Since my dad went on ahead a little more than 18 months ago, I have come to realize that when someone you love dies, you don’t just have to say goodbye to them at the time they pass away but also at every crossroad, every milestone, every big event. I’ve discovered that there are endless firsts and countless tough moments to get through, not just obvious ones like holidays and big events, but many others that are equally if not more challenging and shocking, which in many cases makes them even more difficult to struggle through under the heavy blanket of grief.

As children, we look forward to firsts – the first day of school, the first time to ride a bike without training wheels, the first time to ride the school bus, the first time to go on a date, the first time to drive a car. Firsts seem happy and are something we treasure. But somewhere along the line, we suffer a loss, things change, and we have to adjust. And then the firsts that come can bring about a sadness that is hard to shake, a feeling of extreme loneliness because you know the picture isn’t really complete and things aren’t as they should be.

And so as we traverse through the forest of firsts and other challenging moments in the midst of our shock, our sadness, and our grief, we are forced to let go, one finger at a time. For me, the milestones have been hard, sometimes really hard, but some of the most difficult things to get past so far for me have been the ones I didn’t see coming:

Topping the list are The Flashback Moments: The first time I went to visit someone in the hospital after leaving the one with my dad and knowing he wouldn’t be coming back. In the elevator when I was visiting that day, on the way up to see my friend, I almost had a panic attack when the flashback hit. It was a different hospital and a different reason for my being there this time, but when my mind careened back to a few months before, to the many elevator rides we took in the hospital when we were taking care of Dad, the unexpected flood of emotions that swept through me was shockingly debilitating.

When I hear about someone giving birth to the first child in their family and especially when I hear about how excited someone is to become a grandparent for the first time, I flash back to when my first child was born. As Dad happily took a turn rocking my daughter in the rocking chair in her room when she was just a few days old, I could hear him over the baby monitor singing to her and having a one-sided conversation with her, telling her that he was so proud of her and how he was so glad to be a grandfather at the age of 50 and that he thought it would be a good plan for him to become a great-grandfather when he turned 75.

There’ve been lots of other Flashback Moments too: there was the first time I went to a funeral after I’d buried my own father, and there was the first time I found myself in the pick-up lane at the airport and I realized that I was in the exact place I was when I found out Dad had a mass in his head. Every time I hear someone say “Howdy!” just the way Dad used to greet people in passing. Just recently, on our family vacation, I was standing on the sidewalk on Hollywood Boulevard and suddenly I was hit by the awareness that the last time I was in that exact spot, less than a week before my dad’s diagnosis, my life as far as I knew was as it should be. Hearing a song that Dad used to sing and recognizing that the only way I will ever hear his beautiful voice again is in my dreams is heartbreaking, every time it happens. The toughest of these Flashback Moments so far, though, was walking into my parents’ house the first time I’d been there after he wasn’t. During all of these times, my mind is pulled back to another time as I remember; sometimes it is to a happy, healthy time, but more often it’s to darker days that let me know I am still heavily in the midst of grieving. Even when the flood of memories from before his illness come to me in situations, I am almost knocked to the ground by the sadness and anger that come along for the ride too because I know in my heart that that’s how things should still be, with my family together, Dad singing and laughing, enjoying life as he always did.

And then there are The Stinging Moments, those that rub salt into my wounds, the ones that make me feel like I am walking on a very wobbly tightrope, like when I am watching TV and the story line is one in which one of the characters is dying and/or has cancer (or even brain cancer!). Like when I close my eyes to go to sleep at night and all I can picture is the image of my dad’s frailty at the end. Like the times when I’m searching for a contact on my phone or in my email and his name automatically pops up, such a cruel reminder of how I can’t talk to him anymore. Like just now, when I typed the number 18 in the first sentence of this post. Like the time I checked my calendar just a couple of weeks after Dad’s passing and I saw my notes about the trip to the Brain Tumor Clinic at Duke that we were supposed to be taking that week, and I was hit by another wave of realization about what had happened and what couldn’t happen. Like the ones when I feel like I shouldn’t STILL be crying so much or the ones when I lie and say I’m fine when someone asks how I am. Those are the times that I keep forgetting to expect, the ones that leave me with a just-slapped feeling that I’m not sure will ever lessen or go away.

Probably the most frequently occurring difficult times for me since Dad went on ahead have been The Empty Chair Moments, the ones in which I am startled again and again by his absence. I think about him many times each day, I fall asleep with tears on my pillow almost every night, and I talk to him in the car pretty often – so that part of missing him has become part of my routine these days. But family vacations and holiday gatherings, they are so tough without him, even worse than I thought they would be. I so often think about how he would’ve loved the things that we are all able to do, the ones that he isn’t still here to do … going the beach, riding a roller coaster, drinking a beer, swimming and lying in the sun on a hot day, playing with the kids, listening to the conversations and the laughter. All of those moments together that feel so great except for the fact that he is missing. The ones that make me tear up and grind my teeth and CUSS because I am just so damn angry, over and over again.

The first time I went on a run after my dad went on ahead, I got about a mile from my house and the tears started; being out there on the road by myself, away from any distractions and so aware of the empty space beside me, was tough, and I didn’t see that coming. It wasn’t that I never ran without him before; it was that this time I was running and I was so acutely aware of the fact that he couldn’t be. And he LOVED it. That day, I ended up cutting my run short and trying it again the next day; the second time I wore some of Dad’s running socks and things went a little better, but it still stung.

