It's been four years since my Dad died.
It still feels surreal to say that. Despite the very real pain in my heart, most days my brain still has a hard time comprehending that he is gone. After all, it was just a regular Saturday. My parents were very much looking forward to their upcoming vacation with my aunt and uncle which was just days away.
My Dad went for a haircut before meeting my Mom at their Saturday morning brunch spot. They did some errands, picked up a few things for their trip, and went home to do the first spring cleanup on their yard before they were going to be away on their holiday. The rest of us were going about our Saturdays as well.
Overall, life was good. Spring had arrived. The sun was shining. We were all healthy and happy, and anticipating a future that we would experience as a family that was whole. We had no idea that grief and sorrow were about to come barging into our lives uninvited.
As a nursing professor who teaches palliative care, I discuss with my students that only 10% of us will die suddenly and unexpectedly. The other 90% of us will journey with an illness or increasing frailty towards our final moments. My entire program of research focuses on supporting family caregivers who will provide most of the care for this majority of people.
Somewhere in my heart I was expecting to someday (a long time from now) fill the family caregiver role and be able to comfort and care for my Dad in his final days. I was not expecting to receive a call that he had collapsed on the yard and rush over to join in the efforts to resuscitate him, which contrary to media depictions is a vigorous and violent procedure. Somehow I was expecting that someday my Dad and I would be given time to reflect back on life together and say our goodbyes. I was not expecting to be called to a very public scene filled with panic and kneel next to him lying unresponsive on the ground to immediately recognize that he was already gone. In a literal heartbeat my Dad was gone and our world was changed forever. We had no warning, no time to prepare, and no opportunity to say goodbye.
That following year was the most difficult year of my life. Grief is more than a brief time of sadness. It is a total body response to the loss of your loved one and the cascade of other losses that come along with that. Grief grips you physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually and pervades every aspect of your life. It is relentless. Just when you start to feel a glimmer of confidence that life will be ok again, grief comes out of nowhere and sucker punches you. It is exhausting.
A year after his passing I would still have vivid flashbacks to the scene of my Dad’s death. My heart still breaks and I feel completely helpless bearing witness to my Mom’s sorrow. I still have to fight back tears when I look into the brave faces and sad eyes of my brothers, sisters-in-law, and sweet nieces and nephews who are also trying to find their way. Family times are still precious but have become bittersweet and probably always will be. These moments we had anticipated are no longer being experienced as a whole family – a very important part of us is missing.
The “firsts” came and went throughout the first year and somehow the expectation was that we would now be ok, but my world is still upside down and I miss my Dad more now than ever. Simply put, my heart is still trying to figure out how to beat again when a piece of it that has been with me since day one is gone.
Grief has a way of provoking deep reflection. I am a deep thinker at the best of times so the first year took me to some especially profound places. On Father’s Day, just a few weeks after my Dad had died, I was sitting out on my deck weeping for my Dad. I longed to have him back and I just kept thinking, ‘What is the point of all of this?’ ’This’ being life. So many existential questions flooded my thoughts as I sat there sobbing, completely broken and lost.
After some time, I went inside for a moment and when I came back out there was bright, beautiful butterfly perched on my seat. There were three other chairs for it to choose from but it was rested right where I had been. As I approached it fluttered away so I sat down and seconds later it landed on my shoulder. For a moment I had a sense of complete peace before the tears started flowing again.
Almost two years prior to this butterfly landing, I had just moved home from Montreal and was without a car or the Internet for a few weeks. My Dad graciously, and joyfully, drove several miles out of his way to pick me up every day and bring me to the library so I could work, and then bring me back home at the end of the day.
One day as I sat outside waiting for him to retrieve me from the library I noticed a gorgeous butterfly amidst the vibrant flower garden and managed to capture a great photo. When my Dad arrived to pick me up I excitedly showed him the picture and, although he probably wasn’t truly as enthusiastic about it as I was, he humored me and we marveled at the butterfly together. That butterfly coming to me on Father’s Day carried with it a sweet memory of my Dad that elicited both pain and comfort at the same time. And in that divine moment, it also brought with it an invitation to reflect on what the point of all of this really is.
