In early 2008, four months after my college graduation I became a member of the Dead Dads Club. My membership into the club came on a sticky Spring morning in April, just as I was about to head to the gym. In full gym attire, I got a knock at my apartment door and opened it to see my aunt and uncle standing there. I swear in that moment the earth shifted. Having never seen them regularly, even though they lived in my college town, I immediately knew something was clearly wrong. Time stood still as my mind tried to play catch up. They announced that they had some unfortunate news, my dad had not woken up this morning and had died in his sleep. Your dad is dead. (Obviously delivered more eloquently than this). I will save you the dramatics of my reaction; however, let’s just say admittance into the Dead Dads Club was not met with a gracious or quiet reaction.
My life has changed dramatically since that 2008 Spring. At the time of his death, I was a new college graduate searching for my first big girl job. In fact, my very last conversation with him was telling him I had a great interview and I thought I got the job! (oh and could he deposit some money puhleasseee). A lot can happen in twelve years. In those twelve fatherless years I: adopted my first dog, met my now husband, moved to South Carolina, got engaged, moved back to Louisiana, got married, adopted my second dog, bought a house, had a son, moved to Florida, had a baby girl and was diagnosed with cancer. That’s some major life events to miss out on. Major. That’s a lot of phone calls, eye rolls, unsolicited fatherly advice, family trips and photo ops that will never happen. Because he’s not here.
I’ve done a lot of growing in these last twelve years. From broke college graduate to responsible functioning adult with children (hah, was that convincing?). Here are a few of the life lessons that stand out (thank you therapy) in my mind.
It does not necessarily get better with time
Grief is different for everyone of course. I think a universal theme to it is that it morphs over time. My shock, sadness and anger were eventually replaced with a deep fear and longing for my dad. Will I forget what his voice sounds like? His laugh? His smell? I would hardly say it ‘gets better with time‘. Each life milestone (holidays, vacations, marriage, house buying, childbirth) is met with excitement, always to be interrupted by the stark bittersweet reminder that Dad will not be here to see this. None of it. I know from experience that grief can pop up at unexpected moments and unexpected times. I will never get over the loss of my dad. My grief just morphs over time as I do.
Keep the memories alive
Most people around you seem apprehensive to talk about the dead person. Walking on eggshells. But I can tell you some of my favorite anecdotes involve things family and acquaintances told us after his death. I want everyone who knew him to help keep his memory alive! One family friend sent a note my dad had written their daughter when she submitted a story for review to him. The letter to the child was on official law firm letterhead and everything. It was so sweet! A waitress at an eatery he frequented commented she was sad to hear of his passing, that he was always so loud and happy when he came into the restaurant. My Uncle once told a story of a fishing trip where they were in my dads beat up boat and my dad was in the mud fishing when a fancy boat full of judges (my father was a lawyer) pulled up and the judges exclaimed, “Is that John in the mud?!”. These stories feel like a secret peek into the life he led. The man he was. Of course he was my dad, I know how he was, but nonetheless, it feels like a confirmation into who I knew he was, even when I was not around. Of course memories bring up sadness, but I love when people talk about what they loved about my dad. It’s how we keep his memory alive!
I am lucky I had twenty-three years with a great dad growing up. Not everyone has twenty-three years with a loved one or even a good healthy relationship for that matter. After the sudden death of a loved one, you become acutely aware of just how quickly things can change. A cancer diagnosis magnifies this as you can imagine. I can’t even eloquently put it into words other than to say I just live my life a little differently now. It’s easy to get bogged down with the minutia of work, kids and life but I always try and remember how quickly things can change. Count your blessings, even when they seem few.
Sit in grief; don’t dwell
I think it’s healthy to grieve thoroughly after the loss of a loved one. I acutely remember the feelings of anger that surfaced after my dad died. Here my world was shattering and the rest of the world just kept on turning. My boss asked me to do the same asinine tasks, the friends and family who offered food, lawn services and lunch dates slowly dwindled down to a trickle. Life happens at an alarming pace for everyone. It’s important to feel the feelings but move through them. I still have my days when an anniversary, life event or song will make me so sad about my dad. It trudges up the ‘ole familiar feelings of anger and sadness. Personally, when this happens to me I want to sit alone in my feelings and cry, eat and be depressed (ah the perfect trifecta!). Of course, my husband becomes concerned and wants to fix it all and I have to sternly explain I need this time to be manic depressive and in eight hours I will snap out of it. This is just how I’ve learned to cope. Sitting in the grief; not dwelling.
Don’t sweat the small stuff
I am slightly hesitant to include this in the list but it truly does remind me of the way my dad lived. The man was an attorney by trade, father of three, endless fix-it-himselfer (often creating more headaches for himself along the way) but always in a good mood. Always. He would start phone calls with a booming, “Tell me somethin’ good” greeting. Shortly before his death, I called him to break the news I had been let go from my college internship (aka I might be needing a spot on the rent this month dad). I could tell he was nervous about whatever news I was about to break. When I started to launch into my well rehearsed speech of why-this-wasn’t-my-fault-really he stopped me and said, “Tell me in one simple sentence why you are no longer employed. There should be no ‘and’ or ‘but’ included in the sentence”. So I did just this and his next question was, “What is the life lesson you are learning here?” followed by, “How much money are you about to ask me for?” I’m chuckling typing this because I can replay this conversation so vividly in my mind. It feels like yesterday. I rarely heard the man complain even though I can imagine his endless responsibilities.
Pictures & Letters are Important
In hindsight, I wish I had more photographs with my dad. They are far and few in between. I grew up in the age before iPhones were glued to everyone’s hands. Pictures are much more accessible these days. Take all the pictures, write actual letters in the cards and keep them. You never know when you’ll need a good ugly cry to release some pent up emotions. You’ll thank me later.