Kai Schmidt (i.e. Big Kahuna)

The New Normal: Life After Loss

We hugged deeply and cried, knowing this would be the last time we’d see each other.

I was driving to the store when I got the call. “I have bad news,” said my step-mother, “You father is having some tests done, but the doctor thinks it’s cancer.” The last word trailed faintly out of her mouth and into my ears, rattling around for what felt like minutes before I could comprehend the magnitude of what I had just heard.

Big Kahuna, Mom, Kai, and Me (1991)

It had been almost seven years since I lost my Mother to a fifteen-year battle with multiple sclerosis. My father, who was affectionately known as Big Kahuna, and I had become extremely close in the years since my mom passed away. He re-married, our small family grew, and he found happiness again.

He had a light about him, a glow really, that I hadn’t seen in years. His new wife gave him a new lease on life…and now this.

It took almost a full year for the doctors to reach their diagnosis. The cancer was in his pancreas and lung. The prognosis was bleak.

I sat helpless 3,000 miles away as he saw specialists and sought treatments. Chemo, laser knife, he tried them all. He had good days. He had bad days. He had days he felt like giving up — when the nausea from the drugs was just too much.

Big Kahuna at home on our family sailboat in Connecticut (1979)

I was living in Los Angeles at the time and made the flight from LA to West Palm Beach to visit him in Stuart as often as I could. I called, I introduced him to Skype. I wrote letters.

As his health deteriorated, I knew I’d soon be losing a huge piece of me — my rock, my mentor, my father.

The man who stood by my mother for fifteen years as she slowly lost her battle with MS. Always by her side, making sure all her needs were met, refusing to put her in a care facility. Reminding her that she was loved, cared for, and special — even in her final days. The man who personified strength, compassion, and loyalty. Now it was him in this position. I would be losing another parent. It was happening again.

I summoned all the strength I could to put on a brave face of encouragement around him. I owed it to him, and felt I owed it to my mother too. It was hollow and he knew it.

Sharing a laugh with Big Kahuna and my step-mother at my wedding (2006)

Underneath I was falling to pieces. I was transitioning out of a job I had known and loved for the previous seven years. My wife and I were getting ready for our second cross-country move. Nothing was stable. It was the hardest period of my life.

The last weekend I spent with him will be burned into my being. I hope it never fades, despite the pain that accompanies the memory.

He made the decision to get off chemo. He wanted to go on his own terms, and he felt the quality of life that accompanied the treatment wasn’t worth it to prolong the inevitable. I was there with him that week. He had a slight rebound, which I later learned is pretty typical when patients get off chemo. We laughed, deep laughter we hadn’t shared in months.

We smiled. We listened to Reggae — Yellowman, Marley, Tosh, Toots. My dad and I were big reggae fans. He loved it all, but his signature song was “Country Roads” by Toots & The Maytals. We played that on repeat.

Toots & The Maytals — Country Roads

He was curious to learn more about my career, and told me how proud of me he was. He asked me to read my LinkedIn recommendations. I could tell how happy it made him to hear strangers discuss the man his son had become. I have such vivid memories of that moment.

We talked about his difficult upbringing in Germany. He shared stories of being a scared child in the Second World War living in Germany under Nazi rule. We talked about his immigration to the US to make a new life for himself and chase his “American Dream.” We talked about him falling in love with a girl from Jersey and starting a family of his own. I hung on every word.

The weekend passed and it was time to return home. When it was time to catch my flight, I leaned down to hug him. My father, who was once a large man build like a 6’ fire hydrant, was now frail and hairless. We embraced and I felt every ounce of strength from his once powerful arms pull me close, and I reciprocated. We hugged deeply, and cried, each knowing this would be the last time we’d see each other.

He passed quietly in his sleep the following week.


This post was the most difficult thing I’ve written. Harder than the tribute to my mother (which I’ve yet to publish), as hard as my brother’s eulogy. It was written over at least six separate attempts. I couldn’t finish it. I often wondered why I kept coming back to it. What was it about this story I felt the need to write? The real answer — I really don’t know.

Maybe it’s some form of therapy, shedding some of the emotional baggage by getting thoughts and feelings in writing. Maybe it stems from the fact that I recently became a father, and the joy and excitement of that huge honor is mixed with the sadness that my daughter will never know her father’s family.

Or maybe, the grief and emotions stirred by this writing process bring back memories, and memories bring him closer to me. It’s probably a mix of all these things.

Loss is hard. There is a hole in your soul that can never be filled.

His memory will always be with me. So will my mom, who shaped my outlook on life more than anyone. And now my brother is gone, too. I miss them all terribly, but I’m grateful to have had them in my life. Although my daughter will never meet them, the life lessons they instilled in me will be passed on to her.


Update On Why I Finally Published This

Kai and I sharing a drink and a cigar (2008)

In October my brother suddenly passed away. It was another harsh reminder of the fragility of life. I shared his eulogy and some of my thoughts and feelings on Facebook as I grieved his loss. Many friends and acquaintances reached out, letting me know how Kai’s story touched them and inspired them to reach out to loved ones, rekindle relationships, mend open wounds, or seek help themselves. I never expected that, but was moved by the response and it motivated me to finally complete and share the story of my father’s loss during the holiday season to hopefully help others coping with grief.

Why The Holidays?

Sharing laughs with Big Kahuna during our last Christmas together in 2009.

For those of you with loved ones battling illness: Many friends have loved ones who are fighting illness. Know you’re not alone. It’s hard, but being there for the ones we love — letting them know they’re supported and cared for — is one of the best things we’ll do in our lifetime. Cherish this time, even the bad days. Don’t miss an opportunity to share your feelings. The disease may eventually win the war, but you can help them take as many battles as they can. That is their defiance. That is how you help them win — today, tomorrow, and every day they can. Lean on your family, lean on your friends, but be sure to take the time you need to take care of yourself as well.

For those of you who’ve recently lost loved ones: I wanted to publish this for those of you going through the fresh pain of loss — and provide some (hopefully helpful) perspective from someone who knows what you’re going through right now.

When you’ve experienced loss the holidays are bittersweet. There is joy and happiness, but something is….missing.

It’s not just the holidays that will bring feelings. There are many “triggers” that can stir your emotions; songs, locations, movies, events, even a cheesy commercial can resurrect memories and the pain of loss. Grief has no clock and no boundaries. It can strike any time.

Over time the sadness we experience brings with it memories, and those memories keep our loved ones alive in our heart. I know it sounds strange, but you learn to appreciate that pain — even miss it. You can see this more clearly in time, but in the early years it’s more pain than perspective.


After my brother passed, a friend sent me a book on loss, “The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion. There was an excerpt about grief that resonated with me.

Grief is different. Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.

These ‘waves’ of grief have been researched and validated over the year as a common occurrence in those who’ve experienced loss. This is the new normal for most people healing from loss.

People tell you time heals all wounds. While a romantic notion, I haven’t found this to be true. Time doesn’t heal the wounds of loss. Not this kind of loss. What I can tell you is that is does provide perspective, and that perspective is a gift. In time, you’ll appreciate the memories you have more than you mourn the time you’ve lost. The pain doesn’t go away, but the perspective gained over time makes it easier to cope with the hole that remains.

About the author

Lars Schmidt is the Founder of Amplify Talent and Co-Founder of HR Open Source. You can connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Snapchat.