10 Things I Learned From Dealing With The Death Of A Loved One

10 Things I Learned From Dealing With The Death Of A Loved One

1. I really don’t feel qualified to write this article.

2. I wish I wasn’t qualified to write this article.

I lost my dad, my hero, and the first man I ever loved on January the 11th 2017 to lung cancer. My father suddenly developed a deep, science-fiction-scary cough unlike anything my family had ever heard before. It wasn’t the kind of cough that comes with an ordinary cold. It was the kind of cough that makes anyone who hears it — even strangers in the next aisle over at the store — nervous. It was a warning. An omen. We just didn’t know it.

The cough persisted for months, and after an incorrect diagnosis, in June of 2016 we finally learned that it was lung cancer. Even now it takes a few seconds for the full meaning of the words “lung cancer” — and everything that that term brought to and changed in my life — to register for me. I was 20 years old and not ready to continue growing up without my dad. I don’t know if you can ever be ready for growing up without a parent, but if you can be, I sure wasn’t. Six months after learning that he had such a short time to live, my dad died. Those six months were the saddest, strangest months of my life. We moved through them in cartoon like slow motion.

Buddha said it best when he said, “The trouble is we think we still have time.” That was me. I thought I had time left with my dad. He was invincible, as all great parents are, and he could deal with anything that ever came his way, just like all great parents can. My dad was the best of the best in my eyes. He was funny, he had the biggest heart, and he had an iron will (that I am proud to say I have as well) that rivaled anyone on earth. My dad was the best man I knew, and I didn’t think I could survive one minute without his love, words of wisdom, or his sense of direction being just a phone call away.

But here I am. Not only did I survive a minute, I survived a whole year. Did I have times I wanted to give up? More than I care to admit. Were there times I had to run out of a room to keep myself from crying harder? You better believe it. There were days that I didn’t even get out of bed. But, as I sit here now one year later and look back at the past year, I have realized a few things, and I feel compelled to share them.

1. It’s okay to cry


Cry for as long as you need and as often as you need. My friend once read me a quote that said, “Salt water is the cure for anything – sweat, tears and the sea.”

You will cry more tears after losing a parent than you have ever cried in your entire life. And that is okay. Grief is a process that everyone works through differently, and it’s okay if one minute you are happy, and the next you see something that reminds you of your parent and you burst into tears. I saw an old man on the subway last night and burst into tears, it doesn't mean you're emotionally unstable, it just means you're human and you feel. It’s going to happen more often than you are prepared for, so just be ready.

2. It never really gets easier

I remember at his funeral, a family friend told me “time will heal the pain – it will get easier”. This, unfortunately isn’t true. He’s gone, and he’s not coming back. It’s never any easier to realize that. What does happen, though, is your ability to cope. It gets better. You become stronger. You focus on the good instead of the bad.

3. Good memories are basically gold

Family Christmas parties, everyone playing whatever utensils they could find and home made dinners everyday after school, the sound of music from my dads guitar constantly filling the walls of our home. Pulling me up hills on my bike when I was too lazy to cycle anymore and the absolutely anarchy that came from teaching me how to read an analogue clock. After months of no appetite, remembering all the times we would sneak to get chips and ice cream after school and the Sunday morning fry ups. I can still hear his voice. All of his quirks are now things I remind myself of when I’m feeling down. But you find parts of people in different members of your family, when I think of music, good food, hospitality, entrepreneurial flairs, and hard work I think of dads nephew and nieces. When I think of dads good soul patience and creativity I think of my sister, when I think of dads knack for just about anything athletic, academic and addictive personality I think of my brother Danny. And when I want to believe in soul mates I think of him and my mom. And in that sense he is never truly gone.


4. Have a good group of friends around you that will encourage you to grieve, but not let it take over your life

There are going to be days when you want nothing more than to curl up into bed, turn off your phone, and sob for hours on end. And as I said earlier, that is okay. But, you need to have a group of friends in your life that when you need to come out of that hole, those friends will be there with you to pull you back up on your feet and walk beside you toward the days ahead. I have amazing friends that have done that for me, and they have saved my life more times than I can count. Find those friends and hang on to them. Be ready to reach out to them whenever the need arises.

