On Grieving the Loss of a Father, and Learning Along the Way

For All of the Lights month, a commenter said they’d like to read something about “how people we love become lights in our lives… and what happens when the lights go out.” My best friend lost her father in June 2015, a month before her wedding. She was 31; he was 67, kind, generous, a belly-laugh of a man, healthy, full, alive, and then not. Below, her as-told-to story about that loss and how she plans to carry his light forward. –Meghan

Losing him

My dad had a brilliant mind. He had a wonderful sense of humor. He was my go-to. Any question I had about life, any consultation, he was right there. He was so supportive of me, and I of him. He was an ever-present father. A safe space. After he died, I remember thinking about how the world felt less safe for me. In his absence, I felt more vulnerable.

A few weeks before my dad’s death, he had chest pains that were unusual for him, being a healthy, active guy, so he went for a checkup to make sure it wasn’t serious. The doctors performed an angiogram and he stayed at the hospital overnight. I called him the next day, the day he was released. It was the last time we spoke. I was walking to work and we were laughing. He was joking about the hospital, how tedious it was, how happy he was to be going home. We were talking about fittings for my wedding dress, and he was saying how ridiculous it is that dads aren’t allowed at fittings. We decided he’d come with me for the final one the following week. I remember saying “I love you” and feeling immense relief that he was okay.

I woke up to a phone call from my mom the next morning telling me my dad had died that night. When she told me, I just froze in time and space. I had no ability to process what she’d said. My fiancé woke up and I told him that I needed help. I just remember saying “I need help” over and over again.

The wedding

Because our wedding was a month later, we quickly had to decide whether to postpone. When we talked to my mom and brother and my brother said, “Well, I’m obviously going to walk you down the aisle,” that was kind of the pillar. Like, the fact that he felt emotionally able to take that on meant we could all get through this together. It was the first of many decisions we had to make together as a family about how to move forward. We decided we wanted to welcome friends and family, to cherish this relationship we had built. And having all of those people close to us for the wedding was healing.

My mom talks about it as offering us some joy in a dark time. My dad had been ruminating on his speech since the engagement. He would always joke about wanting to tell all my most embarrassing stories. He was so excited to host the biggest, grandest fest for his daughter. My mom and brother ended up writing speeches so they could stand up and represent our family. At the wedding, it was so painfully obviously that he wasn’t there, but love and celebration still gave us something light to hold on to. I was living in this incredible dichotomy: balancing the worst pain and sorrow, and having one of the most beautiful, happiest days of my life. I don’t know how, but I found a way to experience both.

Grieving him

I was grieving, actively, for the better part of a year. In the initial weeks and months, the grief felt all-consuming. I couldn’t see clearly; I couldn’t think clearly; I was totally bound by it. It was a physical pain. I’d never experienced anything like that before. It was shocking to me how much I couldn’t stop it. Someone told me grief feels like a boot pressing on your chest. At times, I got so sad it was hard to breathe. I had to learn how to identify when sadness becomes hysteria. I learned to talk myself through my body: Relax your jaw. Breathe. Your feet are on the ground.

I had an intense need to talk to people who really knew me and who would allow me to just be in that grief. My fiancé was incredible. He was a rock. There’s this quote attributed to Alice in Wonderland — “When you can’t look on the bright side, I will sit in the dark with you” — and that was what he offered me. He never once tried to fix it, or fix me, or pull me out of it. He just held me in that dark, dark space. Grief is a very lonely and personal process regardless of who you are surrounded by. I didn’t grieve the way my mom or my brother did, and we had to learn how to hold that space for each other and appreciate the different ways we moved through the loss. At the beginning, there was a lot of denial, a lot of “Why him?” — just expelling my emotions, letting them wash over me so I could move into a moment of peace. The work for me has been slowly learning how to accept the loss, to carry it with me, to live with it. And to trust that he lives on in me and my brother.

Finding gratitude

When you lose someone, it helps to think about what you’re grateful for. I feel so fortunate to have had a significant period of time to be friends with my dad. There was a shift in my early 20s. I started to see both my parents as people separate from me and to relate to them as friends. So to learn from my dad, to experience life as he saw it, to engage with him on those different levels — I feel so fortunate.

People always called him the truest of true friends. A mentor. Someone who could walk into a room and make everyone feel comfortable. He was curious about other people and other cultures. I have distinct memories of him coming home from countless work trips and smelling like the airplane, which we always teased him about. He’d bring us home strange things, beautiful things. He was always exploring. He wanted us to do the same, to be connected to this big world, to have a big life. I think about him a lot when I consider how I treat people or when I’m making decisions, and I navigate based on that. He taught me to look at situations from every angle and to make my own choices, not just follow what might be easy.

Keeping him close

That’s a huge part of what keeps his memory alive for me: figuring out how he influenced me. The best compliment anyone can give me is, “You remind me of your dad when you say that.” To relate me to him. My mom does it often — “Gosh, you sound like your dad” — and it’s a wonderful thing.

Those first few weeks and months, I literally looked for my dad, for a sign. I was looking at animals, the wind, listening for his voice, for the potential that he was communicating with me. And it was just a deafening silence. To go from full life to nothingness — I was thrown into this hunt for his presence.

Now, every summer on the anniversary of Dad’s death, my brother and I come home to be with my mom. We swim in the ocean together, where we scattered his ashes. I walk out alone, and I talk to him a little bit. I do it very intentionally. The ocean is my way of bringing him closer.

My husband and I want to start a family one day, and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to bring my dad into our children’s lives. I’ve been talking to my mom about that too. It’s so important for me that my children know him. One idea we have is to tell bedtime stories where he is the central character. I know when I have children, I’ll feel his loss differently. It will come back to the surface. I’m expecting that. But we’ll find a way to keep his spirit alive.

Feature illustration by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images.

Meghan Nesmith

Meghan Nesmith

Author Meghan Nesmith is a writer and editor living in Boston.

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