‘Who’s going to be my dad?’ I didn’t even get to say goodbye. He was already gone.’: Woman shares grief of losing father at age 9, ‘He was my first true love’

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“‘Who is going to be my dad?’ I asked my mom as we stood in the doorway of the hospital room. I was 9 years old — a little girl just trying to make sense of what happened that day. Just that morning, I went to school, like I did any other day, with a mom and a dad, and now my dad was gone. He died suddenly around 11 a.m. that morning while I was in school. I went the whole school day without even knowing that my life had completely changed.

I was daddy’s little girl. The youngest of three and the only girl, I was his girl. He worked nights, so my days were spent with him while my mom was at work. We grocery shopped together, he made my favorite lunches for me, we had daily afternoon coffee and donut breaks together, and he was the one who picked me up from school.

Father holding newborn
Courtesy of Diana K.

But on January 11, 1994, he wasn’t there to pick me up. I knew something wasn’t quite right when my aunt showed up instead. We got in the car and picked up an after-school snack – I wasn’t hungry. She drove me to the hospital. I felt sick to my stomach. I knew something wasn’t right, but I didn’t know anything at this point. I entered the hospital room to see my dad lying lifeless, his feet cold, with a heart monitor beeping – a sound that touches a nerve for me to this day.

Earlier that day, my dad’s aorta burst and he died almost instantly with my mom standing in front of him. I guess to soften the blow for me and my brothers, she had the doctor put him on life-support machines to artificially keep his heart ‘pumping’ until we could say our goodbyes. So there I was, standing at the foot of the hospital bed, looking at his body with no soul. I didn’t get to say goodbye. He was already gone. A short while later, when we were all able to be together in the room, my mom gave the doctor the okay to ‘pull the plug.’ I stood there as the heart monitor coursed wildly and he went into an artificial cardiac arrest. My mom was sobbing. I was sad and confused, and scared. How would I live without my dad?

‘Who is going to be my dad?’

‘He will always be your father,’ my mom replied.

Dad and daughter at birthday party
Courtesy of Diana K.

I don’t know if there was too much of a stigma around therapy at the time, or if my mom was preoccupied with her own grief, but I never received any counseling. I spent my days holding in my tears, and my nights crying myself asleep alone in my bedroom. I couldn’t talk about it with my mom or my brothers, and honestly, I still have a hard time today. It was a pain so raw and so deep, it was palpable. I was a little girl just trying to navigate 5th grade, but with a heavy load of pain and unspoken grief. I found my own coping mechanisms, clinging to stuffed animals and later to other things like boys and alcohol. The messaging I constantly received from other adults was, ‘You have to be a good girl.’ What did that even mean? My whole life I’ve felt this overwhelming sense of pressure to get things right. To be perfect. To be a good girl. I tried everything I could to grasp control of every aspect of my life to shield myself from feeling that immense pain again.

Baby taking bath in sink
Courtesy of Diana K.

One of the biggest pain points for me is I’ve always felt alone in my struggle. Even at 9 years old, I had friends make cards for me saying things like, ‘I know how you feel. My grandma died last year.’ To me, this could never be the same. I never want to discount the grief others experience. Grief is valid for everyone. But it was just not fair. I lost my dad when I needed him the most. I was too young to understand this kind of hurt… of unconditional love and sudden loss. Nothing compares to the love between a father and a daughter. He was my first true love. The one who set the bar for male relationships in my life going forward.

Family graduation photo
Courtesy of Diana K.

In everything I’ve done in life, I’ve felt a sense of emptiness. Graduations, dating, learning how to drive, getting married. He was always missing, and even the best moments could only be bittersweet without him. Things like daddy-daughter dances or Father’s day always hit me hard, but I didn’t talk about it. I spent my whole life keeping my head down, staying busy, and following the ‘good girl’ path. I excelled in school and went on to earn my Master’s degree in accounting, pursued a CPA certification, and worked full-time at a large public accounting firm. My mom was proud, but underneath it all, I was hurting.

Teen's high school graduation
Courtesy of Diana K.

Then one day, it hit me out of nowhere. I was waiting for the train on my way to the city for work, and I burst into tears. I couldn’t hold it all in anymore. I was 24 and that’s when I first realized I needed to seek professional counseling. At the time, I was diagnosed with GAD (generalized anxiety disorder). My constant worry and need for control showed up as anxiety. My cup couldn’t handle anymore, so my years of unrecognized grief started to overflow. I spent a year in counseling and had an ‘as needed’ prescription for Xanax for times when it felt too hard to handle. Looking back, this was only a temporary band-aid, but it got me through my 20s.

Teen with mom wearing prom dress
Courtesy of Diana K.

When I was 29, I met my husband and for the first time in a really long time, I felt a little more whole. I had my share of ups and downs in romantic relationships over the years and even went through a marriage and divorce before he came into the picture. Nobody could live up to that first-love standard I emulated from my dad. Throughout my dating life, I always wondered if my dad would approve of the guys I brought home. It was an unanswered question I had to live with.

Husband and wife wedding photo
Courtesy of Diana K.

A few years prior to meeting my husband, I had my dad’s initials tattooed on my wrist the same way I remember he had his belonging monogrammed when I was a little girl. JJK. When I made the connection my husband’s initials were JJK too, I knew it was my dad’s divine way of giving his approval. Although he may not be here with me in physical form, he has given me signs he is very much here with me, and for that, I am grateful.

Husband and wife holding hands with visible tattoo
Courtesy of Diana K.

When I was 32, our beautiful baby girl was born, and it hit me again. I was overcome with PPD (Postpartum Depression) and Anxiety. Now she’s 4, and I’ve been in weekly therapy ever since. I’m finally receiving the treatment I’ve needed since I was 9 years old. Together with my therapist, I’ve been unraveling years of grief and finding healthy ways to cope and manage my depression and anxiety symptoms.

Mom holding newborn daughter in hospital
Courtesy of Diana K.

In doing the work, I also discovered minimalism and slow living as a way for managing my anxiety and shifting my focus to be more intentional. I read a lot of books, listened to podcasts, researched, and dug deep to find that outer order contributes to inner calm. This is exactly what I needed because my insides felt messy. Up until this point in my life, I was avoiding my pain by staying busy and in control. By slowing down, and living more intentionally, I’ve been able to uncover and work through the deep layers of pain. I’m slowly learning to sit with my feeling instead of trying to cover them up. I’ve also found simple everyday ways to connect with my dad – a song, a bright red cardinal, or the sun rays peeking through the clouds. (I imagine this is his way of giving me a hug.)

Parents holding newborn daughter
Courtesy of Diana K.

I decided to create an outlet for myself, a space where maybe others can relate. I started an Instagram account highlighting my experiences with mental health, minimalism, slow living, self-care, and personal growth. It’s a space where I can show up on my little corner of the internet and openly share what I’m learning through my healing journey. I spent so many years feeling alone, like nobody understood. My hope is in sharing my journey, I can make at least one person feel less alone on theirs.

I can’t say the pain of loss will ever go away, but with the help of professional therapy, it feels more like a dull ache now. If there’s one piece of advice I can offer, it would be this: Hold your loved ones close and make every day count. And if you’re struggling, talk about it. Reach out for help. You are worthy of love and healing.”

Family photo with pet dog
Courtesy of Diana K.

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Diana K.  from Chicago. You can follow their journey on Instagram. 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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