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What to Say

A Commentary by Susan Estrich

When my father died, so many years ago, my heart was broken. And then it got broken again. In the hours and days after his death, I was comforted by family and friends. But I couldn't help but notice who was missing, people I cared about, people I thought cared about me, who didn't call, didn't come, weren't there. Later, much later, I asked a few of those people why: Where had they been? Why didn't they come? And the answer was always the same.

They didn't know what to say. They didn't know what to do. So they didn't say anything. They didn't come.

Here is the truth. It isn't hard. It isn't scary. Death is not contagious. The answer is: Go. Say you are sorry. Tell a funny story. As my friend Jack used to say, 90 percent of life is just showing up. In hard times, it's probably closer to 99 percent.

It's easier, of course, when the person who died was very old, when they lived a good life, had the chance to follow their dreams and see their children and even their grandchildren grow up. Then you can say, it is God's will, the way of the world, a life well-lived. Then you can smile and say, look what they left behind, all the children who live on. Let's drink to him. Then you can say, if you're younger still, this is not about me.

My father died at 54. There were children, not grandchildren. My best friend died at 53. Her mother was still alive. Her oldest grandchild was a baby. God's will? I don't know.

I am sitting on a plane flying to my friend Tony Snow's wake. He was 53. He had a wife he loved, three children he adored. In a business that is full of snakes and sleazebags, of cheaters and charlatans, he was a sweetheart, a decent and honorable man who loved his family, his country and his work. Why him? Because his mother died of the same disease when she was 37? Bad genes is just not a good answer.

Here is what I know. You never stop missing the people you love. It never gets "all better," the way the scrapes and bruises of childhood do, the way career disappointments and broken romances do. It never goes away. It just becomes part of your history.

It was my friend Patrick who told me that, after my father died. At a time when others were pulling away, he would sit with me. His brother had died when he was a kid. His family was ripped apart. And then time passed. Life went on. And his brother, and his brother's death, became part of his history, a scar and not a gaping wound.

After my father died, I was sad all the time. I worked and I cried. I looked at the world through tear-stained eyes. I took pills to sleep. I tried not to dream. I put one foot in front of another and tried my best not to fall. I would see people laughing, partying and having fun, and think, that will never be me. I will never be happy again.

And then one day, I realized I had gone a whole hour without reliving my father's final days, without feeling angry with every middle-aged man I saw. An hour became two. I started being able to remember my father as he had been when he was well, when he was truly alive and not lying in a hospital bed with tubes everywhere.

When I quit smoking for the last time, I thought about cigarettes all the time -- when I had my first cup of coffee or my second, when I talked on the phone, when I got in the car or ordered a drink or finished dinner. And then I started getting used to doing all those things without my trusty Marlboro. I went an hour without thinking about smoking, and then two hours and then a whole day, and then I was an ex-smoker, someone who used to smoke and not someone who does.

Death is harder. I never stopped missing my dad. It never went away. The list of those I miss just keeps growing. But life goes on. I became who I am. Tony will live on in Jill and their children, and in all of us he touched with his kindness and decency. There should be more to say, but for now, that will do. I will be there. It is not so hard.


See Other Political Commentaries

See Other Commentaries by Susan Estrich

Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.

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