Since my dad died 18 months ago, I’ve come to realize that when someone you love dies, you don’t just have to say goodbye to him at the time he passes away but also at every crossroad. I’ve discovered that there are endless firsts and tough moments to get through, not just obvious ones like holidays and big events, but many others that are equally if not more challenging to struggle through under the heavy blanket of grief.
As children, we look forward to firsts – the first day of school, the first time to ride a bike without training wheels, the first time to go on a date, the first time to drive a car. Firsts seem happy and are something we treasure. But, somewhere along the line, we suffer a loss, and we have to adjust. And then the firsts that come can bring about a sadness that is hard to shake.
And so as we travel through the forest of firsts and other challenging moments in the midst of our shock and our sadness, we are forced to let go, one finger at a time. For me, the milestones have been hard, but some of the most difficult things to get past so far for me have been the ones I didn’t see coming.
Topping the list are The Flashback Moments. The first time I went to visit someone in the hospital after leaving the one with my dad and knowing he wouldn’t be coming back. In the elevator when I was visiting my friend that day, I almost had a panic attack when the flashback hit, and the unexpected flood of emotions that swept through me was shockingly debilitating.
When I hear about someone having a baby, I flash back to when Dad was happily rocking my newborn daughter in the rocking chair when she was just a few days old and I heard him singing to her and having a one-sided conversation with her.
There was also the first time I went to a funeral after I’d buried my own father and the first time I realized I was in the exact place I was when I found out Dad was sick. There are the flashback from every time I hear someone say “Howdy!” just the way Dad used to greet people in passing, and from when I hear a song that he used to sing and know the only way I will ever hear his beautiful voice again is in my dreams. The toughest of these Flashback Moments so far, though, was walking into my parents’ house the first time I’d been there after he wasn’t. During all of these times, my mind is pulled back to another time. Sometimes it is to a happy, healthy time, but more often it’s to darker days that let me know I am still heavily in the midst of grieving.
And then there are The Stinging Moments, those that rub salt into my wounds. The times when I am watching TV and the story line is one in which a character is dying or has cancer. When I close my eyes to go to sleep at night and all I can picture is the image of my dad’s frailty at the end. The times when I’m searching for a contact on my phone or in my email and his name automatically pops up. That happened just now, when I typed the number 18 in the first sentence of this post. The time I checked my calendar just a couple of weeks after Dad’s passing and I saw my notes about the trip to the Brain Tumor Clinic at Duke that we were supposed to be taking that week. Those are the times I keep forgetting to expect, the ones that leave me with a just-slapped feeling that I’m not sure will ever go away.
Probably the most frequently occurring difficult times for me since Dad went on ahead have been The Empty Chair Moments, the ones in which I am startled again by his absence. I think about him many times each day, I fall asleep with tears on my pillow almost every night, and I talk to him in the car pretty often – so that part of missing him has become part of my routine these days. But family vacations and holiday gatherings are so tough without him. I keep thinking about how he would’ve loved the things that we are all able to do, the ones that he now isn’t here to do … going the beach, riding a roller coaster, playing with the kids, listening to the conversations and the laughter. All of those moments together that feel so great except for the fact that he’s missing.
The first time I went on a run after my dad died, I got about a mile from my house and the tears started; being out there on the road by myself, away from any distractions and so aware of the empty space beside me, was tough, and I didn’t see that coming. It wasn’t that I never ran without him before; it was that this time I was running and I was so acutely aware of the fact that he wasn’t. He couldn’t be. He wouldn’t be again.
At my daughter’s high school graduation last spring, I felt the love, the excitement, the joy, and the pride more than anything else. I actually got through it without a tear, but what happened later that night was even harder than I’d thought the ceremony would be. We had made a dinner reservation for nine; however, when we got to the restaurant, the table was set for ten. I don’t think anyone else except me noticed, but the chair that stood empty after we’d all taken our seats seemed to me like such a glaring physical sign of the very important person who should have been right there.
The first time we gathered for a family photo with one less, and every time since, we can all feel Dad’s absence so strongly – it feels like the reverse of a Where’s Waldo photo. The first time I did something that I knew he would be proud of and I had to feel his pride in my heart because I couldn’t hear it in his voice or see it in his eyes. The times when I need to ask him a question and he isn’t here to give the answer that only he knew. Ouch.
Also making the list are the surreal Not-Supposed-To Times when I have to do something that I shouldn’t have to be doing – like when I visit his grave, like when we had to clean out his car to sell it, and every time I hear my voice telling someone that my father passed away.
Closely related are The Stand-in Moments when I am having to do things my dad should’ve been here to do – to worry about my mom, to tell his grandchildren that he is proud of them, to give my mom and my sisters the advice that I think he would be giving were he still here.
And finally, there are The Obscure Moments, those unique to him and perhaps even imperceptible to others who didn’t know him in the exact way I did: the first summer Olympics, the times when I think of something I know he would think is funny or interesting and I realize that I can’t share it with him.
When we took my daughter to visit the college she will attend this fall, I felt Dad’s absence so acutely. Dad was so good at meeting people, and I know he would have loved to be there to help her meet people and acclimate to the new surroundings. On the night of my daughter’s prom, just a few months after my dad died, the kids and their parents all gathered at a park before the big event for a photo shoot, and grief descended upon me like dew falling at night. It was the first big event involving my kids that we had to get through without Dad being around to know about it, to see the pictures, to hear about how much fun she had.
Even the minor everyday times can come in intermittent blasts, like when I eat an apple and catch myself thinking I should just go ahead and eat the core too (“It saves time!” he used to say.) These things leave me with an aching in my heart because he enjoyed them so thoroughly and now he can’t. But at the same time, somehow those memories bring a smile to my face as I remember how unique a person my dad was, and how his perspective and his “don’t sweat the small stuff” attitude are something I will carry with me forever.
With all of these unexpected moments, I am left to wonder: Does it get easier when these firsts happen again as seconds, and then thirds, and then so on? Do the shock and the pain lessen as the time when he was here gets further and further out, like a balloon floating in the sky?
What has your experience taught you? What words can you share here with others who face these firsts?
Special thanks to Stephanie Bullard Lancaster for sharing this piece with us. You can read more of her work on her blog.