‘He was more than a friend. He was her protector. The one at school to rescue her from a tough day. I will never forget him.’: After daughter loses close friend, dad remembers his legacy, ‘He will live on in us’

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“She didn’t know it but, 6,000 miles away, tragedy would strike and change her life forever.

February 19, 2020 marks one year since the sudden and tragic death of one of my daughter’s closest friends. A beautiful, spirited soul left our world after only nine years. I will never forget him.

It’s been a difficult year for all of us who knew him. He was sweet. He was adorable. He was cool. He was individualistic. But I will remember him most for other extraordinary personal characteristics I didn’t know about until after he passed…and this would change the course of my life.

My daughter and he were neighbors, classmates since kindergarten, and frequent seat buddies on the school bus. They were quite close, as was easily evident to me as her parent, but I doubt she ever thought about that because, at that age, kids don’t really comprehend how ‘close’ they are to someone. They just want to spend time with those they enjoy being around and make them feel good. In fact, we, as adults, should probably learn something from this.

In the days following his death and the service to celebrate his life, I made sure I was available to my daughter for her to share her emotions. To be honest, these were difficult waters to navigate. Sure, I consider myself to be in touch with my feelings and pretty adept at having conversations regarding sensitive topics. This was different. I just didn’t have the experience and perspective of an 8-year-old who just painfully lost one of her closest friends. That rocked me.

I asked family and friends for advice on how to help her through this. She was getting special grief counseling at school, but I knew a big part of her healing would need to come from outside that environment, through extra love and support from her dad. One of my sisters sent her a miniature memory book where she could write in words to finish sentences that would establish sweet memories of her friend. We worked on this over the course of a few days.

As we reflected together on his life and their relationship as part of this activity, she said something I will never forget and still makes me rapidly tear up every time I think about it. She told me that he was the one at school who would rescue her from a tough day or situation. ‘When I would get into an argument with my girlfriends, he would tell me to just come play with him,’ she explained to me. He recognized her struggle and acted to help her.

He was more than a friend. He was her protector. He comforted her. A guardian. He truly cared about her. He was kind. Hearing her tell me this, he became even more amazing as I learned about these wonderful traits that truly made him special in my daughter’s eyes.

As a father, you cross your fingers teenage boys and men in her life will respect and protect her. I never really thought about it happening at this young of an age. He will forever be the first one outside of me or her family who likely gave her this feeling of security, even though she probably only felt it subconsciously. I am so glad it was him.

He will live on in us.

Now that the first anniversary of his death is upon us, I found myself these past few days searching for some better kind of understanding and healing. This is something you never recover from. I guess you just seek relief any way you can get it when you are struggling emotionally. I have thought about every angle of this — where we were that day, what we were doing, time of day, etc.

My daughter and I were in the middle of a European vacation. I found out about his death via text when we were dog sledding in Norway. My heart collapsed. I looked over to my daughter, who was joyfully interacting with the playful huskies, so innocent. I looked all around me and took in the beauty of the mountains and snow, gulped a breath of fresh winter air, and regained my composure. Her mom and I had agreed we would wait a few days to tell her so she could enjoy a few more days of travel in Scandinavia without the emotional burden of such a tough loss. We were in Stockholm when we shared the news with her. It was just heartbreaking.

I only realized a few days ago, we were actually somewhere else the day of his death. I had just assumed he died the day I read the text message. In fact, it had taken a couple of days for this news to reach us. I never made that connection.

It was February 19, 2019. We were in Aarhus, Denmark visiting friends. It was a weekday, so my daughter and I hit a variety of popular tourist spots while my friends were working and their kids in school. Our last stop of the day was the ARoS Aarhus Art Museum, which is known for its rainbow panorama — a large glass walkway on the roof formed in the color spectrum.

We were fascinated by all the rich colors and the incredible views of the city. We walked around the circle dozens of times and let our imaginations run wild, taking plenty of pictures.

I started to think. It was a similar time of day to when her friend passed. I let myself get lost in the picture. I let any and all feelings come to me. I thought about her reflection in the window and the color transitions. Was there any special meaning in this? Was I reaching for something that just wasn’t there?

Then I noticed how there was a unique tint (or shading) in the area of the picture where my daughter was kneeling, stretching to the right. I looked at more pictures I had in the other colors and they didn’t seem to have it. Maybe it was just the way the light was reflecting at that moment? A shadow, perhaps? As this had always been my favorite photo of her in this panorama, I began to edit it for use in this story. I figured I would sharpen the image but, beyond that, little editing was needed since the color that came from the sun and colored glass already made the photo look quite incredible.

As I played around with a few of the editing filters, I noticed a hint of gray-green in that aforementioned area that seemed to carry a different hue of color. I adjusted the saturation setting for the entire picture, which reduced the vibrancy of its yellow appearance. With a turn of the dial, that area of the picture became a splendid green color that stretched from the far right of the photo to the exact point where my daughter was kneeling. Green was her friend’s favorite color.

This could mean nothing or it could mean everything. I will process it my own way. My daughter will choose to use it for however she wants. That is the beauty of being human — being an individual, to use our minds and hearts how we best see fit. That is the legacy of William Wolfgang Shaw.

‘Be Yourself’ is the lesson he leaves us in life. Now I am passing it on to you. Thank you to this little boy for helping me understand what’s most important because he just did him.

Don’t waste time finding your light. Inspiration is all around you.”

Courtesy Damon D’Arienzo

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Damon D’Arienzo of Massachusetts. You can follow Damon’s journey on his website, Instagram and Facebook. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

Read Damon’s powerful backstories on being a single dad:

‘I had to leave, I had to be a single dad, to be a better father for my daughter.’: Single dad explains his relationship was ‘vulnerable, beyond repair,’ despite being determined to have a ‘strong co-parenting relationship’

‘Explain this.’ It was printed copies of every text I’d exchanged with my previous girlfriend.’: Single dad’s harrowing experience dating a narcissist, urges ‘even the strong can succumb to the cunningness of this evil’

‘It’s not fair,’ my daughter said, tears welling up in her eyes. I’ll never forget the first holiday I spent without her.’: Single dad determined to make splitting holidays with his ex work, ‘we were together, and that’s what the holidays are all about’

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