“It was always something that happened to other people, losing a parent. You hear about someone young who lost their mom or dad, and the sadness sits on your heart for a few hours but you carry on. You hear about someone old who lost their mom or dad and you smile, remarking on the full, long life they lived. It’s always something that happens to other people until one day, it becomes something that happens to you.
At 23 years old, when I tell people I lost both of my parents, the response is almost always, ‘Were they in an accident?’ When I respond they were not, it’s like a shockwave flows through the room. I can hear the other person’s thoughts, trying to understand how it is possible it could have happened any other way. Even now, 3 years later, I stand there with them, wondering how this is all possible. Each time I tell someone, I am hit with the reminder my biggest fear in life is now my reality.
Without fail, the next question is about what happened. I inhale deeply, ready to tell my story.
Cancer might as well be a swear word in my book. The sound of it alone makes my heart palpitate. Each time I hear it, I am brought back to the first time it was used in reference to my dad. The idea of him having cancer seemed radically impossible. He had an annoying ear infection that lasted far too long so he went to the doctor. They found a blockage in his ear. It needed to be surgically removed. They scheduled an appointment.
Surgery day came, and he was set for a quick outpatient procedure. Shortly after starting, they realized the mass was much larger than they thought, and they were not capable of removing it. They referred him to an ENT specialist, and the journey continued. A new surgery date was planned with the ENT.
Surgery day came again. I felt slightly more nervous, this time as my mom and I sat in the outpatient waiting room. It wasn’t long before my mom went off to get snacks I saw the surgeon come out. I was confused as he approached and sternly asked where my mom was. I let him know she would be right back as I frantically texted her to hurry. The doctor went to the corner of the waiting room and sat alone with his phone in hand. I stayed in my seat on the other side, staring at him until my mom returned. I thought the longer I stared, maybe I would be able to read his mind, although my anxiety-ridden brain already convinced me that my dad had died. Why else would he be out here already? Why else would he not talk to me without my mom?
My mom was finally back, and we walked over to the surgeon together. An empty chair sat between him and my mom with me on the other side. I held my mom’s hand with a loose grip that tightened as he spoke, ‘We started the surgery and realized it appears to be cancerous. We have sent it off for a biopsy, and surgery will need to be rescheduled with an oncologist. Do you have any questions?’
We had a million questions but zero words.
‘When can we see him?’ my mom asked through her breath. He came back shortly after and brought us to see my dad in recovery. He smiled, like he always did, and said he wouldn’t accept defeat. It was time to fight.
Surgery day came once more. The ENT and oncologist were ready. My dad was ready. He had a 15-hour long surgery to remove his left ear and other surrounding areas where the cancer had spread. The next steps were chemotherapy and radiation. Miraculously, everything was a success. His scans showed no evidence of disease. He would need follow-up scans regularly, but the coast was clear.
Until the fog rolled in 6 months later.
My dad began to experience excruciating pains in his head and neck. He optimistically attributed it to nerve damage from radiation, and he carried on with it for a couple of months until the pain became debilitating. He called his doctor who ordered an MRI. It was a Tuesday morning when the results came in. The cancer returned, and it took ownership over his body. He made the decision to go into hospice, and within 6 weeks, he passed away peacefully at home.
Losing my dad to cancer was a delicate type of pain. I started to live in the future, realizing all of the things he would never experience with me, having to accept he would not be there for my life’s biggest moments: my college graduation, my wedding, the birth of my children. I was happy for past Danielle and the 20 years of amazing memories she had with him. I was sad for present Danielle as she just watched her hero disintegrate until his last breath. I was heartbroken for future Danielle who would miss out on so much with him.
Seeing how quickly he went from healthy to not, able-bodied to bedridden, was a call to action for my mom and me. Here we were, two healthy girls, who had just received a morbid wake-up call at how uncertain life is. We took this to mean we needed to live life to the fullest and live life to the fullest we did.
It was incredibly hard for us to sit still after my dad passed away, and being in the home where he died was even harder. We would get up most mornings with a plan for the entire day to keep us away until bedtime, only to do it all over again the next day. We lived in Sacramento but always had a special place in our heart for Southern California, so we made a few trips down to stay busy.
First, we came down with my cousin’s wife, Amy, to go to a filming of The Price is Right. I ended up getting called down, played the game ‘Now… or Then,’ and won! I won two outdoor fire heaters, a hot tub, a massage chair, a candle subscription, and a Samsung tablet. I went over when I spun the wheel, but I got to give a shout out to my dad in heaven on national television, and that alone was the greatest win of all.
My dad’s favorite show was The Big Bang Theory. I always remember the scene when Howard finds out his mom died, and Sheldon asks to speak. Everyone is nervous about what he might say, but he starts to speak anyway, ‘When I lost my own father, I didn’t have any friends to help me through. You do.’ This quote has stuck with me. A few weeks after The Price is Right, my mom and I returned to LA to attend a taping of The Big Bang Theory, and I shared my dad’s story with the studio audience. I recited the Sheldon quote, stating that this show has been the friend to get us through our loss.
I started school at Santa Clara University that January. In February, my mom and I went to Georgia to spend time with my dad’s family there. In April, we went to Las Vegas for my 21st birthday with my best friends. Although we were deep in grief, it was safe to say life was really, really good by this point. I was adjusting well to my new school, and my mom was staying happy and busy in a new home. Life was starting to get back to normal.
As a newly 21-year-old, I enjoyed fun nights out with my friends. It was a Thursday when Tara, the house mom for my sorority, took me out for a night just the two of us. We each ordered a drink at the bar, and I thought it was hilarious the bartender asked for her ID and not mine. I texted my mom to tell her something funny just happened, but I had no service so the text wouldn’t send. We got home safely that night, and I was able to send the text. My mom said to tell her about it in the morning and wished me sweet dreams.
