. Sadness because he didn’t take care of himself. Anger at him for not taking care of himself and leaving me - leaving all of us - here without him.
On top of that, I felt overwhelming guilt. Guilt at myself for not doing anything. For stopping singing those songs, for not saying more, and for not saying something when I realized why he was sick, even though I was just a kid and none of that was my responsibility. Guilt for even thinking about these things, and being unable to remember just the good things about my dad like others did.
To make things even worse, I told no one. These strong emotions were hidden deep within me, covered up by conversations about how amazing my dad was, and only came out late at night when I struggled to fall asleep. Admitting to someone how I felt seemed terrifying, as I was convinced that I would either be judged for talking about my dead dad’s flaws, or that no one else would understand what I was feeling.
Finally, just last year, I talked to someone about it. My aunt, the one I mentioned above. While talking to her, I realized something: It wasn’t that other people didn’t remember the bad parts of my dad. They did. They just didn’t talk about them. I wasn’t weird for thinking about those things, I was normal.
Talking about more than the good after someone has died is hard. It’s even hard for me to write this, even though I’ve talked to a few people about it since then. I feel this need to protect my dad, probably because he isn’t here to protect himself, and to help people remember him for the good person he was.
In reality, though, it’s okay to talk about the fact that my dad wasn’t perfect. Mentioning his flaws doesn’t make him a bad person, or make people remember him that way. It just makes him human.
Every single person on this planet has flaws. Admitting them isn’t a bad thing.
If you’re struggling with some not so good parts of your loved one, it’s okay to talk about them. It may be hard to speak to people who actually knew this person at first, and those people may not be ready to have that conversation yet, so I recommend starting by talking to some people who didn’t know your loved one. This includes your friends and adults in your life, such as a school counselor, coach, or teacher. When you feel ready, talk to the people who knew your loved one. Chances are, they may have thought some of the same things.
I still struggle with knowing my dad’s unhealthiness helped lead to his death. I’m glad I know, but it’s still hard to know. Talking about it didn’t fix things, but it’s helped a lot.
Things weren’t perfect before my dad died, and that’s okay. I’m learning to make peace with it, and that talking about those imperfections isn’t a bad thing.
Written by Natalie Adams, the creator of Teenage Grief Sucks.