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.

IMG_1926 Mills Lake BEST

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.

IMG_1921 Mountains reflected BEST

Mills Lake   Photo by Rebecca Stewart

IMG_1940 The Tree BEST

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.

“Everything Must Go”

How do you put a price on a life? How do you advertise a loved one’s hobbies, passions, and joys? How do you say goodbye to all the possessions that made a loved one happy?

This week, we hold the Estate Sale: the dreaded days-long purge of the “things” my Dad loved. We have taken what we want to keep, given away what we know means most to family and friends, but everything else goes to the highest bidder. 

It puts life in perspective. In the end, the things we work our whole lives to purchase and pay for and keep end up in a yard sale, sold to strangers for pennies on the dollar.

Thankfully, my parents always valued experiences more than “stuff.” I have memories with my Dad: vacations, experiences, camping trips, and photographs to cherish: that means more to me than any physical item ever could.

In the end, everything must go. All our possessions stay here on Earth when we die, so focus instead on building things that last: relationships, memories, experiences. Those are what truly matter in the end.

How do you put a price on a life? Measure it by the amount of experiences had and memories made. Those are priceless. Those are what I treasure from my Dad’s life.

Everything else is just “stuff.” 

“I’m Fine”

Over the past two months, I’ve had lots of people ask me how they can help. Do you need anything? they ask. How are you doing? Or worse, some say nothing at all.

Our culture conditions us to reply with the obligatory “I’m okay” or “I’m fine” or “we don’t need anything, but thank you.” Our culture conditions us to lie when we are hurting.

Honesty is truly the best policy, but it is not always comfortable. Perhaps that’s why our natural tendency is to shy away from those in pain: we don’t want to subject our “I’m fine” lives to the “I’m not fine” lives of others. I know because I have been there. I’ve been the one who didn’t know what to say or what to do. I’ve been the one who didn’t understand, so I was the one who didn’t say anything at all.

During our time overseas, one of the things I came to appreciate about Germans is their blunt honesty. They do not understand the American greeting of “how are you?” and our mandatory conditioned response of “I’m fine.” If you ask a German how he or she is doing, you will get an honest answer: “Agh, this weather is sheisse, my dog ran away and got hit by a car, and I have a very bad toothache.” It might be uncomfortable at first, but the Germans will tell you exactly what is on their mind. If they aren’t fine, you will know it.

American culture is vastly different. We plaster on a smile, we stuff the pain down inside, we tell everyone we are fine. In order to help the hurting, we need to be able to peel away that mask and see the pain underneath.

What exactly can you do for those who are hurting? Don’t ask. Just do. Bring over a meal without asking. Send flowers or a card—even a brief email with a note of encouragement. Have a cup of coffee with them, ask them “no really, how are you?” and listen to the response. Allow them to cry on your shoulder. Don’t try to fix the problem because, honestly, it isn’t something that can be fixed.

You don’t have to know what to say. Honestly, those who are grieving don’t need you to say anything at all other than “I’m here for you, and it’s okay to not be okay.”

It’s been interesting to see how my friendships have shifted during this time of mourning in my life. Friends who I thought were my closest confidants have faded into the background, not sure of what to say or what to do. People I thought would call or email have remained silent.

Then there are those who have been through heartache and loss have come to the rescue, offering me support and invaluable advice, encouraging me to keep putting one foot in front of the other. There are family members who have held me close as I cried. There are friends who stocked our fridge with food without even being asked, invited us over for a meal, sent cards and messages letting me know they are thinking of me. Those messages and acts of kindness have kept me going.

If you have someone who is hurting in your life, reach out. You don’t need to have the right words. The only words you need are I’m here. Sometimes that’s enough.

The Darkness

It’s been almost two months since I lost my Dad.

I thought things would start to get easier. I thought I would get back to my normal life, my normal routine, and the pain would ease.

But the pain is still there, sneaking up on me throughout the day, scraping its claws against my heart, knocking the wind out of my lungs, threatening to unhinge my emotions and bring me to tears.

The grief hangs on, refusing to let go, refusing to let me move on. I hide away in my closet and let the tears flow, gasping for breath as the raw emotions take hold, I curl into a ball, and accept the brutal reality: He’s gone. He’s never coming back. I will never see him again. I won’t ever get to say the things left unsaid, I won’t ever be able to hug him again, to tell him I love him, or hear his laugh. There is nothing left now but an emptiness where he once lived.

The pain is so great and so real, there are many days when I want to climb into bed, curl up under the covers, and sleep for a month. Maybe then I would wake up and realize it’s all been a nightmare, that my Dad is still alive.

Even as I type this, the weight of the grief is heavy on my shoulders. I hear his voice in my head, and it stops me in my tracks. My heart beats fast, my eyes begin to cloud with tears, and the darkness threatens to swallow me whole.

One day at a time, one hour at a time, I travel through this valley. Everyone keeps telling me there is light at the other side, so I continue to put one foot in front of the other until I see the sun shining once again.

But oh, it is lonely and hard here in the dark.


Only In My Dreams

I dreamt of you last night.

In my dreams, you and I laughed like old times. I told you it was almost your time to go, and you said you knew, but you wanted to spend one day with me first.

