Letter of Strength — Grieving the Loss of a Father

Photo by Tyler Mullins on Unsplash

There aren’t enough words in the English language or minutes in the day for nonstop hugs to alleviate the pain you are going through, but one thing I can do is share some insight and lessons learned from my experience over a decade ago. Whether it’s over the next week or month, or twenty years from now, I hope some of this resonates with you, for you are absolutely not alone in this journey.

Do accept and embrace the emotion. Sometimes I wished I was a robot hardwired to show no emotion and feel zero pain, but unfortunately we are all human. If you want to cry, have at it and make it a good one. If you want to scream, make sure it’s at the top of your lungs. There is no right or wrong way to grieve and there is no prescribed process or amount of time until you begin to observe what looks like light at the other end of the tunnel — but to be totally honest, the quirkiest part is that the light is already there, right now, even when you can’t see it. In due time, the fog will begin to lift and you will draw on everything you have learned and find the strength to keep going. There will be plenty of tears shed along the way, but that is par for the course of our existence. With being human comes great happiness and also great sadness, and this is unfortunately one of life’s greatest turmoil that is unavoidable. Lean on your loved ones and those that have endured the same type of suffering — you are not alone, not now, not ever.

Don’t engage in abusive behavior. Whether it’s becoming addicted to NyQuil for four years to help you sleep (whoops), or deliberately driving 95 mph on an icy highway back from college in the middle of a snowstorm hoping to end it all and be reunited with your father (it’s seriously a miracle I didn’t crash), or drinking extraordinary amounts of alcohol to numb and block the pain (did not work), this type of behavior will only prolong the healing process and make it worse — trust me. Confront your feelings and recognize that they are perfectly natural, and emotions will appear without rhyme or reason. One minute you may be laughing and the other you may feel like you’re on the verge of a panic attack or emotional breakdown, but this is all part of the process. You are stronger than this pain — you, my dear, are a SURVIVOR.

Do live your life. The year my father passed, I took the LSAT twice and was about to apply to law school immediately after undergrad because one of the last memories my father had of me was my grad school ambitions, and it made him so proud. Over the next year, despite me realizing I did not truly want to attend to law school, I mistakenly clung to this perception he had of me because it was so much more favorable than the perception I had of myself, and in hindsight I wish I would have continued to evolve into the person I was meant to be. Please do not ever sell yourself short or do things that are counter to your nature due to what you feel is obligation or standards set by anyone other than yourself. Live your life for you and you alone — your dad is your biggest cheerleader, watching and supporting you every step of the way.

Don’t shy away from therapy. There are many reasons people are reluctant to resort to therapy (cultural, emotional, societal), but keep in mind that these are trained professionals available to help you navigate the waters of grief, including an eventual acceptance. Literally the sole purpose of their job is to help others. You will never be the same person you once were — how could you be, having endured what is considered the most painful experience to date? But you will persevere and be stronger in the long-term…I promise.

Do realize that you are not the only one grieving. As an only child, I was suddenly propelled into a living nightmare where I felt like the sole carrier of this emotional burden — but this could not be further from the truth. Those that loved your father are grieving, perhaps in different ways than you. Please do not isolate yourself from them, but rather use the interactions with others as opportunities to honor his memory. When we were in elementary school we learned about Aesop’s fables. Similar to folklore, continue to pay tribute to his legacy through stories, memories, and the relationships you continue to cultivate with others that were blessed enough to be close to your father.

Don’t make yourself a victim. To me this is my biggest takeaway of all because it’s where I personally struggled the most. Take all of the time in the world to grieve, but remember that your dad lives forever through you. Honor his memory by living each day as if it were your last, full of laughter and joy and compassion for others. Please, please use holidays and his birthday to celebrate his amazing life, as opposed to mourning his death. My father passed away eleven years ago and it wasn’t until a few years ago when I was able to truly accept it. I spent so many unnecessary years filled with animosity against my family and humanity in general for taking my father away from me. One the anniversary of his death, I would repeat the same victim routine each year — go to work, sob in the bathroom, resent the world, go home and cry some more, drink wine, and sleep. Rinse and repeat. However, it wasn’t until 2013/2014 when I was forced to snap out of it and realize that this type of self-imposed masochism was hindering my ability to heal. The instant you lose a loved one will always be a day that you never forget, but the irony is that each day we have on earth is truly such a blessing — please treat it as such, for your sake and for your father’s. You have too much love to give and light to share to be harnessing any negative energy. I promise this is a much better way to live.

Do realize it could have been worse. When I was first told this, I thought it was the most insensitive, disrespectful statement anyone could say to a daughter in time of mourning, but in retrospect there is some truth that you can take away from the experience to help with the healing. A prolonged struggle with a terminal illness, cardiac arrest in the middle of a crowded highway with other loved ones in the car…there are many scenarios that would have prevented him from leaving the world on his terms, and fortunately you were able to be with him until the end. Another perspective is that you had the opportunity to truly know your father, both as a child as an adult — many people aren’t so lucky. Your prom, graduation, first job…he was able to witness all of it and be a direct contributor to the memories you hold dear and near to your heart. And while it may initially seem like it would be easier to cope with the pain had you never known him or if he had passed when you were younger, in time, you will realize how much of a blessing it was to have had your father close during your formative years and for him to see you blossom as an adult. The loss of a parent is excruciatingly difficult because in times of grief, they are seemingly the only ones who can make everything better. However, your father knew you perhaps better than you know yourself (in some aspects), and he left this world at a juncture in your life when you were capable of taking care of yourself…please remember that. He has since gained his wings and you will metaphorically gain yours, as you continue to evolve into the daughter and woman you were destined to always become.

Don’t become resentful of others. With Father’s Day arising once a year, you will see this holiday has a way of evoking even the most suppressed emotions. For so many years, I boycotted this holiday and would secretly resent anyone that was able to celebrate this day with their biological father. However, you can, and NEED to turn it around — for your sake and his. You are fortunate enough to have grown up with such a loving, extended family with multiple father figures — use days like Father’s Day as an opportunity to honor and celebrate your father’s legacy with loved ones and family, including with the many men that have been lucky enough to be surrogate fathers to you over the years.

Do act in ways he would have loved, as you will forever be his princess. Your dad chased his dream to provide for his family, and his strength and courage is reflected in you. He would have, and still does want you to push your limits and strive to be a better person. Every single day. Don’t spend your days in tears, but rather use that ball of emotion to propel you forward, bit by bit, to make a difference in the lives of those around you. Death has a way of making you grow up from 0–1,000 mph in the blink of an eye. You may now have some battle wounds to show for it, but you will always be his little girl, whether you’re in your 30s or 90s.

Don’t lose faith. Never give up hope in yourself, your loved ones, and humanity. We live in a beautiful chaotic world that is full of turmoil and grief, but that does not preclude you from carrying out your mission. Find beauty in the impermanence. Life is beautiful and with billions of people in this world, the only thing we seemingly have in common is our fate. This is natural and par for the course of the life we are blessed with. I’m not sure what comes next in the circle of life or whether we all become reincarnated or live happily ever in an alternate universe, but the irony is that what comes next is so much bigger than we can comprehend. Live each day to the fullest and tell those around you that you love them.

Do observe the signs. These signs won’t always manifest themselves as his favorite song randomly playing on the radio or a note from him magically appearing on your desk, but take note of the subtle signs — an improved relationship with your mother, or increased patience with your family and coworkers. Your father lives through you and will continue to guide you in the most imperceptible ways that will one day make sense down the road. As you get older, you will begin to understand him more as a father and human being, and see his personality reflected in your actions and relationships. He did and will continue to perpetually live forever…through you.