He was my hero. Not because he was my dad, but because of who he was as a person. If you had a parent who loved you unconditionally, led by example and supported you through everything, you know exactly what I mean.
My dad passed away on October 17, 2016 at age 64 from Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer. I was 23 years old. My brother was 21. He left this world and our family with an extremely large hole in our hearts.
Losing a parent at any age is heart-wrenching. But there’s something different about it happening in your 20s. You feel torn between an adult and a child. Part of you wants to crawl into the darkness and die, too. Part of you knows that life must go on.
Hopefully this blog provides some solace for those who are going through a similar situation. To the friends and family of a person experiencing a loss like this, I hope it puts their grief into perspective and gives you the tools to comfort them. To those who still have both of their parents, I hope this makes you hug them a little tighter next time you see them or linger a little longer on your next phone call.
Here’s what losing a parent in my 20s taught me.
It Makes You Reprioritize Your Life
When my dad died, nothing mattered. I had to make a conscious effort to keep going so I wouldn’t slip into a deep depression. I knew that I had plenty of responsibilities as a recent college grad, but I had to seriously think: were they worth it?
In your 20s, you’re always looking ahead. It can be difficult to focus on what’s important right now when you’re trying so hard to get a grasp on adulthood and plan for your future at the same time. Losing a loved one makes you pump the breaks and puts your priorities into perspective.
After losing my dad, I spend much more time doing the things that I love. I spend more time connecting with my family and friends. I spend more time doing activities that remind me of him. I’ve found that life is too short to be constantly looking forward. I’m learning to reprioritize the “right now,” because it’s all I have.
You Regret Not Spending More Time With Them
No matter how much time you spend with your parents, the time you’re given with them is never enough. When my dad died, I felt a soul-crushing amount of guilt. To be honest, I still do. I think of all the times I should have stayed in to hang out with him instead of going out with friends. For all the times that he wanted to hold my hand in public when I was younger and me being too embarrassed. For all the times I didn’t pick up his calls.
As I got older, I knew how important spending time with my dad was, but I never knew just how limited that time would be. I’d give anything to have just a few more moments with him.
There Are So Many “What Ifs”
Because my dad passed away from an extremely aggressive form of cancer, our time with him after his diagnosis was short. 39 days to be exact. Looking back, there are a lot of “what ifs” – signs we may have missed, symptoms we should have taken more seriously, conversations we should have had. The list is endless.
I replay those 39 days over and over in my head. I go back to 2016 and relive every time I saw him. Could I have known then? Was he sick then and we didn’t even realize? Should I have come home more? It’s agonizing to think you could have done something to change the outcome of something that changed your life forever.
You Think About The Future
I lost my dad 2 weeks after getting engaged to the love of my life. We were lucky enough to get his blessing before cancer took him, but I can’t help but cry when I think about all the things he’ll miss out on. When you lose a parent in your 20s, you realize how much life you have left to live without them. My dad never got to walk me down the aisle at my wedding. We never got to share a daddy-daughter dance at our reception. He missed my promotion at work and my brother’s college graduation. He’ll never get to hold his grandchildren or see our first home.
Your 20s are a formative time in your life. You speed through so many milestones… milestones that your mom or dad should be there for. Graduations. Engagements. Marriages. Babies. Buying a house. Landing your dream job. For every celebration, there is an aching sadness that goes along with it. You think about the memories you’ll never get to make.
You’ll Never Take Anyone For Granted
After losing a parent at a young age, you may do one of two things – you may push everyone in your life away from you OR you’ll pull them ever closer. Why do we do these two things? For the same reason: the fear of losing someone else.
We push people away because we try to emotionally disconnect, hoping that we don’t feel “anything” if something were to happen. On the other hand, we pull our loved ones even closer because we can’t imagine losing any more precious time with them.
For me, I spend far more time appreciating the wonderful support system I have in my life. I’m lucky to have an extremely close family, friends that might as well be family, and a husband who would go to the ends of the earth for me. Sometimes, I just find myself just staring at Andrew or my mom or even my friends, trying to memorize their facial features, their mannerisms, their laugh… because you don’t realize how fast those memories start to fade once your loved ones are gone.
You Realize Your Own Mortality
You don’t quite realize how short your time on earth is until something life-altering happens to you. Losing a parent, especially when it felt as if it wasn’t their time to go, really puts things in perspective.
Death is a scary thought for most. It forces us to think about what’s next, about leaving loved ones behind, and even the harsh reality of not accomplishing everything you set out to do in this life. For most of us, losing our mom or dad forces us to face death in an intimate way at a young age. We’ve seen death in a way that most people won’t experience with their own parents until 20 or 30 years down the road.
Losing a parent in your 20s is the ultimate wake-up call that our life here on earth is time stamped.
Some Days are Worse Than Others
People always think that the holidays are the hardest for those who have lost loved ones. Or, maybe certain dates like birthdays or anniversaries. The truth is, some days are worse than others – but those days are unpredictable.
Maybe it’s a Tuesday, and you’re driving home from work and a song comes on the radio that forces you to completely break down. Maybe it’s a Sunday afternoon at the park and you pass a dad pushing his young daughter on a swing and you’re instantly catapulted back to the same moment with your own father.
It’s not the holidays or the “special days” that are that hardest. It’s the Tuesdays or the Sundays that suddenly jolt your senses and break you down. Those days are the hardest.
Life Moves Forward, And So Do You
I hated writing that last line. Why? Because it’s not fair. Life shouldn’t move on. The day my dad died, I remember driving to the funeral home and seeing people talking and laughing, walking down the street. I remember thinking how fucked up it is that these people’s lives could go on when his couldn’t. When ours couldn’t.
The saying that time heals all wounds is a lie. Time doesn’t heal wounds; it forces you to learn how to cope with the pain. This quote by Anne Lamott describes it perfectly.
“You will lose someone you can’t live without,and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”
My dad lives forever in my heart. It’s broken and bruised, but it’s still beating. He lives in me and his presence surrounds me more than I realize – when I see the first snowflake of the season, when I hear a Beatles song, when I smell garlic, when I feel the softness of his old sweatshirts, when I taste Italian cookies. My five senses have a way of paying homage to him, wherever I go.
For anyone going through the same thing, my advice to you is this: let yourself feel. Let yourself remember. Let yourself grieve. But, also let yourself be happy. Let yourself see hope. Let yourself learn to dance with the limp.