Father’s Day, Minus a Father

Today was my first Father’s Day without a Father. My Dad passed away just over three months ago. Even though he is gone, I still managed to spend the day with him. Before you stop reading here, believing me crazy or into some kind of voodoo witchcraft, let me explain.

My Dad will always be a part of me. I am a part of him. He is in my DNA, he is in my memories, he is part of who I am. Growing up, my Dad instilled in me a great love for nature, the outdoors, and the mountains. We would spend days in the wilderness as a family, backpacking into the National Forest, cooking over campfires and sleeping in tents by the river. He would point out every detail of the forest: he would name the trees, stop to show us the wildflowers, have us listen to the birds, and remind us to leave only footprints and take only pictures. I grew up respecting the outdoors because of his influence.

Of course, while we were hiking through the beautiful Colorado landscape, my Dad could always be found behind the lens of a camera. Over the years he must have taken tens of thousands of photos. It’s a passion I shared with him over the past two decades: we would share our “trip photos” with one another, and between the two of us, our photos would pretty much fill and entire flash drive.

When I started to think about how I wanted to spend Father’s Day this year, I instantly knew that I wanted to spend it in the mountains – the wilderness he taught me to love – with a camera in hand and memories in my heart.

I headed to Rocky Mountain National Park, to Mills Lake, where he had always told us he wanted his ashes spread. I never dreamed I would have to make that trip so soon. We will head there as a family next month to say our final goodbyes and scatter his ashes in the beautiful Colorado Rockies.

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Mills Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park   Photo by Rebecca Stewart

Somehow I knew that I needed to do that hike alone first, to honor my Dad and all he has done for me. I needed the solitude, I needed to listen to the mountains and let them restore my aching soul.

From the time I got into my car this morning, I felt at peace. I popped in one of Dad’s “mixed CDs” and listened to Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, and the Eagles as I drove further west, the tall peaks coming closer into view. The skies were a perfect Rocky Mountain blue, not a cloud in the sky. I slipped on my hiking boots, threw my Dad’s backpack on my shoulders, grabbed my camera, and set off.

As soon as my feet hit the trail, my Dad was there with me. Not in a physical sense, and perhaps not in a spiritual sense either, but I saw him in the wildflowers, I heard him in the wind, I felt him in the warmth of the sun. I thought back 15 years when he and I hiked along the same trail, smiled as I heard his voice ring in my ears as we passed Alberta Falls: “Alberta, Alberta, Where you been so long?” I carried him with me as I listened to the birds chirp, as I felt the sun on my face, as I crossed the raging creek.

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Alberta Falls     Photo by Rebecca Stewart

It was bittersweet reaching that lake. With tears running down my cheeks, I held my camera in front of me and clicked away. This is a beautiful place to be at rest, I thought.

If nothing else, I honored his memory by hiking alone into the wilderness – unafraid, confident, and prepared – because that’s how he raised me. I didn’t have enough time with him, but the time I did have molded me into the person I am today.

His presence was with me up there on that mountain.

I spent the day with my Dad at Mills Like. Not in the way I would have liked – it was a day filled with both happy memories and tears – but I was at peace knowing he is always with me, no matter where I go, forever.

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Mills Lake   Photo by Rebecca Stewart

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Mills Lake    Photo by Rebecca Stewart

Where Hope and Heartache Meet

We are all together in this world: our grief, our pain, our challenges, and our journeys intersect with one another in ways we can scarcely imagine.

These past three months have been unbelievably difficult for me, but through it all – every step of the way – I have been surrounded by friends and family who have both literally and figuratively held me up and helped me continue to put one foot in front of the other.

I recently finished reading Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy. When Sandberg’s husband died suddenly in 2015, her life was shattered. She was a widow with two small children and she was hopelessly crushed in the grip of grief. She writes, “There was no escape. My grief felt like a deep, thick fog that constantly surrounded me.” But after a while, with the help of friends and family, she began to put one foot in front of the other, to choose joy and thankfulness, and to start living again.

I am still in the deep, thick fog, unable to escape on my own, but I have hope that one day, I can start living again.

Moving forward from grief cannot happen alone. Even when I am in the darkest of places, stuck in the tunnel and unable to see the light at either end, I remind myself that I have people beside me who are encouraging me forward, telling me that the darkness will subside and the light will shine again. Some have traveled through this darkness before me and can give me insight that helps me find my way out. They call to me from the other side of the fog, “it doesn’t last forever. Keep moving forward. Eventually the sun shines again,” they say.

Others have not been through this tunnel before, but they are standing with me and behind me, coaxing me forward, gently guiding me through the thick fog and back into the light on the other side.

Sandberg writes about a “collective resilience:” the joining together of people with shared stories, experiences, and beliefs. By joining together and surrounding one another, we provide hope to the hopeless. Sandberg continues, “We find our humanity – our will to live and our ability to love – in our connections to one another.”

Never has collective resilience meant more to me than it has during this chapter of my life. Having friends who write letters, who pick up the phone and ask, “no really, how are you? How’s your heart?” has been instrumental to my healing.

One friend who lost her dad suddenly not that long ago came alongside me and simply said, “I understand your grief. This pain will subside. Someday, the memories will make you smile instead of make you cry.” Just having someone to whom I can reach out and say “is this normal? Will I ever be happy again?” has been instrumental.

Other friends have filled our house with food, weeded and planted my garden, watched after my deeply neglected cat, sent flowers, sent cards, and sent emails. Family members have held me tight while I cried so hard I ran out of breath, while they whispered softly to me that I will be okay, eventually, someday.

I appreciate every single person. Each act of kindness keeps me moving forward and helps me find my way out of this deep, thick fog.

Even in the midst of my own crisis, I remember that others are fighting their own battles. I may not have the energy to fight along with them right now, but eventually I will take up the proverbial shield and help them find their way out of the fog, too. My experiences now will help someone else down the road and, even though I wouldn’t wish this pain upon anyone, I know it is a part of life. By traveling down this path and coming out on the other side, I will someday be part of the “collective resilience” for someone else.

What can you do to help someone who is grieving? There is no right or wrong answer. Ask what the person needs. Be there for them in the silence, allow them to cry to you, and know that you can’t fix what is broken. Provide an arm for them to grasp, and give them hope that the darkness will eventually fade and the light will shine again. Tell them it’s okay to NOT be okay.

Thank you to everyone who has come alongside me and carried me over the past three months. I’m not there yet – it may be a long, hard journey – but because of your support, I know that I can make it out of this fog and back into the light.