Valentine’s Day has historically been quite a difficult day for me.
I am hardly unique in this respect, but I venture to presume that the reason the 14th of February pulls at the scars on my heart is relatively unusual. It is not the lack of romantic attachment that brings pain. I am lucky enough to be married to my best friend. It is not a sense of isolation. My life is very full of love and companionship. It is not even a memory of past betrayal that sours this day, at least not in the traditional sense.
No. A cloud has obscured the heart on the calendar for the past 16 years because Valentine’s Day is also the day my Dad was born, and 16 years ago my Dad was no longer there to be celebrated. The previous summer, when I was just 19, my Dad had taken his own life.
Anyone who knows about grief can tell you how difficult anniversaries are. Birthdays, death days, any date that bears special significance in a lost relationship has the power to reopen wounds. For me, Valentine’s Day has offered a little extra twist to the knife of loss because of its irony. A day to celebrate love is such a fitting and awful day to associate with my Dad’s life. It emphasizes the love that I lost when he took himself away, but more than that it focuses attention on the pain that led him to that choice.
My Dad was a man driven by the search for love. I think all human beings need love, but for Dad that need was an obsessive compulsion. It is not that his life was without love. Even after my parents’ divorce he had people in his life who loved him, and I was near the top of this list. But the love that he had never seemed to satisfy his need. He was desperate for some unattainable romantic ideal that would fulfill the deepest longings of his soul, and ultimately that desperation led to despair.
Suicide is a complicated phenomenon. There were undoubtedly factors of biology, and past trauma, and triggering stress that laid the pathway for his suicide. And I could never claim to be able to enter into his mind and heart on the night he took those pills to explain all of his reasons. Nevertheless, I have always felt certain that his frustration at not finding the love he so deeply desired was a major factor in driving him to seek an end to the pain.
And this is why Valentine’s Day had long been such a difficult day for me. The pain has moderated over the years. I have lived almost half of my life since that watershed loss in my life, and it has been a good life. My wonderful husband has done a lot to add many wonderful associations to the day to try to balance out the bad; and it is impossible not to smile when I remember Princess Imagination’s shy pleasure in making valentines for her classmates (including one special one for a certain sweet little boy), or when the Gigglemonster smears the associated chocolate goodness of the day all over his face. Most importantly, the tears I have cried on this day always led me to the source of Love, and I have felt the love of God in those moments in ways that would have been impossible if I had not been so broken. Valentine’s Day still brings thoughts of my Dad, but these thoughts share space with others that are even more powerful.
That is why today I am thankful for the memory of my Dad on Valentine’s Day. Not just because it is important to cherish the memories of the 19 years I did have with him. But because even in death he taught me a really important lesson about love.
The romantic ideal of Valentine’s Day is NOT what makes life worth living. You can drive yourself crazy searching for that ideal… in fact, he did. But when love, especially romantic love, becomes an obsession it destroys life; it doesn’t fulfill it. Love isn’t flowers, or candlelight dinners, or sexy lingerie. Love isn’t even finding your soul mate. Love is finding your soul’s source, and knowing that no matter how many human relationships you have they will never come close to meeting the deepest need that is built into us – to know the love of God.
Tomorrow there will be a lot of grand romantic gestures around the world, and that is not a bad thing. It is good, even important, to make a big deal over our partners on special occasions. Tomorrow there will also be a lot of loneliness and tears, and maybe even some suicides, and that is a bad thing. I’m fairly confident that my day will not be marked by either extreme. [That is not a knock on my husband, just an acknowledgement that we have two young children and the romance gets a bit moderated during these particular years of our partnership.] If I could have one wish for this day, however, it wouldn’t be for my day. It would be for the lesson I learned from one, special, Valentine baby to reach others who need that perspective as much as I do.
So, if this story touched you, please send it on. You never know what romantic ideal could be breaking someone’s heart today.