The death of a parent is a defining moment in our lives. My father died in March. I was conducting a workshop in Des Moines, Iowa for a group of top advisors and received two calls from my brother and wife within five minutes of each other around 9:30AM. I suspected something serious happened. When I called them back, their numbers were busy. I called my office and my assistant, Arlene, relayed the news about my father. I completed the workshop and flew back to Toronto that evening. My dad was 91 and suffered from alcohol related dementia which was progressively impairing his ability to function. However, he still recognized me when I had visited him and I mourned his loss. We had a very close relationship and I loved him dearly. The following are some lessons that I learned from him.
1. Focus on the Future, Understand the Past
Throughout my life, my dad considered himself a failure. Prior to getting married and having children, he had been an excellent athlete and an undercover detective in Northern Ireland who had been shot three times in a gun battle with an IRA leader. He almost died and I suspect, suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome. As a result, he left the police force. Unfortunately, he never settled into a career. He married my mother and had two sons within the next three years. The marriage was fraught with tensions and both of my parents were very unhappy in the relationship. He struggled to define himself and increasingly sought solace in partying and alcohol.
From my earliest recollections, he talked about his life retrospectively. It was as if he felt his opportunity to build a successful life and career had been taken away. He was a wonderful salesman and a very charming man. Yet, he drifted from one job to another. He seemed unable to resolve his sense of loss and focus on a future direction that inspired him. As a child, I did not understand that my father’s sense of failure was not a consequence of the events in his life. Rather, it was his response to those experiences. Our lives are filled with disappointments and unrealized dreams. The true test of our character comes from our response to these disappointments.
Often, when a parent does not resolve a dilemma in their own life, it is left to their children to figure it out. For me, the lession is that the future drives the present, not the past. The clearer we are about our future direction, the more likely we are to realize our dreams. However, to focus on the future, we must first understand how our past shapes our beliefs and actions.
2. Acknowledge Those Around You
My dad was a warm and generous man. When I was growing up, all of my friends adored my dad. He knew them all by name and expressed an interest in their lives. If he came home and I was sitting with my friends in front of our home, he would flip quarters to each of us and tell us to go have a treat. Later in his life, he was known as the Mayor of the Beach. We lived in a small enclave in Toronto known as the Beach. My dad acknowledged everyone on the street. People came to know him because of his greetings and warm smile. I still meet people who speak warmly of his impact upon them. He taught me that it does not take a lot of effort to acknowledge others.
3. Look for the Greatness in People
One of the qualities I have observed in great salespeople is that they see the greatness in others. My dad had that quality. All of us have gifts. When you look for the best in people, you often find it. My dad encouraged those around him to aspire and focus on their dreams. The irony was that he could see the greatness in others, but not in himself.
4. The Importance of Laughter
My dad taught me how to laugh. He had a great sense of humour and loved to tease people. His humour was not malicious. There is something very therapeutic about laughter. One of my touchstones for my own health is the Ardell Wellness Index. It provides 21 guidelines for maintaining health and well being. My favourite guideline is to have 16 hearty laughs a day.
The most important lesson my father taught me was the power of love. For all of his struggles, I always knew that he loved me. His love was unconditional. In our interactions, I was often the only one who could persuade him to do things. In the later years of his life, when he was struggling with dementia and could not care for himself, I was the only one whom he would allow to give him a bath and look after his basic needs. His resistance was easy to overcome, because I knew he loved me and “no” did not really mean no.