Lessons I Learned After Losing My Father

by Joanna McClanahan
Originally Published: 

The last time I heard my dad’s voice, it was because he called me by mistake. He arrived at the bus stop in New Mexico and was calling my aunt to pick him up. I don’t remember much of our conversation, but I told him about my new job and asked if he would be stopping through town on his way home to see us. I still remember the way he said, “Not this time,” with a strained sweetness in his voice.

It was on the third day of my new job that I returned a phone call on my lunch break. “Are you sitting down?” asked my aunt. “Your dad’s had a severe stroke. They’re doing everything they can, but it looks like he’s not going to make it. I’m so sorry.” It only took three sentences for my world to fall apart.

The days that followed are a bit of a blur. I opted not to fly out to see him. I didn’t want my last memories to be of him as an empty shell. So I did what I’ve always done with my emotions: I wrote them down.

I called his hospital room, and my uncle held the phone to my dad’s ear as I ugly-cried my way through the letter I’d written just for him. He passed away five minutes after I hung up the phone.

It’s been almost three years since he passed. Only now am I getting to a place where I can write about it without falling apart. I feel like I’ve grown a decade in these last three years. That’s because of the tough lessons I’ve learned about love, life and grief.

Grief never fully goes away.

It comes on fast and strong, like a freight train to the chest. It’s strong enough to knock you to the ground or to make you want to crawl in bed and never get out again. It has the power to hit you anywhere and anytime. It’s an immeasurable force, but one of the most powerful I’ve come to know.

Grief never really goes away, but it changes over time. There is less crying and more smiling when things remind me of him now. But there are still some days I have to take a break just to let myself break down. I still miss him so much it hurts. And some days that’s an easier sentence to say than others.

Laughter helps you heal.

When we lose someone close to us, that sadness is one of the most intense emotions we ever experience. For a while, I wondered if the sadness would swallow me up and never let go. I remember asking my husband if I would ever laugh again.

Go out of your way to surround yourself with joy. For me, it was my daughter who helped me most, not only because I had to be strong for her, but also because her smiles and laughter are contagious. The more I laughed, the more naturally it came. The pieces of me that had shattered slowly started to come back together.

“What if?” will get you nowhere.

Don’t hold yourself prisoner to endless hypotheticals. To imagine scenarios where you could have or should have done something differently is a cruel game with no winners.

We can’t change the past; all we can do is learn from it. Sometimes that means we have to forgive others (or ourselves) for things we wish were done differently. Forgive and move forward. Resentment is an ugly creature; don’t invite it to stay.

Don’t take life for granted.

The one thing we all have in common is that tomorrow isn’t promised to any of us. Don’t spend more time worrying about the future than you do enjoying the present.

As far as we know, we only get one shot at this roller coaster ride, so try to make the most of it. Hug your little ones tightly. Tell the ones you love they mean the world to you. Live with open arms and a sense of gratitude. You are alive. Make the most of it.

It’s hard to rebuild when your world falls to pieces. It takes strength and courage to heal, but above all it just takes time.

Just remember how lucky you were to have your loved one in your life for as long as you did. Know how blessed you were to experience the fullness that love has to offer. The truth is that love never goes away either, it just evolves into something stronger than anything the physical world has to offer.

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