How Life Came to Be Without My Dad

My Dad & I, one summer day

My parents were leaving for Hawaii, another annual vacation trip my Dad had earned with his company as a successful stock broker. 

It was the early morning hours, maybe 4 or 5am, and I remember my bedroom door cracked just far enough for my Dad to peak in. My eyes barely open, my ears still in a sleepy fog, my voice not awake enough to respond. 

“Goodbye, kiddo.”

He shut the door quietly as to not disturb me anymore, but my 15 year old self was already annoyed. I begrudgingly rolled over in bed, back to sleep I went.

Little did I know, the darkness and silence that I indirectly asked for in those early sleepy hours, would become my worst nightmare just three days later. 

It was a typical Wednesday, my brother and I had gone to school (Mark was home from winter break as it was his freshmen year in college). My grandparents, who were “watching” us three teenagers while my parents were away, were at their own home that late afternoon. 

It was around 4pm when my Grandpa called. I answered the phone. He said he was on his way over to tell us something. 

I told my brothers what Grandpa had said, but they brushed off their little sister like any brothers would do. For the next 20 minutes, that didn’t stop my mind from wandering. Very weirdly, my first thought was, “Dad got bit by a shark!” Clearly not the most rational thought train to go down, but a sign of how our minds are triggered to enter a space of a ‘flight or flight’ response. I knew something was wrong. Whether I was diverting or maybe already unknowingly coping, I’ll never really know.  Because nothing, nothing, could prepare me for what was next. 

We stood in our kitchen, my Grandpa, brothers and I. My Grandpa, half bent over, supporting himself against a chair (which I now understand why, looking back on it). He was about to say the words to his grandchildren, that would haunt us for the rest of our lives. 

“Your Mom called from Hawaii. Your Daddy passed away this morning.” 

A moment in which time stood still. Time that I can still feel every second of, like it just happened yesterday. 

Greg lost his own weight from under him, sliding himself down to the floor as he sat propped up against the front of the fridge. Mark leaning forward, hands supporting himself against the counter, just as my Grandpa was doing at the table. And me? I leaned against the back of the couch, too, as we all just stared blankly at nothingness. 

Disbelief. Shock. An emptiness so heavy that no one could move, no one could stand up.

We slowly picked ourselves up after what felt like an eternity of silence, but in all different directions of the house because there were literally no words we could find to even speak to each other. I remember my Grandma arriving shortly after the news, not being able to stop crying. My Aunt came within the next hour, embracing me in a comforting hug that neither one of us wanted to let go. Yet it felt like I was suffocating in the same breath. 

We all continued to pace around the house because stillness didn’t feel right. Neither did the dinner that sat cold on the table. No one knew what to do. Word was starting to get out and the phone started ringing. Some of those conversations, I did forget. But what happened next, is something I will always remember. 

My brothers and I still hadn’t said much to each other that evening. We were all so young. Frankly, we felt lost in our own home and the two people we wanted most, weren’t there. Our Dad was dead, and our Mom thousands of miles away, unable to talk to us. 

I was standing in our foyer, again leaning against our staircase because supporting our own bodies proved to be impossible that night. Mark, my oldest brother, came up behind me, giving me a hug in a way he never has before (or since) and said, “We are going to be okay.”

That’s when everything shifted. I started to feel. My entire body sobbed. My eyes filled with tears of fear, sadness, uncertainty of everything I’ve ever known. But this moment, it also allowed me to grasp the slightest sliver of strength to finally feel like I could stand up, feeling my own two feet underneath me, no matter how weak they may have been. 

The next week was filled with moments that no child should ever have to experience. 

We had to wait two more days until we finally got to see and talk to my Mom. She had trouble getting a flight back home because rightfully so, she would not leave Hawaii without my Dad. The paperwork and logistics from the hospital to the airlines regarding the transportation of his body back to Illinois was a nightmare in and of itself (and also a thought that still makes me sick to my stomach thinking about). 

I remember standing in our kitchen again, now with my Mom, as she retold the whole story. How my Dad had been awake in the early morning, not feeling well. If I recall correctly, he was even on the phone with his doctor about his medications (he was not the epitome of health by any means, this was no secret). My Mom described how they went about the day, per usual, down to breakfast in the hotel. It’s, then, when it happened as they were walking back to their room. My Mom just a handful of steps ahead of my Dad in the hallway, she heard him say “Ter” (short for Terry). As she turned around, he had already collapsed face first into a chair. She yelled for help and everyone did the exact right thing, as did the emergency room at the hospital for the next four straight hours. But nothing would bring him back after he desperately spoke my Mom’s name in that long hallway. It was a sudden heart attack that took my Dad at the age of 47. 

And as my Mom finished her story, it felt no different. Like a story. Like none of this could be real. A feeling that stuck with me, until we saw things… him… for myself.

I remember going to the Mortuary. My Mom, brothers and myself, crowded around a desk as we picked out what verses to be printed on his Obituary card, what songs to sing at Church. I had been at this specific Mortuary before as we have grieved other losses here, so I oddly knew the place fairly well. But then we were taken to a set of doors I’d never seen before, and quickly realized why. 

Behind them was a huge room full of empty coffins. I remember walking through, looking at the details of each. It’s like we were shopping- but for the box that my Dad would be buried in. I can still picture standing in that room to this day, and it’s safe to say, it is an image I wish I didn’t remember.

