Beyond the grief: Surviving the death of my dad

By Kayla MacLaren, Londonderry High School

Photo by Ellen MacLaren
My Dad smiles at a restaurant in Maine next to a picture of his own father, who was a race car driver.

I wrote this story to let people know that it’s okay not to be okay.

I’ve overcome a lot of things in the past few years. This was during the worst time in my life. I went through flames, got burned, got back up, and carried on.

After everything, I’m still standing here today. I’m still healing, but that’s okay.

While you read this, some of you may relate to this and realize that it isn’t that far from your own story. It takes everyone a different amount of time to heal. I’m writing this while I’m going through the pain and grief. Maybe seeing someone who’s also going through a hard time and fighting through it, it will encourage you to fight a little harder.

So here’s my story.

He tells me he has cancer

My dad and I were best friends; he was my ride or die. In 6th grade I found the worst news any little girl could hear. I came home and found that my dad had been to a doctor’s appointment the same day, and seemed off to me. My mom was still at work and I just kept telling him to tell me what was wrong.

He finally blurted out that he had esophagus cancer.

I remember I bawled my eyes out for two hours straight. I was thinking, Why my dad? He’s the best guy anyone could meet, so why him? Why my family?

He started going to chemotherapy and radiation three or four days a week. He would throw up all the time; it was just like he had the flu 24/7. Even though he would feel like crap, he would still do whatever I wanted and spoil the hell out of me. I was only 10, so I didn’t know how serious it was because he would hide all the pain he was going through. It was so typical of my dad to try and protect me from pain. He was so strong.

Eventually, he went into surgery and he was in the hospital for about a week, which he hated because he always wanted to do something and have fun. After his surgery we would walk around the hospital and have many laughs. I felt like I had my best friend and dad back.

He tells me the cancer came back

Only a few months later, the cancer came back. I was at my grandma’s and he came in crying and told me it came back.

That was the first time I had ever seen him cry.

It was then that I knew how serious it really was. At that moment, I had to grow up overnight because I had to take care of my dad.

At first everything was going well, and even though the cancer came back, he was doing well. He had a lot of surgeries because he needed his esophagus stretched, but that wasn’t major.

My dad being my dad he was still being strong and doing whatever he could to protect me and shield me from his pain.

My dad’s side of the family loves bowling, and even I do. During this time my dad joined a league with his brothers, and they won a trophy and some money. He was so happy. I thought things were going well because he was going bowling and golfing all the time.

What we didn’t know was inside his body the cancer was still growing. Outside he appeared so strong, but inside his body was fighting.

These ups and downs went on for two years.

In and out of the hospital

Then I was in eighth grade. One day I came home thinking everything was fine, but only my mom was home, which was weird. She told me that my dad was rushed to the hospital because they found out he had three brain tumors.

I was so shocked because I thought he was doing better. None of us saw it coming.

My mom and I immediately drove to the hospital, and I just sat in the car crying very quietly, while trying to hold it in. When we got there I went into his room and saw this man I loved so much with tubes coming out of everywhere. This was not him. Seeing him like that was traumatizing.

I went over and I laid on the bed with him and told him how much I loved him. We laid like that together until he had to go into surgery.

Then my mom and I went with him to the pre-operation room. Both of us went into a waiting room where most of my aunts and uncles were. I tried being happy because I felt the need to make everyone else less depressed–even though they were also putting on a happy face for me, so I wouldn’t be worried about my dad. It never occurred to me that he wouldn’t make it through the surgery because no one really told me how extreme the surgery was.I just knew he would make it.

He did end up making it, but they couldn’t take all the cancer out. The cancer had spread to his lungs, esophagus and brain.

Throughout the month after his surgery, he started getting extremely skinny. But of course he was still acting really strong, and he would go out every day just to get out of the house.

Until he wasn’t able to anymore.

One day, two or three months after the surgery, I came home and my dad was sitting on the couch and we talked about how we were going to have a fun summer. I went upstairs for only five minutes while my mom and dad were still downstairs. When I came back down, my dad was on the couch soaked in sweat and his eyes were rolled all the way to the back of his head.

I started screaming because I was terrified. We kept shaking him and yelling his name, but he wouldn’t get up. I called 911 while my mom got him on the ground. Then I handed her the phone while I did CPR compressions.

Eventually three fire trucks, two ambulances, and three police cars came. I still have no idea why so many emergency vehicles came.

I stood outside while I watched them put my dad into the ambulance. They wouldn’t let us go with him, so my mom and I drove to the hospital in our own car. When we got there, he hadn’t arrived yet for some reason, and so we just stood there crying while people walked by, watching us with sadness on their faces.

He finally arrived, and he ended up being okay. The doctors thought the episode was caused by medicine or a seizure, which they treated. But they said if I hadn’t given him compressions, he wouldn’t have survived.

My dad gets worse and worse

Photo by Kayla MacLaren
My Mom and Dad enjoy eating out at one of their favorite restaurants, the 99.

A month and a half passed, and my dad was getting worse each day.

Two weeks before his passing, the last thing he wanted to do was go camping up in Maine. We had to bring up his feeding tube because he could no longer eat very well, but we made it up there.

