It was September of my senior year of college when my parents saw me off at the airport for a semester in London. Not an openly affectionate family, I distinctly remember giving them both stiff hugs before heading toward the plane. I spent the following months experiencing beautiful cultures, people, foods, and scenery. However, 2/3 of the way through the trip, my father fell quite ill, requiring open-heart surgery. He pulled through, much to my and everyone’s relief, and began a slow recovery.
In December, at the end of the semester, I connected with a high school pal for a brief tour of Western Europe before returning to the states. Unable to access a telephone for a few days, I finally called home late one night from a youth hostel perched an incredibly beautiful hill in Koblenz, Germany. As soon as I heard my sister’s voice, I knew. “Dad died.” I stood there next to the payphone in a darkened breakfast room, listening to the horrible details. “We’ve been calling every hostel in Belgium and Germany looking for you,” she said. “We delayed the funeral for days, but then we couldn’t wait any longer.”
With the invaluable help and support of my high school pal, I quickly rearranged my travel plans and returned to the states. I arrived back home 2 days later to a world of grief. It wasn’t quite the homecoming I had imagined, as the shock of being thrust from the best time of my life into the absolute worst was almost too much for me to handle. And, as the Jewish religion requires immediate burial, I had missed my own father’s funeral. I missed seeing my extended family and the hundreds of friends and acquaintances who showed up to pray, hug, weep, and be present as my dad was laid to rest. I missed the traditions, the finality, and the closure. Most of all, I missed my Dad.
I don’t remember experiencing any of the typical stages of grief when my dad died; just raw pain and emptiness. My life had been completely derailed by sadness, and I felt as though I’d been cheated. Time with my dad had been stolen from me and there was no way to replace it. This was a permanent loss, and I was going to have to figure out how to move on. But it just didn’t seem possible.
Putting career plans on hold, I stayed busy with jobs in hotels and restaurants. In one of these jobs I met a colleague who had lost his 19-year-old son in a tragic car accident a few years prior. We talked about loss, and I asked him how long it would take for this ache in my soul to fade. He told me that the pain never goes away, but that the time in between painful episodes grows longer. Maybe it was my youth, maybe it was my sadness, but until then, I hadn’t even considered that I might carry this hurt forever. I felt both disappointed and enlightened. I realized at that moment that instead of waiting to unload my grief, I had to own it. And just as I would forever hold my dad’s spirit in my heart, I’d hold the pain of losing him, too.
Things didn’t change overnight after this realization, but once I decided that I could co-exist with my grief, I felt incredibly relieved, and even hopeful. I still felt sadness, but was able to accept it as an important part of the new me – the one who had lost her dad too soon. Losing him was devastating, but it has given me incredible perspective, experience and compassion, and for that I am thankful.
My dad would have turned 79 years old this month, and my kids and I baked a small cake in his honor. I felt a familiar twinge of sadness as I shared funny stories about him with my family. I wiped a few tears, gave and received a few hugs, and then put my sadness away for next time, whenever that may be.
Abby Helman Kelly owns and operates www.glutenfreeconnecticut.com. She holds a master’s degree in counseling psychology from Loyola University Maryland. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org