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My dying dad’s last words still haunt me

Is it fair for a lifelong relationship be boiled down to one final statement? Dr. Gail Saltz helps a woman whose father was absent from her life, but still left her with a haunting, cryptic deathbed message to live up to his example.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Q. Before my father died, he pulled me close to his mouth with his remaining strength and raspily told me to live up to his example. Those were his last words to me and I am haunted by his challenge/taunt. I know he loved me, and he was loved by the community, but he was a mostly absent father for me and my siblings.

Our mother, his widow, burned the journal he kept for 50 years. I would have loved to read even just a week's worth of his thoughts. How can I move on/shake this? This isn’t so much “grieving” (I can already hear you talk about it as such) as “understanding.”

A. When parents die, thoughts about about who they really were, how you resemble them and how you identify with them, run rampant through your mind.

Your thoughts are probably intensified because your father was mostly absent. Your deceased parent need not have been someone you felt incredibly close to or knew very well for you to have strong emotions upon his death.

If you longed for your father and wished he spent more time with you, you could be feeling very angry. This anger could prompt feelings of guilt, accentuating your wish to find ways to hold on to your father and not accept the fact he is now gone. The book on him is closed, literally.

Grief feels like an insufficient term for what you are going through. I agree that grief doesn’t even begin to describe the sum of feelings that accompany the loss of a parent. When a parent dies, you are next in line. That often makes you ponder the meaning of their existence and their legacy, and therefore your own.

Your father’s dying instruction — to live up to his example — doesn’t necessarily seem very warm and loving. It’s even somewhat cryptic. There is no indication that you are proud to follow such an example. Perhaps he was distant because he was also self-absorbed.

It is unclear what was in the journal or why your mother burned it. Maybe there were negative things in general, or about you, that your mother didn’t want you to see. Maybe she knew what was in the journal, or maybe not. There is no way for me to know.

You could certainly ask your mother why she chose to burn the journal, and possibly even let her know you wished to understand more clearly who your father was. She might provide further insight to give you some context.

Sometimes, finding a parent’s old letters or photos really clues you in to who they are as a person, which can be a wonderful thing for a grown child. But a journal includes someone’s most private thoughts. Perhaps it contained information that wasn’t particularly healthy for you to know.

Your father’s parting words have unfortunately taken on a greater importance than they should. A lifelong relationship cannot be boiled down to one final statement.

You seem haunted because his words raise the importance of this one particular statement. Maybe your father sent his message — to live up to his example — in other ways that you didn’t hear so clearly before he was on his deathbed.

Ultimately, it is each person’s choice how to live. Your father lived his life his way, and it is your prerogative to live your life your way.

The real question for you is how do you accept that you never really got a chance to be close to your father? You cannot now change the relationship you had with your father by living up to his example. That will not resurrect him or overcome the distance that was there. Instead, you must accept that your father had limitations, as all people do. At this point, that is your only choice.

Some of his limitations, sadly, were in his ability to be intimate with his children. It is fine to acknowledge that you had both positive and negative feelings for him.

So moving on is about accepting the limits of that relationship while still taking pleasure in the elements that did work.

Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: When parents are gone, there is information that dies with them. There is some information you don’t know and will never know.

Any ideas, suggestions in this column are not intended as a substitute for consulting your physician or mental health professional. All matters regarding emotional and mental health should be supervised by a personal professional. The author shall not be responsible or liable for any loss, injury or damage arising from any information or suggestion in this column.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to TODAY. Her most recent book is “The Ripple Effect: How Better Sex Can Lead to a Better Life” (Rodale). For more information, please visit .