5. The words “I’m sorry” become numb to you

Once you tell people the story of how you lost your parent, their default phrase is, “I am so sorry.” Once you have heard it 50,000 times, you will put on a fake smile, nod, and say it’s ok. Losing a parent turns you into the actor/actress you never knew you were.

6. It’s okay to be mad

There are still days when I think about all of the things my dad is going to miss, and it makes me so angry that he is gone. He won’t get to walk me down the aisle at my wedding, he won't see my children and he won't be there when I need to call up someone and talk with them about decisions or to give me advice. I miss him. There are days when something incredible or awful happens to me and I want to tell him, but I can’t. There have been people I have met who I have loved and people who I have met who have upset me and betrayed my trust, jobs that I have excelled at and jobs that I have hated, and other assorted triumphs and nightmares that I wanted him to know about.


You are going to be so mad some days that you can’t even see straight. And that’s okay. Death is something humans cannot fully understand, and being mad when it effects our lives is normal. I’m here to tell you that it is perfectly okay to be mad. You will get over being mad and remember all of the good times you had with your parent. It will take a while, but it will happen.

7. Sometimes it’s out of your control

Watching someone you love suffer through excruciating pain day-in and day-out is one of the worst experiences you can imagine. You can only stand by, hold their hand, and try to distract them from what they are currently feeling. You feel helpless, and you want to take on the pain for them. Sometimes, all you can do is be there for them.

8. Don’t let someone who has never experienced the loss of a parent tell you when you should stop grieving

Grieving is a major part of healing, and healing takes different amounts of times for everyone. Take as long (or as short) as you need. There is no time limit on the grieving process.

9. You will survive


This is the tip that has taken me a year to realize. When you lose a parent, you will be left with a hole in your heart, a void that no one can ever fill, and you wouldn’t want them to. You will have days that you want to quit and just go hide under the covers. But you will survive.

There will be days that you doubt this. Sometimes, you might have 12 of those days in a row, but you will get up, you will be able to put one foot in front of the other, and you will be able to not only survive, but thrive. Yes, your heart will hurt all the time when you think of your parent, but know that if your parent was anything like mine, they were proud of you. You have a legacy to carry on, so get to it.

Losing a parent is the hardest thing you will have to deal with in your life. My dad’s death was a tragedy. I wouldn’t wish the last week I spent with him on anyone, but I also wouldn’t give them up. They’re mine. And I learned so much about who I am, who my father was, what it means to love, what it means to lose something you foolishly thought you wouldn’t lose and, ultimately, what it means to then have to carry on — what it means to get up every day and keep going.

In the last few days I remembered some of my earliest memories of my father’s love in action, and it returned to me when I was lying in his bed just a day or two before he started to become a shell of himself — alive but only functionally, with no sign of the man who had once lived inside his body — and he drew enough breath to whisper, “Words cannot describe how much I love you.” In that instant my heart stopped, and then, just as quickly, it swelled to fill my entire chest — fill my entire body, fill every moment I had lived up until that point — and I knew then exactly what was happening and finally came face-to-face with what it means to be loved and to love, and for that to be both everything and still not enough.

I couldn’t stop what was happening. I couldn’t fix it. I could barely understand it. I just knew I was loved and told him that I was lucky to have spent even a day — even an hour — with him.

10. Someone told me the other day that I can't make everyone happy

Whether they meant it in a productive way or not- it's true, and if I am honest it is not a realistic goal to make absolutely everyone happy, but after this year I am not going to go for lack of trying to spread kindness towards others. You never EVER know what is happening in other peoples lives. You can always make a difference. You may just be one person in this world, but you can join forces with others. I have made it my life mission to raise money towards finding a cure of cancer, and that’s why I ran the NY marathon in November. For someone who needs hope. For someone fighting for their life. For someone like my dad.

Also Read: Coming To Acceptance With A Loved One's Terminal Illness

Katie McMahon

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