When my daughter graduated from high school a couple of months ago, I knew that getting through the ceremony without become a total emotional wreck would be tough for me for so many reasons, including the fact that her Gramps wasn’t there with us to see her and to tell her how fiercely proud of her he was. As I watched her walk across the stage and accept her diploma, I felt the love, the excitement, the joy, and the pride more than anything else, and I got through it without a tear, but what happened after the graduation that night was even harder than I’d thought the ceremony would be: my husband had made a dinner reservation for nine people at the restaurant where we went afterwards; however, when we got there, the table was actually set for ten. I don’t think anyone else except me noticed, but the chair that stood empty after we’d all taken our seats seemed like a blatant reminder to me, such a glaring physical sign of the very important person who wasn’t able to be there.

The first time we gathered for a family photo with one less, and every time since, we can all feel Dad’s absence so strongly – it feels like the reverse of a Where’s Waldo photo. Each time I start to call him and realize that I can’t. The first time I did something that I knew he would be proud of and I had to feel his pride in my heart because I couldn’t hear it in his voice or see it in his eyes. The first time he became a person whose name was being written “in memory of” instead of him writing that to honor someone else. The times when I need to ask him a question and he isn’t here to give the answer that only he knew. Ouch.

Another kind of moment that I didn’t see coming has been The Shadow Moments, the times I’ve seen someone doing something in everyday life that he would (should) be doing now … scenes that, if I squint my eyes and get the angle of the view just right, give me a second to glimpse what I can pretend is actually my dad, in the moment, here as he was meant to be: a man about his age running or biking, someone swimming in the ocean, a person sitting in the sun reading the paper and drinking a Diet Coke in a Sonic cup. All of it, underscoring the unfairness, again.

Also making the list are the surreal Not-Supposed-To Times, the times when I have to do something that I shouldn’t have to be doing – like when I visit his grave, like when we had to clean out his car to sell it, and every time I hear my voice telling someone who doesn’t know our story that my father passed away. Or the first time I had to mark the box next to Family History of Cancer and then write brain in the box beside Type/Other. Closely related are The Stand-in Moments when I am having to do things my dad should’ve been here to do – to worry about my mom, to tell his grandchildren that he is so proud of the good grades they are making, to give my mom and my sisters the advice that I think he would be giving were he still here.

And finally, there are The Obscure Moments, those unique to him and probably unappreciated by or perhaps even imperceptible in the awareness of other people who didn’t know him in the exact way I did: the first summer Olympics, the really hot runs of the summer (“Anybody can run in good weather,” he said at the start of every summer, “but it takes a real runner to brave very hot conditions.”), going to the movies and ordering popcorn and then saying “No way, but thanks anyway!” (as Dad always did) when the worker asks do I want butter on the popcorn, the times when I think of something that I know he would think is funny or interesting and I realize that I can’t share it with him. These things leave me with an aching in my heart because he enjoyed them so thoroughly and now he can’t.

The first Mother’s Day after he died was one of the worst days I’ve had in regards to handling the grief. I expected that first Father’s Day to be hard, but when I woke up on Mother’s Day that year, all I could think about was how my dad wasn’t there to honor my mom (or his own mom, who’d passed away just a few weeks before that first Mother’s Day), and my heart was unexpectedly full of sadness even more than usual that day. When we took my daughter to visit the college she will attend this fall: Dad was so good at meeting people and making everyone feel comfortable, and I kept thinking that he would have loved to be there with us to help her meet people and acclimate to the new surroundings and he would have been so proud of her and so impressed with her college choice. On the night of my daughter’s prom, just a few months after my dad died, the kids and their parents all gathered at a park before the big event for a photo shoot, and grief descended upon me like dew falling at night; it was the first big event involving my kids that we had to get through without him being around to know about it, to see the pictures, to hear about how much fun she had. And even the minor, the everyday times, that come in intermittent blasts, like when I see an Advil tablet dropped on the floor like he used to do or when I eat an apple and catch myself thinking I should just go ahead and eat the core too (“It saves time!” he reasoned whenever someone asked him about why he did it.) just like he always did. Those are the ones that pop into my head and shoot me with a spear of grief and all the emotions that come with it, but at the same time somehow those memories sometimes bring a smile to my face as I remember how unique of a person my dad was and how his viewpoint, his perspective, and his “don’t sweat the small stuff” attitude are something I will carry with me forever.

And with all of these unexpected moments, I am left to wonder: Does it get easier when these firsts happen again as seconds, and then thirds, and then so on? Do the shock and the pain lessen as the time when he was here gets further and further out, like a balloon floating in the sky?

Stephanie Lancaster 2012

Stephanie Lancaster

Stephanie is a graduate of the Program in Occupational Therapy at Washington University in St. Louis (BSOT) and also earned a Master’s of Science degree in Leadership & Policy Studies from the University of Memphis. She joined the faculty of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center Occupational Therapy Department in 2013. With over 27 years of experience in the field of OT, Stephanie has provided OT services to clients across the lifespan in a variety of settings and with diverse needs. She holds a specialty certification as an Assistive Technology Professional (ATP) through the Rehab Engineering & Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA) and as a Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) through the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). Stephanie hosts a podcast called On The air for individuals interested in occupational therapy. Her research interests center on the impact of technology in the clinical and educational arenas with an emphasis on instructional design and technology in teaching and learning for learners with diverse needs. Stephanie started blogging about her experience in grief in order to cope with the death of her father. She has found blogging to be a positive experience for several reasons, one of which is that it has helped her to connect with others who seem to "get it." She loves to share her story with others

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