“Grief does not have a timeline. There is not a point when it dissolves, fading into the background of who we are. It doesn’t end after a week-long bereavement leave from work or after the societally-expected first year. There isn’t a bandaid for the open wound loss leaves on our hearts. As Queen Elizabeth famously said, ‘Grief is the price we pay for love.’
This week marks five years since my dad died from cancer. It also marks four and a half years since my mom died from a pulmonary embolism. At 21 years old and a junior in college, both of my parents passed away only seven months apart from each other. I still wake up every day confused, wondering how this happened. How could I be so young without my parents? Why did one, let alone both, leave this world so quickly?
I never experienced loss until I was 19, then it took off like a domino effect every 6 months, starting with my childhood dog, Merlot. Only a few months after that, my grandpa died unexpectedly in his sleep. I couldn’t understand how quickly life changes.
Three months later, my dad received a terminal cancer diagnosis. He went through three surgeries, chemo, and radiation resulting in a seemingly miraculous recovery. I got my dad back with his jovial personality, dedicated work ethic, and warm, strong hugs.
The cancer left him with only one ear, but that didn’t place any limitations on who he was until everything changed again within a few months. He was in excruciating pain that resulted in an MRI revealing the cancer was back. And worse. He made the decision to enter hospice, and he died within six weeks.
My world collapsed when I heard his final breath. How could his heart be beating one moment to it ceasing the next? How could his lungs pump oxygen, then stop? And how could his body just shut off like a light switch? How could I lose my dad? Why couldn’t he just wake up? Why do some people go so quickly and others endure such horrible suffering? Why does death take away life?
In grieving my dad, I became entirely reliant on my mom. She added vibrant colors to the greyscale of our world. She was this bright light who believed in daily random acts of kindness but also had an unmatched sarcastic quick wit. I couldn’t imagine someone more full of life–even in the wake of such grief and heartache–than my mom.
Yet somehow, seven months after my dad passed, a random pulmonary embolism took her away from this world to be with her soulmate. It happened so quickly, and I didn’t get to say goodbye.
I have learned more about grief and resilience than I ever wanted to know in the last five years. It feels like it happened just yesterday but also a lifetime ago. I thought by now my life would be normal again, I would be healed, everything would be okay… but that’s just not how grief works.
Some of my biggest joys in life have happened after my parents died, and there is no denying my genuine smile in the best moments. At the same time, these last five years have held my darkest moments, absent from hope in a world without my parents. Every smile I grin and every tear I cry hold deep grief. In other words, they both hold deep love, and that’s what matters.
Grief bears darkness and light, surprise and predictability, hope and despair. I think it’s important to share both sides of the coin and acknowledge and honor the ways grief is with us every day whether it’s the first week or the first decade and beyond after a loss.
There are so many big moments my parents missed like when I graduated college only a year after their deaths. On graduation day, I crossed the stage with my head held high and a proud smile as I looked out to my amazing support system in the crowd. But when I stepped down, the tears streamed before I could even realize what was happening. I fought to catch my breath and be present in the celebratory joy, but without my parents, this accomplishment didn’t feel worth celebrating. Pride intersected anguish.
I did my dream internship that sent me on domestic travel adventures to wherever I wanted to go every single weekend. One weekend, I packed for the blazing hot sun of Phoenix, but flying standby led me to the blistering cold air of New York City. New York was at the top of my mom’s bucket list, and as I stepped off the plane, I felt like I was cheating on her.
I cried in the airport bathroom, regretting the trip before it even started. I pulled it together enough to have the time of my life during my 20 hours there, but I was overcome with guilt at each subway stop. The thrill of the city held hands with the sorrow of my grief.
I spent five weeks visiting ten countries in Europe where my taste buds sang at the best food and wine I ever had, while my heart wept at the thought my parents never got to see these magical places. I went soul searching in Bali where I screamed as I ziplined through the Tegalalang rice terraces and made fun of myself when I slipped jumping off a rock into the sea, but I also spent an entire day grief crying in my hotel room. I walked a llama through the high desert, and I drove a jeep through a corn field.
