I Was 23 When My Dad Died. This Is What No One Tells You About Losing A Parent In Your 20s.

The author with her father.
The author with her father.

The author with her father.

On Jan. 2, 2023, after an unexpected, “You need to get to the hospital now” phone call, followed by three nights of sleeping in a hospital chair alongside my siblings, listening to our mom cry and holding her hand as we anxiously listened for my dad’s last breath, he died. Being the first one to notice he stopped breathing, realizing he was really gone as he lay in my mother’s arms, remains the single worst feeling I hope to ever experience.  

When I wasn’t grieving the loss of my dad for myself, I was grieving the loss for my mom and my siblings. It’s one thing to have a family member die; it’s another thing seeing everyone in your family break down simultaneously. It’s heartbreak compounded by heartbreak.

Just before my dad was diagnosed on Sept. 19, 2022, I had a feeling I was about to have my best year yet. Twenty-three felt good. Two months prior, my dad had helped me move into my first “big girl” apartment. I was finally making strides toward so many things I’d been working on professionally and personally.

The second my dad was diagnosed, that all crumbled and I was faced with the question: What do you do when, right as you get your feet on the ground, you suffer a loss so great that your sense of reality collapses? 

Amid all of the realizations I didn’t expect to have when dealing with loss, one of the biggest was that a huge part of grief is grieving who you were before your loss. Grief in young adulthood feels like an earth-shattering blow just as you start to find a sense of stability.

Up until my dad passed away, the only deaths I experienced were those of people who lived good, long lives. I hadn’t even considered the possibility of losing someone like my dad. Before my dad got sick, I was worried about figuring out who I was and where I was going, not who I would lose or what impact that would have on me. 

I found that when you’re one of the first people in your circle to suffer a huge loss, you end up carrying the weight of grief all by yourself. I knew only a few people around my age who had a similar experience. It was comforting to connect over shared sadness, but none of us had the answers to “Where do I go from here?” or “When am I allowed to try being happy and how do I start?” At times it still feels like we may never get these answers we desperately need. 

During one of the several sleepless nights after my dad died, I turned to Google to fight how isolated I felt and try to find some clarity. I needed someone to tell me what to expect. But all I found was advice for kids, teenagers or spouses. I knew people my age had been through this, but I had no idea why no one was talking about the unique impact of grief on young adults. I realized I was going to have to try to figure out what’s ahead on my own. 

The first question that washed over me was “I want to live a long, happy life, but how can that happen when so far time just makes things harder?” The idea that I have (hopefully) decades left to experience my evolving grief is terrifying. All the rites of passage that I expected my dad to be a part of — walking me down the aisle, meeting my future children — are now tainted because I’ll be faced with the reality that he isn’t there with me. 

I’m still trying to come to peace with the fact that the world I lived in before my dad was diagnosed will never return. I still feel a sting in my chest when I see a dad and his daughter walking down the street. I can’t help but get sad when I achieve little things I know my dad would be proud of, like building a table by myself, or switching the batteries in my smoke alarm. When I realize I can never again call him and hear, “That’s great, Emmers!” 

The author as a child with her dad.
The author as a child with her dad.

The author as a child with her dad.

I’m still grasping the fact that despite all the time I have left, I’ll never “get better” because “getting better” implies you’ll recover, when in reality, grief leaves a permanent mark.

I don’t have the answers to how you can heal from grief. What I do know is that the only way to move forward is to let yourself feel it, no matter how painful it may be. It sounds simple, but my favorite thing to do on my darkest days is to act like I’m OK, making myself so busy that the reality of loss doesn’t even have the chance to enter my thoughts. But the only times I have actually felt as if I were making progress are the moments when I really let myself collapse under the weight of loss. 

When I first got to the hospital after that awful phone call, I sat with my dad and, through my tears, I asked: “If there is one lesson you could make sure I don’t forget when you’re gone, what is it?” He held my hand and said,“Give people second chances and just try to be a good person. That’s it. And know you’re gonna screw up and make mistakes. Know it. It’s gonna happen. It doesn’t matter.”

Even though he’s no longer physically here, my dad is with me every day because I now live my life based on those words. It’s a unique challenge to lose someone so close to you at such a transformative stage of your life. What keeps me going is the hope that, one day, the good will outweigh the bad.

I have to believe that even though it will never be “fair” or “OK” that I had to experience this loss at this age, it will make me a better, stronger version of myself. 

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