My Mom had arranged for just us to go see my Dad, a day before his open visitation to all family and friends. She thought this was best (and of course, she was right) seeing that a full week had gone by since they originally left for vacation. But remember, the last time I saw him, was that vague outline of him at my bedroom door when I was annoyed for him waking me up. I think that is probably enough for you to get a glimpse of the guilt and regret that was eating away at me…

The next couple of days, with his wake and funeral services underway, blurred all together from a timeline perspective. I could go on and on with the endless emotions felt, moments and details we went through the motions of, all of which I still remember to a ‘T’. Some of which, however, I’ve never spoken out loud about. 

Most of them, you could probably anticipate. The gut wrenching, first phone calls I made to friends having to utter the words myself, “My Dad died.” The exhaustion as I stood through the long line of family and friends offering their sympathy, watching my Mom collapse in grief yet be the strongest person in the room at the same time. The pure sadness that overtook my entire being, as the priest read the letter that my same incredible Mom wrote to us kids. The emptiness I felt at the cemetery in the bitter cold of that January day, praying over my Dad one last time before they lowered him into the ground. 

Then there’s the things maybe you would not expect, or at least won’t be able to comprehend. How scared I was when I saw my Dad laying in his coffin, lifeless. And how they had combed his hair the wrong way, so it looked even less like him. They fixed it after we left and before the visitation the next day, but I could not erase what, who, I first saw. Another painful image of my Dad embedded in my soul for me to see every time I closed my eyes.

How I now spent every minute in that visitation line, looking at him, praying that he “look better” and “be at peace, Dad.”

How I begged him in my final goodbye, as I knelt next to him, to never stop watching over me. That I was now the one telling him that I will be okay and I just wanted him to be okay, too. 

That week, those moments, his death. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to endure. I was completely numb, but at the same time, feeling things so deeply, I still can’t put words to them. And this was just the beginning…

Grief doesn’t just go away after the all the services are done. The rest of the world may have gone back to normal, but mine? Mine was flipped upside down, and I didn’t have the faintest of clues on how to turn back around. 

The dreams where my Dad was alive, wishing they were real life once I woke up from them. My wondering mind, unable to focus on the math problem the teacher was talking about because all my mind could see was my Dad laying in a coffin. My lack of motivation, as I was suffering through playing the once enjoyable sports that undeniably connected me and my Dad. My unanswered prayers, unrealistically asking him just to come back home.

To top it all off, I was a freshman in high school, still trying to find my way. And overnight, I now became “the girl whose Dad died.” I felt like my own identity was taken, which only made me feel more lost.

Looking back on these years now, I don’t know if I managed or just swallowed my grief. But nonetheless, I was still a functioning, thriving high schooler. I earned my seats where credit was due: I continued to be a two sport Varsity player, studied my way into the National Honor’s Society, and was voted the Student Council President my senior year. I had friends and went to the school dances. I was still a happy teenager, just with a (very big) piece of my heart missing. 

I was thrilled to go off to college. I loved my Mom more than anything, but it had just been the two of us in the house for three years since both my brothers were in college. Add grief into an already hormonal teenager, and I was no cake walk for my Mom to now be raising me alone (in full circle parenting hindsight- sorry, Mom!). 

But college was an opportunity for me to start over, or so I thought. Nobody knew my history, and at first, I tried to keep it that way. Friends would ask me about my family and I would quickly say, “My Dad isn’t around anymore.” Vague enough for friends to wonder, but direct enough for them not to ask any questions. I did eventually speak up, but of course, it still was not easy.

In my 20’s, came my next challenge- dating. What is supposed to be light and airy, felt morbid and uncomfortable. My story wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies when talking about my family, so that was difficult and extremely intimidating to me. I just wanted a boy to like me for me, to not feel bad for me because what had happened in my life. (Just reason 734 why I knew Josh was the one.)

It took a long time for me to own my past, to talk openly and comfortably about my Dad and what I experienced with his sudden passing. The turning point? 

I accepted that my Dad’s death did not happen to me. My Dad leaving my life far too soon is a part of me. HE is still a part of me, forever

Some may think that would officially close my chapter on grief. That I experienced everything I had to, from a teenage girl to a grown woman, check marking all five stages of grief off the list.

But that’s not exactly how it works. Grief is unpredictable and frankly, undefinable, in my opinion. It comes in waves and the magnitude will certainly lessen, but it never fully disappears. If you lose someone you love, that piece of you can never be replaced. You will always feel the loss in some sort of capacity no matter how much time has passed- and that’s okay. 

For me? It’s the big milestones that still get me. The anniversaries, the birthdays (he would have been 70 just this last December), the living moments that he never got to see. My kids…. ohhhh my kids. That one still hurts, a lot. Josh and I talk about their Grampie to them, but it’s just not the same.

The fact of the matter is that I’ve now lived my life longer without my Dad than I have with him. I’ve learned to move on, but often wonder what life would be with him still here. A thought that makes me sad, but also very proud. Proud of what he must think of me now, of my own little family that I have created because my Mom and him taught me how. 

So on this day, a day that takes me right back to that very moment exactly 23 years ago, I turn my tears of sadness to tears of remembrance. 

To honor that young girl. And what she so bravely came out stronger for on the other side.

To remember, we all made it through together. We are all, indeed…


Enjoy the Heavenly view, Dad.
We love & miss you always.

Kenneth Alfred Sprott, 12/9/52 – 1/12/00

Until I see you again🤍

The letter my Mom wrote, read at the funeral by our Priest. There was not a dry eye in the Church…