My dad was the kind of guy that everyone gravitated towards. He was funny, he was witty and he had one of the biggest hearts I’ll ever know. My dad was the kind of person that would give his last penny to someone who needed it; the kind of person that was a box of a million hidden talents. He wasn’t just good at a bunch of different traits- he excelled in everything that he gave a hand to. He was always humble (but I use every chance I can as an excuse to brag about him), an incredible guitarist who wrote his own music and an insanely good cook who refused to ever write down his recipes. He was the ultimate handyman and seemed to have the answers to what felt like every question I had growing up. My dad was an artist who dabbled in many mediums, but had a huge love for drawing portraits. He was the love of my moms life, and really will always be the first love of mine, too.
I’m telling you this because eight years ago today, my dad passed away after suffering from a sudden heart attack. Not only was it the most gut-wrenching moment I’ve ever experienced, but it thoroughly changed who I am in every facet of my life.
Now, looking back on eight years without my dad, I wanted to write a post about the eight things I’ve learned about myself, who my dad was, and how to deal with grief – in the hopes that someone out there might see this and and know that, in love, and loss, and heartache, they aren’t alone.
Learning to cope is an imperfect process
The most common thing you hear after losing someone is always “I don’t know how you do it, I don’t know what I would do if I lost a parent, I can’t even imagine.” Well, I guess one of the biggest things I did learn was what I would do if I lost a parent. Life happens – you don’t have time to think or plan for how you’ll react. I was forced to grab hold of the ropes and take the ride for what it was. It’s the greatest definition of a heart break and it really, really hurts. It’s true when they say that you feel like you’re missing a piece of you. I remember the hollow feeling in my chest, it’s still there from time to time. Today, eight years later I still feel it. But you know what? I’m actually really damn lucky. I know not everyone is fortunate enough to have had a parent that was that close to them before they lost them. I get to carry on everyday, as a piece of my dad. It’s something I am the most proud of.
My Dad was more than just a dad
It’s crazy, at the time 16 didn’t feel so young- but looking back, it was so young. My dad and I always shared a super close relationship, but when you no longer have that person around you start to think of all of the things that you wished you had asked. After losing someone you begin to reach for anything that could potentially connect you to them. This means digging through boxes of photos, hoping and wishing that there was some sort of note left, finding some sort of letter that will answer all of your questions, really just anything to help you breathe a little easier.
Beyond being an only child I come from a small, not so connected family (also being that my dad was adopted creates a little barrier from his biological side) so reaching out to anyone I thought may be able to share photos and stories became a goal of mine. After some research I became a part of his graduating class’ online page after getting the idea from looking at his yearbook. I was put in touch with a ton of old friends, band members and neighbors he had grown up with. I learned things I had never known like the amount of time spent in his basement growing up, his elementary school-high school band names, or even the kids in the neighborhood remembering my mema (grandma) for her incredible spanish cooking. I received photos (!!) I had never seen, heard stories and had so many people reach out to me to tell me different memories they had shared with him. I learned a lot about this teenager who I never realized I knew. Sometimes you get so caught up on just thinking “well that’s my dad, well that’s my mom” but before all of that they were someone, too. It was such a treasure hearing how these people in his past viewed him. That people beyond my mom and I, who of course held him always on this high pedestal, felt the same way as we did just by the way that they spoke about him.
Something I hold close to my heart that really summed it all up for me was this little bit from a conversation I had with one of his dear friends and bandmates from high school. At the end of telling me a story about a time my dad proposed a new band name he said this: “I remember his facial expression, the inflections in his voice, just as if he said it yesterday. He was that kind of guy.” Oh man. It’s true, he WAS that kind of guy.
My mom was more than just a mom
Growing up as an only child in a close knit family, I always felt I had a really strong relationship with both my mom and my dad. I was always incredibly loved and I felt comfortable to talk to the both of them. Although we had the usual teenage fights and slammed doors, we never left without an “I love you.” One of the craziest moments of my dad being in the hospital was sitting down at the kitchen table with just my mom. I realized then that it was going to be the two of us now, that from that day forward, we were each others rock, best friend, and shoulder to lean on.
The next few years were tough. We had many lows together, which were accompanied with what felt like not so many highs. But for the first time in my life, I started to view my mom as a person without my dad standing beside her. I learned how many traits I had gotten from her and more about the things that she loved in the world. It was then that I realized I looked up to her strength, even as many times as it was challenged. Though we all handle what life throws at us differently, I knew that I had been put into the arms of the exact person who would help continue to support and guide me as I grew.
