My dad passed away in the early hours of a September day in 2016. While my classmates woke up to take their first exam of the semester, I was sitting in my childhood playroom looking at my father for one of the last times trying to fathom my life without him in it. If you asked me 4 years ago, I would have never imagined in my worst nightmares that I would be losing my dad at 21 years old.

My dad always had an essence of calm, cool, and comfort mixed with humorous slams that made absolutely everybody he encountered to feel loved and cheerful. He had a constant need to create, which is why his hobbies included everything from renovating bathrooms, building canoes, diagramming gardens, and baking bread — a modern day Renaissance man. He was, and still is, one of the most adored and respected individuals I have ever met.

coffee, beer, water
Kate Foody

Back in June of 2013, the summer before I left for college, he was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer and given only 9 months to live. Stage IV signified that the cancer was also in his lungs and would later spread to his liver and brain.

Being the man he was, his attitude was unwavering and his fight resilient, which helped him to live a full 3 years and 4 months — essentially unheard of for his type of cancer. On the Saturday of my Senior family weekend, I received a call from my mother explaining that dad wasn’t feeling well and wanted to begin hospice. The irony of sitting on the quad and being surrounded by joyful parents visiting their children was overwhelming.

coffee, tea
Kate Foody

He passed away 4 short days later. Days that were filled with countless amounts of visits, stories, photographs, and love. Not very many families have the opportunity to spend this kind of time with a loved one and have the sort of closure hospice brings, and my family cannot feel more blessed.

Through this unrelenting whirlwind of grief, I found myself scribbling down my thoughts and observations about losing my dad to be therapeutic. For those who have had the same or similar misfortune, this may not line up with your experiences or feelings and I am okay with that — my wish is that my (extremely) personal hardships, delights, and realizations can connect on some minuscule level with you. And for those who have not experienced a loss like this, I hope this will help you better understand what others in your life are undergoing.

"Sorry for your loss..."

Kate Foody

Resuming my normal schedule at school seemed to be impossible, mostly because I dreaded the unavoidable conversations I would have with people. Death makes people uncomfortable and in turn makes most things that come out of their mouth to be just as unbearably awkward.

Some people beat around the bush and are too nervous to address the elephant in the room and some spew out clichés — I’ve gotten used to both. Probably the most horrifying encounters were with the ones who didn’t even know who had passed away. “I’m sorry for your loss, was it your dad that died?” It felt like somebody had just slapped me in the face.

I felt surprisingly stranded

pizza
Kate Foody

The loss of a loved one at any time in your life is unbearable and heartbreaking, but losing a parent at 21 years old was surprisingly lonely. Even though I was being shown an abundant amount of love and support from everyone in my life, there is an extremely small amount of people who can actually understand what you are going through.

At such a young age most people have never experienced such a significant loss and that is by no means a disadvantage or a statement of jealousy, just an observation that may cause some disconnect.

Crying didn't feel accepted

beer, wine
Kate Foody

Our society seems to restrict public displays of mourning; we typically don’t wear black for weeks following the death and sunglasses are even used to hide tears at funerals for some. When I came back to school I felt that I should present almost cheery to my peers, even my closest friends, to show that I was stable and not weakened, as to not make anybody uneasy or feel awkward around me.

Restraining myself from tears to accommodate others only escalated to hysterical crying later on. Staying in by myself on a Saturday night to watch his favorite movie or listen to his favorite album once in a while is not antisocial or a cry for help, it's necessary for somebody like me who doesn't want to appear vulnerable. Allowing myself to cry when needed is refreshing and relieving, whether it's by myself or in front of a friend.

People want to talk when they drink

syrup, maple syrup, beer, liquor, wine, whisky, alcohol
Christin Urso

Maybe the most significant part of losing somebody in college is having more social interactions around alcohol. With a hectic and time-consuming schedule during the week, I generally see most of my friends on the weekends when we all go out to a bar together.

Perhaps it's because alcohol is present, or maybe it's because they don't see me often enough otherwise, but I frequently find people wanting to give me their condolences when I'm attempting to enjoy a carefree night with my friends. Even though their hearts are in the right place, this was not the ideal setting to bring up my dad.

Talking about him helps

beer, grass
Kate Foody

At first I hesitated to mention my dad, whether it was a joke he used to say or a song playing that he loved, especially when I was in a group of people that I didn't know incredibly well. I never wanted to be the girl that brought down the mood by talking about her dead dad.

But then it struck me that the person I am today has everything to do with him and anybody that wants to understand or get to know me must know him. Even though he's not here physically, he is displayed daily through my mentality, work ethic, and humor, and I need everyone to understand that.

Some of the most healing conversations I have had are the ones that begin like so many, "how are you doing?" But the question extends so much deeper when I can see that the individual is open and available to listen. It can be intimidating for friends to commence this difficult conversation with a grieving individual because they are nervous about finding the right words to respond. The best thing a friend can do for me is make themselves available to listen, and listen some more — it speaks volumes.

It's alright to be happy

cheesecake, cake
Kate Foody

I never thought I could feel so much happiness and sadness at the same time. Sharing jokes with my mom or brothers felt inappropriate and celebrating Christmas just seemed plain wrong. Losing somebody doesn't mean months or years full solely of sorrow and gloom, though. It's a reason for reminiscing and an opportunity to pay tribute to their life, and hopefully their memory brings you happiness and possibly inspiration.

I will be graduating from college this upcoming May and checking off this milestone without a hug from my proud father will be incredibly heartbreaking, but that's not going to smother the joy and pride that comes with this celebration. Just as with all my loved ones attending my ceremony, I have an incredible amount of gratitude to give him on graduation day, and I still plan to do that.

There's no perfect equation that will automatically navigate me through losing my dad in college and no easy fix that can bandage any hurting wounds. Everyday is a completely new climb that comes with a significant amount of pain, but also an abundance of love that carries me through these constant tests and trials.