I can’t say that I readily accepted that tender invitation. Although my heart had so many questions, I wasn’t really ready to go beyond lamenting. I just wanted my Dad. It’s still hard to go there and to open my heart to understanding life’s meaning and the point of it all. In fact, I probably won’t fully understand it on this side of heaven. But just like the butterfly, truths have been finding their way to me.
One of the most caring and helpful things has been a friend asking me, shortly after my Dad was gone, what I missed the most about him. That might seem strange, but I was so grateful to be invited to talk about my Dad. At the same time, I was caught a bit off guard by that question. I had prepared some reflections about my Dad for his funeral, but it is very difficult to write a well thought out tribute within days of someone dying, especially when they are gone so unexpectedly. Even afterwards, I hadn’t really thought specifically about what I missed the most. I just knew that I missed him.
I have thought about my friend’s question many times since then. Even after having time and space to reflect it is still hard to do justice to an answer. How can I possibly articulate what I miss about one of the most important people in my life? I just miss him. I miss who he was. From a daughter’s perspective, he was one of a kind. Truly.
If there is one thing that I have always known it is that my Dad loved me. He loved us all in such a big way.
When I was hospitalized at 2 years old and parents were not allowed to stay past visiting hours, my Dad came back to the hospital every night and climbed a tree to peek in my window to make sure that I was settled and alright.
When a dear friend of mine died in a car accident, my Dad sat on my bedroom floor night after night, not saying a word, just being there until I fell asleep.
When I moved to Montreal my parents arrived in my new city before the moving truck. My Dad needed to see where I would be and told me that it didn’t matter how old his children got, he still wondered every night if they were safe and secure. And when the morning came, we would still be on his heart. Several mornings every week right up until he died I would get a text from my Dad: “Good morning Jamie! Have a good day! Love you! *kiss emoji*”. Those were my favorite texts.
My Dad’s love language was quality time. When the family was together he was in his glory. As a child, no matter what age, you feel loved when your parents are so clearly happy to have you around. For my Dad, quality time didn’t have to be a formal family gathering or even a planned occasion like a Jets game, dinner, or a games night that we often enjoyed together. He soaked up whatever time he could get, in whatever form it took.
I called him many times in need of “rescuing” from mice, or frozen pipes, or flat tires, you name it. He jumped at the chance to come help because it meant we could spend time together. He often expressed how glad he was to have this time and do these things because he didn’t have that same opportunity with his own Dad who died when he was young.
When I would come home for a visit from Montreal, my parents would be eagerly awaiting my arrival at the airport. And when it was time for me to go back, my Dad would often take the long route or do an extra loop or two around the block before dropping me off, anything to get a few more minutes together.
We could always count on pictures being taken to capture any time spent together as well. It’s been interesting to look through my Dad’s pictures and realize how he saw the world. His pictures were rarely posed and often blurry, but he cherished the moments and wanted to capture it all. He sure loved us.
My Dad worked hard to provide for us and give us experiences that have shaped our lives in many ways. With his business, he gave me my first job and through it taught me so many life skills that have helped me get where I am today.
When my brothers started playing hockey I wanted to play too but girls’ hockey wasn’t established at that time. My Dad and another father in the community started a ringette team, and for the next 23 years he was my biggest fan, faithfully pacing behind my net during as many games as he could attend. For more than two decades I travelled the country playing a sport that I loved, and competed with and against many people who are still close friends today. My Dad did that for me purely out of love.
My Dad had a joy about him that was contagious. I loved the huge smile that would break out on his face whenever he saw us, his laugh when he found something funny, and the twinkle in his eyes when he was being silly or waiting for us to catch on to one of his dry jokes.
