A decade. Ten years. 3,652 days.
No matter how you quantify it, it’s a long time. That’s how long it has been since I last heard my dad’s voice. There was a time when I could not imagine the world without Dad in it, but August 5, 2003, forced me into the reality I did not want to accept. Throughout the last decade without my hero and best friend, I have been on a grief journey that has taught me a lot about myself and how grief can evolve.
Grieving before he was gone
In retrospect, my grief journey actually began at the time of Dad’s diagnosis. I grieved him before he was gone. Dad was a humble but highly decorated fighter pilot who survived many missions in Vietnam and The Gulf War.
He always seemed invincible to me, so the news of his illness cut me at the knees. I helplessly stood witness to what we both could not control – a progressing cancer that would physically deflate and emotionally rock our entire family. He broke the news to me in April of my senior year of high school. He was gone just four months later – a week before I moved in as a freshman at Slippery Rock University.
During those final months with Dad, he wanted to keep everything as normal as possible for me. He wanted for us to celebrate my last high school days as much as we could. Dad was a gregarious guy with a sharp sense of humor.
Instead of spending our time together crying – though we had our moments for that – he preferred to laugh through it all. When the cancer spread to Dad’s brain and he found himself spitting out the wrong words, he would sometimes get frustrated in front of me, but only briefly. He didn’t want to worry me, so he would pull me close and start singing his own spin on Paul Anka’s hit song from yesteryear.
Dad would croon “Put your head on my tumor …” and try to get a smirk out of me as we cuddled up together. Dark humor perhaps, but it’s how we both got through it in our own strange way.
When I would visit Dad at the hospital, I would sneak him past nurses and take him outside in his wheelchair. We would stroll around the hospital grounds so that he could chain-smoke the cigarettes he craved.
One evening during such an escapade, the rain showers over the Pittsburgh skyline raced over in our direction and drenched us. I will never forget the boom of his laugh as I sprinted us through the raindrops and back to the double doors – his arms flailing with excitement as if I stuck him on a rollercoaster at Kennywood Park. Funny little moments like this are what I will always hold close. We were making the best of it.
Recently, I found his little blue 2003 planner – all worn and faded from his back pocket and still filled with his scribbles. Some scribbles note doctor appointments and count down chemotherapy treatments, but most of the notes plan out what he wanted for me: our shopping date for that perfect prom gown, my final choir concert, a to-do list for my graduation party he insisted that I have. Revisiting this little artifact from this very difficult – yet simultaneously exciting –period of my life, I’m reminded of how much he loved me and how focused he was on ensuring that I was okay.
He made it to my high school graduation. There’s this snapshot of us squeezed into the cafeteria – the meeting area for graduates and their family members following the ceremony. The scene around us is chaotic, but through the pushing and pulling of the crowd there is a peace around us. I am in my cap and gown leaning in and kissing him on the cheek. In this photo, his emotions are so honest. I don’t see happiness per se, or pride, or enthusiasm. He simply looks relieved to be there.
Just suck it up
One chapter of my life closed so abruptly and I was expected to suck it up, surround myself with new faces who did not know what I had just endured, and get through it.
Just weeks before, I was calling Dad’s hospital room to get his opinion on mundane things like what laptop I should buy for college with the money I saved from babysitting. How was I going to make it through freshman year without him to guide me through the tough stuff?
“My Dad just died” isn’t a very good icebreaker. I didn’t want to emotionally unload on my new friends and become the dorm’s resident Debbie Downer.
I just didn’t really talk about it. Death is an awkward subject that is typically tip-toed around. Some people just don’t know how to address it, so they don’t at all.
When some people learn of your loss, they tend to speak to their own losses. They tell you about poor old Fluffy, or Grandma, or dear Aunt So-and-So. They assume that a loss is a loss and that they get what you’re going through, when they probably don’t. At first, I would become annoyed with these awkward exchanges.
Over time, I began to realize that these people were just trying. They were trying their best to reach out to me and relate — while I was building walls.
In those first few weeks and months of college, I really pushed away my feelings. I was away at college, as we planned for so long, and I was to make the best of it – like we always did. I was going to succeed no matter what.
I didn’t party. I buried myself in books, got involved in various campus organizations, and spent the weekends with Eric, my trusted best friend and high school sweetheart. Don’t get me wrong, I made lots of new friends and had lots of fun, but I independently made the choice to stay focused. I didn’t want to let Dad down.
As that first semester turned into a second, there were moments of anger aimed at cancer, at God, and at friends and family who promised to be there for me, but were not. Dad was gone and I felt abandoned by some people.
It was during this time in my grief journey that someone wise advised me to drop all expectations for the people in my life. This may seem harsh, but it turned out to be the best advice I have ever received. Here I was expecting everyone around me to completely understand me and what I endured – and continued to endure. Once I dropped the unrealistic expectations I held for them, I was able to move forward in my grief and forgive.
When grief grows up
Grief never goes away, it just continues to evolve and shape-shift – presenting itself in sometimes unexpected ways. Having my nose in the books so much during undergrad helped me achieve academically, but it didn’t really give me a lot of time or energy to confront my grief. You can only push it away for so long.
No matter how strong you think you are, grief always has a way of resurfacing — especially during the holidays and certain milestones. I had two more graduations since that day in the crowded cafeteria, and on those important days in my life I couldn’t kiss Dad’s cheek.
When Eric asked me to be his wife, I could not show Dad the ring and celebrate with him. Dad could not be there to walk me down the aisle on June 14, 2008. It’s easy to feel sorry for yourself and focus on the void in your life instead of everything else. Time has taught me not to completely ignore the void, but to look past it and appreciate the rest.
I have so much in my life to celebrate. Eric is an awesome husband, best friend, and partner in life who has been by my side cheering me on for 11 years and counting. I am also lucky to have Daniel as an outstanding big brother who has always been there for me. He’s done some filling in for Dad in the “let me vent to you” department and was the one to walk me down the aisle on my big day. These are just two examples of blessings that can’t be overshadowed by the void. There are many more.
When my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer a few years ago, it took a huge toll on me. I was managing her health care and it was almost as if I was reliving the past and starting another grief journey. Unexpectedly, everything I thought I overcame resurfaced and I found myself pushing forward, displacing my emotion, and preparing for the worst once again.
Luckily, my mom is now cancer-free, but the whole experience made me realize that I had to do more to manage the grief that will always be with me. That’s when Comfort Zone Camp (CZC) entered my life.
When I learned about CZC, its mission to reach out to grieving kids really resonated with me and I felt compelled to get involved. My life was immediately changed when I became a Big Buddy at the camp in North Carolina. I learned to channel my grief in positive ways to help others through what I also experienced. My Little Buddy is like a sister to me and it is an honor continuing to help her through these first steps of her grief journey and beyond.
I am also a proud member of CZC’s Grief Relief Team, which gives me the opportunity to participate in various athletic events to honor my Dad while also raising money to send kids to camp. Keeping my Dad’s memory alive is so important to me, and CZC has given me a way to do this while also making a great impact on others’ lives.
No matter how my grief journey continues to evolve, I know my CZC family is standing right next to me.
It has been 3,652 days and counting and I am not alone.
Our thanks to Ashley Hardin for sharing her story with us. She is a writer and Comfort Zone Camp Big Buddy living in Raleigh, N.C.