How I wish that dream hadn’t ended. How I wish I didn’t have to wake up to the reality of a world without you.

Funny how things have changed in my world; a world where my dreams are blissful, but being awake is the real nightmare.

I would give anything to have one more day with you. To hear you laugh one more time. To share an inside joke, to give you a hug, to breathe in your scent.

To have you back.

All I have now are my dreams. I hope you will visit me in them again soon.

The Silence

I’m writing this in my Dad’s living room after a long day of cleaning his garage, sorting through his old textbooks and science lab notes, and I’m feeling the enormity of his absence. The silence reminds me with each passing second that he is truly gone.

The death of a loved one is pain unlike any other. It’s a wound that continues to open, continues to bleed, day after day, week after week. 

“It’s been a month since he died,” I say to myself. “Time to move on.”

Yet I don’t move.

“Okay, it’s been six weeks,” I say again. “Maybe NOW it’s time to move on.”

But still, I don’t move.

I just stay here, stuck in this loneliness that is life without my Dad. 

Every day, something reminds me of him, or I hear his laugh in my head, or I start to dial his number and then stop, remembering painfully that there is no one on the other end to answer.
Sitting in the silence, feeling fully the absence of who he was, is one of the worst things about grieving. During the day, when I am busy working and driving kids to activities and cooking dinner, that’s when the grief stays hidden just below the surface.

Then in moments like these–moments of silence–grief comes roaring to life, suffocating the notion of “moving on.” 

Maybe someday, I can sit with the silence without bursting into tears. Maybe someday, the notion of “moving on” will feel more tangible.

Today, however, is not that day. Today, I sit here alone in his living room, feeling the silence, missing his presence. 

“The After Club”

I’m not the first person who has ever gone through grief. Billions of people before me have loved and lost—and billions after me will as well. It’s the inevitable cycle of life.

I’m not the first to write about grief, either: libraries and online forums are filled to the brim with stories of fatherless children, childless mothers, grandfather-less grandchildren, and so on. Rivers could flow with all of the tears that have been shed over the ages by daughters who have lost their fathers.

But I am the only one of me, and my Dad was the only one of him. For me, this loss is one-of-a-kind, a uniquely terrible experience.

That uniqueness of my grief ironically makes me just like everyone else who has ever lost a parent: we are all members in a club to which we never wanted to belong, each one of us travelling down a dark and unforgiving path alone, yet parallel to all those who have traveled before us. It is somehow the loneliest and simultaneously most crowded club in the universe: the club of children who have lost a parent.

Some join the club much later in life, their parents having lived long and full lives. Some join the club tragically young: babies who lose a parent before they are even old enough to remember their voice, the color of their eyes, or their scent. I fall somewhere in between.

My Dad passed away at the age of 63: older than other fathers who unwittingly induct their children into this atrocious club, but still far too young. I should have had 20 more years with my Dad, but life doesn’t always give us what we deserve and definitely doesn’t give us what we most desire. My Dad will never be 64, he will never celebrate his 70th birthday, he will never reach 100. He will be frozen forever in time as he was the day he died.

So here I am, a member of this terrible, tragic, lonely-yet-overcrowded club of grieving children at the age of 34. I had enough time to make lots of great memories, but I yearn for the memories that are left unmade.

I have known others who have joined this club before me. My own mother has now lost both her parents and has had to travel down this dark and lonely road before me. I have known friends who have lost parents long before their time, and while I have always sympathized with them, it is only now that I truly feel the weight of the pain and grief that comes from losing a parent.

It’s been 33 days since I held my Dad’s hand while he took his final breath and left this world. Thirty-three days since a piece of my heart was broken. I keep waiting for the pain to ease, for the grief to lessen, for my heart to begin to mend, but grief is a brutal and unmerciful master. Some days are better than others, but there are still moments where I am reminded of something he said or did, or I remember his laugh or hear his voice inside my memory, or see his picture, his smile and his face frozen in time and I feel that dagger pierce my heart once more. The tears flow, my breath escapes me, and the pain feels as fresh as the moment he died.

Before I joined this terrible club, I didn’t really know how to help someone who was grieving. I would make a casserole, send a card, make a phone call, but then a week or two would go by and I would move on with my life. I assumed they had, too.

What no one tells you about grief is that it really becomes painfully real after. After the funeral takes place. After the memorial service. After the family returns home, the cards have all been sent, the flowers have all wilted and been thrown away. That’s when grief, with its thousands of razor-sharp teeth, takes hold inside your chest and threatens to destroy the happy life you had before.

That’s what life is now: it’s divided into before and after. Maybe that’s what this club truly is: The After Club, where all the members are trying desperately to pretend to outsiders that we still live in a before world when in reality, our hearts are drowning in the after inside.

Here I am, broken and brooding, missing my Dad’s smile and his laugh and, yes, even his three phone calls a day just to ask me about the weather. Here I am asking you—the friends who live in the before—to give us grace, to be our shoulder to cry on, and to invite us to tell you how we are really doing. We need to be given permission to say we are not okay because in reality, it feels like we may never truly be okay again.

One day at a time, one hour at a time, and even sometimes one minute at a time, the Afters walk towards healing. Maybe our broken hearts never truly heal, but I have hope that one day, the tears will fade.