I loved how he would playfully touch my Mom’s hair or ears as he walked by just to get a rise out of her and how he giggled when she started laughing about something and couldn’t stop.
He loved having fun and trying new things and jumped at any opportunity to engage with the grandkids and be part of the action.
I remember my Dad consistently choosing joy and peace regardless of any difficult circumstances or adversities that came life’s way, and as it happens there were a few big tests along the journey. I’m sure he had worries, but he continued to trust and his spirit always seemed to remain calm as he chose to focus on the things that really mattered – relationships, quality time, and joy.
Patience is a virtue, so they say, and one that my Dad had much of. I watched him make many big decisions in business and life, and he was never hasty about it. He was very thoughtful and took time to think and pray about things, waiting for the right direction to present itself.
When I would go to him with a decision of my own that I wanted his input on, he would patiently listen to me mull over the pros and cons, admittedly often on repeated occasions. Thinking back, he rarely gave me advice. Rather, he simply quietly listened and asked me questions, helping me to come to my own decision. There were so many fifteen-minute chats sitting in my car or standing in front of the coffee machine at his store that were so rich and eased my soul. He was never too busy but rather happy to make time. Whatever it was that was on my heart mattered to him and he always patiently helped me find my way.
The gentle spirit that my Dad held drew people in. Our family joked that he was a baby-whisperer and kids flocked to him. When I was a young child my Dad would come home from work and lay on the living room floor in front of the record player listening to oldies. I would just sit on his back quietly playing with my toys. I was content just to be near him. It was still that way now.
My favorite spot was sitting on the couch next to my Dad. Some of my most cherished memories are the spontaneous hours spent chatting with my parents nestled in their living room, always assuming our regular spots, just talking about whatever was on our hearts. I always appreciated my Dad’s gentle nature and his thoughtful perspective on things. At the end of the evening we would then gather in the entrance engaging in another lengthy conversation before we finally had a round of hugs and I leaned in to get a kiss on the cheek from my Dad. Somehow being near him always made tough days feel better and good days seem even brighter.
My Dad had a kindness and a soft heart second to none. Throughout my entire life I watched him give joyfully of his time and any other means by which he could lend a helping hand. He was sensitive to the needs of others and showed great compassion to those who were ill, hurting, or in need. He genuinely cared about others around him, no matter their age, background, or status. He chose to see the best in people and it was rare to hear him speak a bad word of anyone. He wasn’t perfect, but he was humble and would ask for forgiveness when need be, extending the same to others without holding a grudge.
I was so lucky to have a Dad with such a soft heart. I was the recipient of regular hugs (the good kind, like you mean it) and “I love you” was part of nearly every exchange with him. I had a Dad who laughed with me, cried with me, prayed for me, talked with me, and cared for me.
Not long ago I gave my Dad a gift and on it I had inscribed “A daughter needs a Dad to remind her of the comfort of being held near and feeling secure…to be the safe spot she can always turn to…to show her that true love is unconditional.” My Dad was that for me. And perhaps in a nutshell, that’s what I miss the most.
As I have reflected on who my Dad was and my relationship with him I have begun to more fully recognize how the fruit of the Spirit characterized his life. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galations 5:22) My Dad loved God and was living his faith out loud and my life was richer for it.
I wish I could tell him that.
My family and I, and perhaps others whose paths he crossed, have been impacted in a tremendous way by his love, joy, patience, kindness etc. Not only have we benefited from these things but we have also learned from them. And as gently as that butterfly landed on my shoulder on Father’s Day last year, I have been reminded that this is what the point of all of this is; our relationship with God and the fruit of the Spirit that is produced. This is what makes this life better. This is what lasts, long after we are gone. This is the work of the kingdom.
I am so very, very grateful for my Dad. He was such a huge gift. I miss him incredibly and I long to sit beside him, have another chat, and to be embraced by one of his hugs. But through the tears I see the beauty of this life when God’s hand is in it.
Thank you, Dad, for teaching me that. The greatest act of love. I love you so much too.
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