Life keeps going, despite your hurdles
My dad was unconscious in the hospital for a month and a day before he passed away, and for that month, my mom and I continued on with our regular daily lives. Bills weren’t going to pay themselves, and us staring at him in the hospital wasn’t going to change what had really already been destined to be. I still had to continue on with my junior year of high school and life went on. This isn’t to say our hearts weren’t shattered, or that our worlds hadn’t been turned completely upside down. Sometimes we sat beside him holding his hand, begging him to come back to us. This was just what kept us sane. Carrying on with our everyday lives never felt like it was a decision that I consciously made, but instead, one that came naturally. I went to school everyday and I laughed and joked and pretended nothing was wrong. I appreciated not having to talk about it, and loved that it was a secret to everyone outside of my close friends. I remember it eventually blew up in my face once everyone had found out he had passed- “Why didn’t you tell me?” they said. “I can’t believe I had no idea! What can I do for you? Do you want to talk?” I knew that everyone wanted to be supportive and wanted to be there for me. But the people that I wanted to let in, I did, and to tell anyone outside of that felt emotionally exhausting and as though the roles were flipped. I found myself telling them, “it’s okay, don’t worry about it. That’s life, i’m dealing with it.”
It’s so true – life keeps going. It actually steamrolls you when you’re down. You feel like your entire world stops for a moment, but then you stare at the strangers around you who have no idea, who are living their own lives and carrying on like it’s just another Tuesday – because that’s what it really is, in the scheme of things. I learned early on in this experience that life wasn’t going to take an intermission for me just because of what I was going through. I know, once I’m ready, that I’ll always be able to catch up to where I left off. That’s all we can really do, you know?
Sunrises and sunsets are the biggest reminder
My love for golden hour and all things related to the sun is a lot more meaningful than just a surface obsession, and it’s a love I hold close to my heart. Not only do I absolutely adore the magic it brings to my photos, but the most special fun fact of all is that it’s a reminder of my dad’s nickname; Sonny. Growing up all things related to the sun were super special to my family and now, with every sunrise and sunset that I witness, the missing piece of my heart fills up that much more. I believe he’s the one to thank for all the magic in my life and in my work!
His death will always be a huge part of who I am
I’m really fortunate that the best friend I had when my dad died is still one of my close friends today. No matter what, whether we see each other every day or every few months, he will always remember what I went through. After eight years, living in different states, having new friendships, and meeting the love of his life (I got to shoot their wedding, which was such an honor) – he still makes sure to acknowledge my dad when I need it most. I didn’t realize how many people I would really meet, or how many new relationships or great friendships I would build following my dads death. It’s hard to feel as though I have this whole new world filled with faces my dad never met. And although his death does not define who I am, it is a huge part of what shaped me. To meet me and to know me, I believe, is to know him and this story
I’m never really alone
To be honest, I’m not a religious person and never have been. It’s not to say I don’t support others beliefs, but just that I haven’t really completely found mine. Losing my dad meant that every time I would feel the need to wish, hope, or pray for something, I found myself talking to him. That when some sort of surprise happens, any tiny miracle – it’s always him. In a sense, my affinity for talking to my dad when things were challenging (or just because) created some sort of unordinary spirituality for me. I feel my dad in rainbow reflections that come through my window, in the golden sun that burns through my windshield, or even, when I’m lucky, in my dreams.
I’m stronger than I realized
I can’t count the amount of times I was told how strong I was throughout my dad being the hospital and then leading up the days after he passed away. I’d always kind of shrug it off. What else was I supposed to do? I felt like when my dad passed away, it was my job to step up and take the role as the person who was going to have to stay strong for my mom and I. The last thing that I wanted was the sympathy and attention that was going to come pouring in, so I just ran into it all head on. I started a series called “Dear Dad” on my Flickr account throughout his duration in the hospital, taking photos and sharing little bits and pieces of my feelings and what was going on in my life. I grabbed onto photography as a way to express myself, and it became the biggest crutch I could have ever hoped for. I took this horrible time in my life and created something that I would fall even more in love with moving forward- my artwork. I started receiving dozens and dozens of messages from complete strangers, some even from other countries telling me their stories and opening their hearts to me. Suddenly I felt that strength that everyone had spoken of, and I knew that it was helping me inspire others who were hurting in the same exact way that I was.
Grief truly is so much like the ocean. It’s vast, and deep, and endless. Sometimes the waves crash onto you and you wonder if you might drown there, wading out in the abyss. But somehow, you swim, And you keep swimming with the belief that – some time, some way – you’ll see the beauty again. It was so important for me to see the beauty this year, in the hopes that someone might read this and find solace in the fact that I’ve been through it and have come out on the other side. My passion for photography grew like a phoenix from the wreckage of losing the most important man in my life – and now, it helps me fly.