I had my best friend come up with us because she was and still is my support system. She’s been there for me through everything, so it was really special to me that she came up with us even though my dad was sick. Dad said he wanted me to hang out with her, so I didn’t have to see him sick all the time. But at night I wouldn’t be able to go to bed because I was scared that he would pass in his sleep. Each night I would go into his room several times and wake him up just to see if he was still alive and okay.

When we got home from Maine, things really started to go downhill. He was falling down the stairs, or he would try to walk to the bathroom and couldn’t because he would always fall down on the way. I would wake up every night to my mom screaming because my dad had fallen again and had hit his head again. He hit his head a lot during those last weeks.

One night he fell and hit his head on the corner of his nightstand. He was bleeding everywhere and even got a huge black eye. He was so weak that he eventually became dead weight. My mom and I would do all we could just to carry him back to bed. Eventually, we had to get a hospital bed for our living room and he would just sit there all day.

It was getting harder and harder to keep it together.

One day I stayed after school to go to a football game, and I called my mom to ask her if I could sleep over at a friend’s house. She told me that my dad wasn’t doing well. I remember I yelled at her because I just kept denying the fact that my dad was dying and I would trick myself into thinking he was fine.

I ended up sleeping over my friend’s and the next day I came home, finding that one of the nurses from hospice was there. She told us that he didn’t have long.

I went in to say my goodbyes, but I couldn’t stand to see him like that. I started crying and the very last words I ever said to my dad were “I love you daddy and you’re my best friend, and you always will be. I love you.” After I said that, I rushed out because I couldn’t see him like he was.

Then about 30 minutes to an hour later, my aunt and I were outside and a huge tree fell. At that exact moment my mom came out telling us that he was gone.

I just sat on my porch with no emotion, while one by one of my family members arrived. I was numb.


Photo by Ellen MacLaren
My dad puts his arm around me as I stand in my bridesmaid’s dress at a wedding we attended.

Over the next few days, we planned the funeral and I wanted to give the eulogy. I’ve never seen a dead person, so when I first walked into the funeral home and saw him, I lost it. Although it took time to build myself back up, I eventually got comfortable with reality.

The place was beautiful. We had a slideshow going and many posters filled with pictures of him hung up for people to see. We also had a table of all his hats, because he would always wear a hat.

When I gave the eulogy, I didn’t feel a thing. I was still very numb. A lot of people came up to me afterwards and told me how brave and strong I was, but the truth is I was just talking about my best friend. It wasn’t hard because it didn’t completely sink in that he was gone. I thought he was going to get up any second. I had to just stand there while random people I didn’t even know said their condolences.

Even after the funeral I spent more days numb waiting for him. I would trick my mind into thinking that I was okay.

School wasn’t going great either. I got bullied for a while, but finally realized that I shouldn’t give care what they think. It still really hurt what people said because I had extremely low self esteem, and it just made me hate myself. I was extremely depressed and people just kept adding on and on because they didn’t even know half the things I was going through.

Meanwhile, my home life was not good at all, so I had to take care of that. Since I was busy taking care of my home life, I never really got a chance to grieve. I developed PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), where I was reliving all my dad’s falls and panic moments through flashbacks. My aunts, uncles and mom all told me to go to therapy, but at the time I would hide all my feelings and not show any emotion, so I thought I didn’t need it. I thought I was doing fine.

Four months later I started therapy. I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and I still am today. Therapy really did help me. Before, I didn’t really believe in it because I thought it was really weird to talk about personal things with this random person, but once you create a connection, it really does make you feel less alone.

One thing that has always helped me through everything is all my friends and family. I love each and every one of them so much, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without them. My family is the best. They were there for me through all of it. My aunts and uncles have helped me out with everything I’ve ever needed. My dad loved them. They would do anything for my family, and I hope they know that I would do anything for them. It’s been a tough time for my mom as well. She’s been trying so hard to be there for me. I want to thank my mom and the rest of my family.

My friends also really helped me escape the pain and helped me try to be an actual teenager. They always make me laugh and smile. They are the type of friends who I can put all my trust in. I want to thank all of them, for all that they’ve done for me.

Right now I’m starting to focus on myself and try to be a “regular” teen.

I’m amazed that things do really get better. I wouldn’t say you get over a death, but I would say you get through it. As time goes on, things get easier, but you’ll always miss the person.

I think about my dad every single day. He was my best friend and I’ll never forget him. It’s sad to think that he won’t be able to walk me down the aisle or see my kids, but he’ll always be a part of me that will never get replaced.

The whole time I was going through this, I thought I was okay and I just kept telling myself that I was okay, but the truth is I really wasn’t okay. I was shoving my feelings down and trying my hardest not to show them. It really wasn’t healthy, but I thought I was being strong. I had the feeling that I had to be strong for everyone else. While I was pretending to be okay, I never felt more alone because nobody thought I was falling apart when I really was.

The reason I wanted to tell my story is because I want people to know that they’re not alone and that it does get better. For people who have trauma or have lost a family member or a parent, just know that it does get better. It’s terrible while you’re living through it, but you just have to stay strong and get through it.

This story was originally published on The Lancer Spirit on November 18, 2019.