Morning came and she texted me like she always did when she got up. She was an early bird, so I saw it and fell back asleep. It could not have been more than an hour later my phone kept buzzing under my pillow. I ignored it for as long as I could before I realized it must be important. I saw missed calls and a voicemail from my aunt. ‘Weird,’ I thought, ‘it’s so early.’ I called my mom to figure out what was going on, but she didn’t answer. That’s when I got scared.
I called my aunt back. She calmly told me my mom was in the hospital, and I needed to get home, now. She said I needed a friend to drive me the 2 and a half hours home. She told me to be strong. Knowing what I do now, I admire the way she spoke to me. It was at that point my 6 a.m. screams woke up the entire sorority house.
I called back again and demanded to talk to the doctor. I didn’t know what was going on, and I didn’t want to be told over the phone. For all I knew, my mom sprained her ankle and couldn’t talk because she was in an x-ray. I told the doctor about how my dad just died 7 months ago, and I told him my mom could not die, too. He said her heart stopped. I screamed at him and hung up the phone.
I ran up and down the staircase, screaming. Absolutely nobody knew what to do, but that didn’t stop Tara and another girl who lived in the house, Saia, from springing to action. They got in the car and drove me to the hospital 2 and a half hours away. I called as many people as I could to tell them what was happening while Tara drove and Saia sat in the backseat comforting me.
We pulled up to the hospital, and I saw my entire family standing outside. With a priest. And with a chaplain. Nobody needed to tell me anything. I knew my mom died, and for the first time, I knew what forever meant.
We spent a few hours in a room at the hospital together as a family. Tara and Saia stayed close by and helped reach out to everyone back at Santa Clara for me. My friend Julianna came to the hospital in support of me. I don’t remember calling her or telling her, but I remember her showing up. Showing up was the best thing anyone could do. I got to meet the doctor who worked on my mom, and I apologized for what I said on the phone. He laughed and told me it was one of his more pleasant conversations of the day. He told me they did everything they could. I told him I couldn’t understand how this could happen. I watched my dad get sick and die; my mom was not sick. She was the ideal picture of health, and this made no sense. As such, they needed to do an autopsy. It revealed she had a bilateral pulmonary embolism. Blood clots that found their way from her legs to her lungs claimed the life of my mother in seconds.
My family left the hospital and went to my aunt’s house. Colleen, my friend who doubles as an angel on earth, flew in as soon as she heard. My heart shattered in pain but was already slowly being repaired by my family and best friends.
At that point, the rest of my life began.
If there is anything I learned from my mom after my dad passed away, it is how healing it is to keep living life, but it is also okay if that looks different after loss. From those early days of grief when simply breathing felt impossible, Colleen has been there to remind me it is okay to live and she has been unwavering guidance in doing so. Life called me to carry on and carry on I did.
At first, I spent a lot of time in Oklahoma with my cousin and his wife. Oklahoma quickly became a place of comfort as it was a new place to create new memories rather than be plagued by the inescapable losses in Sacramento. A few days before my mom’s passing, I found out I got my dream internship at Southwest Airlines in Dallas, TX. After my summer in Oklahoma, I went to Dallas for the internship, traveling to a new city each weekend. I went back to school for my final two quarters, then, against all odds, I graduated. I became the first in my family to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree. I took off for 5 weeks to travel all around Europe with EF Ultimate Break, seeing and doing things my parents never did, healing. Now, I live in Southern California, my happy place, creating a new life for myself in a place where there is not crippling loss at every turn I take.
As I continue making the conscious choice to live and move forward (not move on), new people enter my life who never met my parents. Notably, my friend, Sydney, who I became close to about 6 months after my mom’s passing has truly stepped up to be a part of my support system. Despite not ever knowing my parents, she helps me to keep their memories alive and well, while having an outsider’s perspective that prevents me from living in the past. When it comes to talking about my parents to people like Sydney, I realize I have a special power the way I talk about my parents is the only way they will ever know them.
The last 3 years of my life have been built upon heartbreaking loss, but it is through that loss, I have found myself. I have found my voice in the grief community, sharing my story in hopes others won’t feel so alone.
Once life settled down, I learned how important it is to create new traditions. I accepted new traditions did not have to replace the old. There was a time when I felt like I couldn’t even watch TV because continuing shows without my parents felt like a betrayal. There was a time when I couldn’t use the kitchen at my house because moving the pan my mom left on the stovetop felt like destruction. As time has continued, I have realized the world keeps spinning, and life is meant to be lived.
Slowly, and with the help of my support system, I have been able to move forward and work toward living a healthy and productive life, filled with new traditions. On Wednesdays, I stayed with my aunt and uncle and we watched all of our weekly shows, something so simple that felt impossible for so long. On birthdays and anniversaries, I do something special with my grandma (the light of my life), like day trips to Tahoe or visits to the cemetery. Before COVID, I held dinner parties in my parents’ home, something unthinkable for the many months I deemed the house untouchable. I think that is a life my parents would be proud of me for.
Waking up every day, I don’t know how grief will strike me or if it will at all. I might make it through the day free of tears, or I may have a tsunami-like wave overpower me. What gets me through is knowing whatever the day holds, I have an amazing support system to stand by my side through every high, every low, and everything in between. Grief is an unpredictable storm that clouds everything I do. Having a support system is the sunshine that breaks through the clouds, and I am so grateful for mine.
If you find yourself needing a friend in grief, please know you have a friend in me.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Danielle DesRosier from Newport Beach, CA. You can follow their journey on Instagram and YouTube. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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