What My Father’s Death Taught Me

My dad died in 2007. Complications linked to heart disease and diabetes, and also as a result of poor healthcare. (A story for later.) He was only 64 years old. I was 27. Our relationship was complicated to say the least, but his death still rocked me. There was the obvious immediate pain of such a significant loss, which I dealt with for all of two days until the funeral, and then there are the small ways it’s impacted me subconsciously that are still slowly coming to light. While I was officially an adult, it still pained me to lose him and know definitively that he would not meet my future husband or see me get married or meet his future grandchildren or celebrate my career accomplishments or be witness to any of the highs and lows that life has dealt me since his passing.

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I never talk about my dad’s death. When I do have to mention it to people, I always follow up and say, “It’s okay,” but the truth is, it’s not. It’s pretty shitty. And while I am “okay” 90% of the time, the other 10% is kind of brutal.

I talk about it now because a friend recently lost her father, and I reached out to share my condolences, which of course consisted of “I’m so sorry for your loss…you’re in my thoughts…let me know if you need anything.” But then I thought about what I would’ve wanted to hear when my dad died and followed up with, “Nobody talks about how much this hurts. We are supposed to be okay and strong enough to handle this because we are adults, but you don’t have to be. This fucking sucks and hurts like hell. I know because it happened to me. And because I know what it feels like, I’m always here to cry with if need be.” My friend did call and she did cry.

What I will say is that through the loss of my father I learned so much about myself and several life lessons, which makes total sense considering everything was a teaching moment with my dad. For anyone who has lost a parent, these were my biggest takeaways – some of them painfully honest – that I hope can help you as you heal.

1. You may have an identity crisis

This feeling is very strange and hard to put into words. There’s an emptiness that comes with losing a parent that is different from any other loss. A part of you is missing. While I age and continue to learn more about myself, I want to learn more about my father to figure out which parts of me, figuratively, come from him. Because he isn’t here anymore, that’s not possible, and I sometimes suffer from a bit of an identity crisis, longing for answers and insights I’ll never have.

2. It takes a LONG time to heal this wound

Time doesn’t completely heal this wound. It leaves a scar and the scar may fade and be easier to accept, but it’s always there.

3. It’s okay to not be okay

Years have passed, so for the most part, I’m okay and accept that my dad is no longer here. But I do have moments when the loss punches me in the gut and I want to cry. I used to do this in secret and never let anyone see me upset because I felt silly or like I should be over it. Now I’m more open with when I’m upset because it’s okay and actually quite good for me to grieve. It’s all part of the healing process. Don’t feel ashamed. Feel your pain and work through it so you can ultimately say you’re okay and mean it.

4. If you have siblings, they’ll feed off of your strength

It’s a weird thing to say, but I felt so lucky to have my sister when my father passed. She was the only other person in the world who knew my pain. And while we each grieved in our own way, we shared this unspoken sense of loss. We have helped each other in different ways at different times by being the support system the other one needed at the time.

5. Forgiveness and closure are everything

My father and I were at odds when he was dying, but before his passing, I made it a point to reconcile and forgive him for the things he had done. Most of his behavior was unforgivable, but I knew I’d regret it if he died without us speaking or seeing each other one last time. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I needed that closure, which has made the healing process a bit easier to work through.

6. A great therapist is a must-have

There is nothing wrong with seeking out the help of someone who has the tools to help you work through this kind of pain. I think it is crucial. My therapist has helped me identify various feelings and behaviors that are rooted in my father’s passing, but to me seemed completely unrelated. I actually think everyone can benefit from always-on therapy, so it’s definitely necessary after the death of a loved one to help with coping and healing.

7. The father-daughter dance at weddings fucking suck

There are certain life milestones that will be painful and hard to get through – where their absence will weigh heavily on you. The birth of my children was one of those moments. My wedding was another. And every other wedding I’ve been to when it’s time for the father/daughter dance…  

8. It will hit you at the most unexpected times

You’ll think you’re okay or you won’t have thought about it for months maybe and then suddenly, out of nowhere, for no obvious reason, you’re crying in the shower or in the car or on your kitchen floor. This is totally normal. Again, this healing process is a long one. Give yourself the time and permission you need to get through it.

9. Everyone moves on

There will be a few days of communal grieving, outpourings of love and condolences, sympathy cards, and support. Then it is gone as quickly as it came and you’re the only one still sad. People go back to their daily lives, because they have to. Life goes on, people move on… and eventually you will, too.

10. You’ll realize who your true friends are

Every year on the anniversary of my father’s death, one friend calls me to see if I’m okay. My husband doesn’t even remember the date!  When my dad passed away, I was shocked by who I didn’t hear from and also by who did reach out. It was a great lesson in helping define true friendship.

11. Death may become a major anxiety/obsession

A few months after my dad passed, I became obsessed with dying. I barely wanted to leave the house, I wouldn’t travel on airplanes, and I asked my then boyfriend, now husband, to check in with me constantly so I knew he was okay. Same for my mom and sister and anyone I really cared about. Turns out that what I was experiencing is a very normal delayed reaction to the loss of a loved one. So, that therapy I mentioned earlier really came in handy during this period.

12. You’ll obsess over the living parent

I now worry about my mother ALL. THE. TIME. A few years ago, she had a health scare, and while I was strong on the outside, I was flipping out on the inside. Worst-case scenarios flooded my thoughts constantly. She was fine, but I then obsessed over losing her, which I still cannot bare the thought of for so many reasons beyond the fact that she’s my only living parent. It doesn’t help that she’s in FL and I’m in NYC, so we speak once a day. If I don’t hear from her, I get nervous… So, yes, there’s still work to be done with the therapist.

I think the biggest takeaway is that everyone grieves differently. My pain is my own. Your pain is your own. What I hope this offers is some light shed on common feelings post-loss, and some hope in knowing you will get through this, and one day the tears will stop and you can think of Mom or Dad with a smile.