I moved to a new city on my own for a fresh start (twice.) I took my health into my own hands and lost 135 pounds. I have relearned how to live since my parents died, and I am taking full advantage of what that means.
In many ways, the things I have done the last five years have been a dream, but grief still stops me in my tracks. I have fought to be resilient in each of these big moments, but even then, I experience debilitating waves that wipe me out. While I know they may crash at the high points of my life, I refuse to miss out on a single second of it all.
Lessons On Grief
I thought (and I hoped and I prayed) that grief would get easier by now, but it hasn’t. I have gained more coping tools, I have learned how to reach out for help, and I have found a community, but the grief is just as strong as I wish for my mom and dad knowing I will never have them again. The waves still crash; I am just better at absorbing them.
Sometimes I am hard on myself thinking about how I am an adult, 25 years old, but I still need my parents. In the big and the small moments, I still need them. I needed their guidance when I made the decision to sell their house, how to clean it out, and when to accept the offer. I needed their guidance when I spent too much time in probate settling all of their affairs. Right now, I need their help on my job hunt as I perfect my resume and need interview tips.
There are days when nothing significant happens, and I still need them. I wish I could pick up the phone to tell my mom about the ‘little’ things like how annoying it was when the car in front of me was driving 40 in a 55. I wish I could text my dad right now to ask him what the recipe is for the stuffed mushrooms I still can’t get quite right.
Resilience is in the independence and self-sufficiency I have learned from these moments, but it’s also in the admission that sometimes, I do need help and asking for that is not a sign of weakness. In these times of need, I plead out loud that it shouldn’t be too much to ask to pick up the phone and call my parents.
But it is. And that breaks my heart in a way that can never be repaired. I guess that’s what it means that grief is the price we pay for love, and I wouldn’t trade that love for anything.
Capitalize On Every Moment
Life and death are unpredictable which is why it is important to capitalize on every chance we have to live. My parents still had hopes and dreams and goals of their own that will forever remain unrealized. It has made me acutely aware of the importance of actively deciding to live.
Amidst the depression and anxiety that accompany loss, this may be the toughest choice I have had to make. I have committed myself to living not only for my parents who cannot, but also for myself who can.
I want to see all of the world I can and experience every joy life has to offer while also feeling every painful tear on my cheek and smile on my lips. I want everyone who meets me to meet a piece of my parents. I can sprinkle a dose of Christmas cheer with a glass of chardonnay in hand like my mom while watching the 49ers in comfy clothes like my dad.
All of the best parts of them can live on through me, and that’s an honor I don’t take lightly. I will fight every day to be resilient enough to make this life I’ve been given–no matter how long or short–worth living. Grief will always be a part of it 1, 5, 10, and 42 years out, but that is because of the deep love we shared.
I share these stories of my highs and lows, my laughs and my cries, my accomplishments and my regrets, with you in hopes that it normalizes the juxtaposition of your own grief. I hope you rid yourself of the idea grief has a start and an end, progressing linearly from denial to acceptance, over a certain amount of time.
When we watch someone we love die, we have to fight extra hard to live. We often shy away from talking about grief because it’s indisputably uncomfortable. It gets a weird reaction because it cannot be fixed. It reminds us of our own mortality, and that is hard to sit with.
This is what makes it all the more important to talk about it. Let’s start the conversation about the people we have lost and how they lived more than how they died. Let’s share with each other what it’s like to smile at one funny memory and cry at another. Let’s discuss how challenging birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays become.
The less grief is talked about, the more isolating it feels. The more we talk about it, the more we find people who relate, and the less alone we feel. I sugarcoated my grief for a long time when the reality of it is often suffocating at the same time it’s liberating. It carries guilt in the same bag it carries gratitude.
Grief permanently changes the landscape of our lives. Our minds and hearts are not the same after a significant loss. And that is okay.
We will be okay.”
Read more from Danielle:
‘My screams woke up the entire sorority house. ‘My dad died 7 months ago. She can’t die too!’ At that point, the rest of my life began.’: Young woman shares grief journey, ‘My parents would be proud of me’
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