Death is No Longer a Stranger

As many of you are aware, my dad, Peter Williams Montgomery, passed away suddenly a week after I returned from Europe.  On my last visit with him, I shared my Europe photos, which he really enjoyed.  The last time we went for a walk together, in October, before I started my travels, I shared with him some of my writing.  He was very enthusiastic and encouraged me to keep writing.  Little did I know that my next writing assignments would be his obituary and eulogy.

Losing a parent is a big deal.  No matter how young or old you are, or what your relationship is with that person, the loss of a parent is a significant loss, and one that is difficult to prepare for.  Like many of life’s other passages, you just don’t know how it will be until you get there.  One of the surprises for me is to understand that when you lose a parent, you not only lose that person, that unique individual that birthed you, and/or raised you, for better or for worse; you also lose that role, having a mom, or a dad, with all that that implies.

At my dad’s memorial service, after I gave my eulogy, several people asked me to post my remarks.  I’ve decided to do so here, in abbreviated format.  May they be a blessing to each of you, wherever you are on your journey.

“Life has a funny way of teaching us what we’re made of.  We wonder what our reaction will be if and when the unthinkable happens.  We tell ourselves we’ll never be able to face it or overcome it, this impossible thing, and then we surprise ourselves and do it after all when the need finally arises. 

As my father’s health began to fail, many times I wondered what I would feel, and how I would ever possibly get through it all when he died.  When that day finally came, I couldn’t have been more surprised to find that, curled up tight, right alongside the grief of losing him so suddenly, surged a deep and powerful sense of gratitude.  When I got to Cookie’s home on Thursday morning and first saw my father’s body, covered lovingly with his red and white serape, the words that sprang instantly to my heart were not: “Oh my God” or “He’s gone”, but a deep and heartfelt “thank you.”

I read a quote once that likened death to the period at the end of a sentence.  The period completes the phrase and helps define and emphasize what came before.  The finality of Peter’s death has given me the ability to see, in a way that was never before clearer, how great is my debt to him.

The unexpected blessing of this week has been that as my father’s earthly journey has come to its end, my understanding of who he was, and what he meant to me, is beginning to unfold in an entirely new way. As an artist’s work suddenly increases in value upon the artist’s death, so too the words of wisdom and acts of kindness of our loved ones take on new meaning when one knows they are complete.  Thus, my father’s death, while it marks the end to my opportunity to see him, to walk with him and hold a conversation, or to simply sit with him and hold his hand, also is the beginning of a new phase of the journey. What a blessing to learn that love can reach beyond death and surprise us with new gifts, that a loved one’s impact is neither limited nor eclipsed by death, but in some mysterious way, is expanded and enhanced, as we integrate the whole of who they were into our hearts.  As family and friends gather and share memories and stories, we learn from each other more fully who Peter really was, we paint the bigger picture, and I come to appreciate and honor even more this man who I was blessed to call my father. 

As we move into another Minnesota winter, most assuredly we will face some raw days as we experience Peter’s physical absence.  But in these moments we can pull out and treasure, one by one, the lessons and memories of a lifetime, and know that winter is always followed by spring.”

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