The Opposite of Loss

The Opposite of Loss

Words by Nadine Kenney Johnstone

Illustration by Sarah Rain Hammond


On a crisp spring Saturday morning in April of 2021, my husband Jamie and I had just dropped off our son Geo at a playdate. We were sitting in a strip mall parking lot because I was about to purchase a gift for my sister. Unbeknownst to her, her boyfriend was going to propose that afternoon, and we were all going to meet up afterward to congratulate them. I wanted to find the perfect gift.

And then I got the call.

My father was losing his cancer battle and was not going to make it. I learned that when I visited him the next day, it would likely be the last time I saw him.

My parents had divorced when I was young and though my mom remarried and had my sister, my father never remarried. So, I shared many of my Sundays with him, just the two of us driving around. And when I became an adult, my father and I went on a trip to Ireland together, strengthening our bond.

One of his proudest experiences was becoming a grandfather to Geo, who called him Dad-o, a play on the Irish word for Grandpa. Then my father got the news that he had cancer. One short year later, he was leaving this world. 

I sobbed in the passenger seat of our truck as Jamie rubbed my back, and when I couldn’t take the pain for one more minute, I asked Jamie to take me to The Home Depot.

In the midst of my grief, I felt instinctively that I wanted to get my sister and her partner something meaningful. I wanted to give them a tree. Bleary-eyed, I stumbled through the outdoor garden section, wondering how it was even possible to hold two opposing emotions in my heart at the same time: joy and elation for my sister and deep grief for my father, whose life was being cut short at age 57. 

When I saw the flowering trees section, something in my broken heart warmed a bit. I found the perfect one that would bloom every spring to remind my sister and her partner of the day they decided on forever. 

As we secured the sapling in the bed of Jamie's truck, it planted a seed in my heart. Love would still flower, even in the midst of loss. 

Within a span of twenty-four hours, I embraced my sister as she leapt into my arms after her proposal, and I held the thin shaking hand of my father before he left this world. 

The contrasts of the spring were so jarring that I thought my heart would split in two. At my father's memorial service, I sobbed as soldiers handed me his folded military flag. And two weeks later, I drank a mint julep and wore a silly hat at my sister's Kentucky Derby party. 

How was it possible to hold such love and loss in my heart at once? 

My father's passing caused us all to be more cognizant of our mortality. And poor Geo realized that our time on this earth is limited. One night, he called me into his room, asking what happens when we die. He was terrified, knowing that there would be a time when he would be here and Jamie and I would not. With my own tears in my throat, I tried to soothe him. But how could I possibly console my son when the very same terrors keep me up at night?

Nothing I said seemed to help, so I told Geo I would guide him through a meditation. But as I rubbed his head and whispered soothing mantras, I wondered, If we know that loss is inevitable, how do we not let it consume us? 

A flood of images came into my brain: my father taking young me to the bookstore (our favorite place) and to Taco Bell (his least favorite but my ultimate), and him renting a red Mustang convertible so we could ride along the beach with the wind in our hair.

I thought of the last words he ever said when he was in the hospital while on the phone with Geo. “How are you feeling Dad-o?” Geo asked. And my father answered, “A whole lot better now that I'm talking to you.” 

Cleaning out my father's house after his passing, I found his counters covered with all the get-well cards and photo collages we’d given him.

And it hit me. I wanted to tell Geo that the opposite of death is not life. Nor is it merely existing. The opposite of loss is love. 

It is loving your people. It is a father taking his daughter to a fast food place he hated because he knew she loved it. It is toasting to an engagement. It is guiding your son through a meditation to ease his worries and watching him fall asleep instantly.

The opposite of loss is not life. It is not merely the tree itself. It is the flowering blooms that fill your heart with joy and awe.

And so I whisper to Geo as he sleeps peacefully, “Love is not merely the opposite of loss, my dear. It is the answer to it.”