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Hunting Life After Death

My First Season of Deer Hunting Without my Favorite Hunting Buddy

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Life after death. Usually, those words refer to the idea that after someone's body dies, his or her spirit lives on. In this case, however, I'm talking about those left behind to move forward with life, digging their way out from under the heavy burden of grief after the passing of one who was dearly loved.

What does this have to do with hunting and shooting? In my case, plenty. When Dad passed away in the spring of 2008, he left behind many mourners. I was struck as hard as anyone, and harder than many. I had lost the man who taught me about guns, taught me to shoot and to hunt, and who had been my chief companion and "go-to guy" as we shared those activities for about three decades. On top of that, he was my best friend.

There was little doubt that I would continue to hunt and shoot and tinker with guns. Although Dad was and will always be my Favorite Hunting Buddy, that certainly didn't mean I couldn't keep on hunting without him - far from it. It would have grieved Dad greatly to know that I had failed to continue in the activities that he and I most enjoyed.

And so, I strode forth. My first hunt after his passing was during turkey season. I took his hunting vest, his old Browning Superposed over/under shotgun, some of his ammo, and his old Lynch box turkey call, and I went to the woods.

I didn't see a feather during that hunt, but it was good for me just the same. I shed some tears as I held the gun that had been built only a few years after Dad's birth - being careful to wipe them from the gun, of course. And I moved forward.

That afternoon, some friends and I went to the range and fired a few of Dad's guns, burning up some of his ammunition. We had a real good time with his shooting irons. I know he would have approved. The only improvement I can think of would have been having him there with us.

Grief comes in waves of liquid ebony. Endure the depths, and each wave will pass, allowing you to once again hold your head above the black expanse to see light again, and to catch your breath.

Next came an opening-day dove hunt. One year before, this hunt had been Dad's last trip to our good friend Richard's hunting grounds in Georgia. I took some birds with Dad's same old shotgun - which he had carried twelve months earlier, on the same dove field. The waves came and went, leaving us with more good feelings than bad.

Then came deer season. Thanks to good friends, I had access to some fine hunting areas. My first deer of the season was a doe, the first deer taken with my Savage 10MLII muzzleloader. From there, things progressed, and before it was over I had managed to take four more does and a fine eight-point buck - the best buck I had ever gotten.

Even early on, it was clear that this was shaping up to be my most productive deer season to date. Mixed with the satisfaction, adrenaline, and happiness of that was a deep feeling of regret that Dad wasn't there to share it with me in person. Nobody was happier than he when I got a deer. So when I got a nice buck and a fat doe on the same day, the excellence of that hunt was marred by his absence.

In my heart, I believe Dad was there with me on each hunt. All the things he taught me, as well as those we learned together, certainly contributed to my success. Wherever he is now, he may have important things to do - but if I know him, he found a way to keep tabs on me and his other hunting buddies, and sometimes I think he even helped us out.

I don't have a dramatic tale of blinking clear my tear-flooded eyes in order to take a deer that appeared at the perfect time, but many tears were shed in tree stands by more hunters than just myself during that deer season. We wept and we hunted, doing both in his honor. We did so in fulfillment of our roles as his friends and as hunters, and most of us had chances to take deer.

I have called it "my best worst season." Best because I had many opportunities and much success, and worst because it was the first time in my life I couldn't share that success with my father. And I certainly didn't only miss him during the high points.

On one frigid afternoon deer hunt, I held Dad's scoped Dan Wesson 44 magnum revolver in my hand. Just before dark, a doe appeared. With the handgun already in hand, I turned in the awkward stand to get a shot. A voice in my head - probably Dad's - advised, "Use your rifle," and I ignored it.

I steadied the revolver and placed the crosshairs on the deer, and fired. The doe turned and left the way it had come. I found no sign that I had hit the deer, and it was almost dark. Richard and I searched the woods and found no trace of a hit.

Back at camp, I was down and upset, and under the dark depths of one of those black waves. In my despair I cried out like a child: "I want my Daddy!" I craved his advice and support more than ever before.

He was - and is - sorely missed at other times, too, but that was the lowest point of my deer season. I never did find any sign that I'd hit that doe, despite much looking. But that was okay in the end. With the help of God and good friends, I found much more good than bad in my first deer season without my father.

I also got to hunt Dad's spot - the place in the woods where he had been most successful over the years, and which he had loved more than any other. The place where we had scattered his ashes. More tears, and no deer, resulted from that hunt, along with a chance to take one more step forward, towards the shore upon which the black waves lapped.

All in all, I spent more time riding the dark waves than floundering beneath them during my best worst season. And that's the way Dad would have wanted it. He used to say, "Death is just a part of life." So it's only right that we continue our hunting life beyond his death.

If you have lost a dearly loved hunting companion, you must make your own choice about continuing to hunt. But take it from me - it's absolutely worthwhile to try. While hunting, you may feel closer to him or her than at any other time, and that is one sure way to move towards healing, and away from the pain of grief.

Then one day we will reach the shore, and leave the black waves behind us.

- Russ Chastain

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