On Grief and Strength – Centered Magazine

A Piece on Surviving Loss and Becoming a Strong Woman on International Women’s Day

March is Women’s International History Month, and March 8th is International Women’s Day, a time to celebrate women and the countless ways that we have contributed throughout history to society.

I am honored to have a piece featured in this special Women’s issue of Centered Magazine, the topic being Strong Women. My journey to becoming a strong woman hasn’t been easy, and losing my father has been the most difficult challenge of my life. Becoming a strong woman wouldn’t have been possible without his strength. I hope your enjoy my story, and that in your hearts you continue Running with the Big Dog.

Read the magazine online https://communitycenter.org.tw/what-we-do/magazine/ or get the magazine at your usual outlet.

Losing a father is a profound and painful experience, overwhelming with feelings of sadness, loneliness, and grief. The grieving process is different for everyone, and it can be a long and emotional journey. My personal journey of grief goes back a decade, with the pain of loss felt most acutely in autumn. November would have been dad’s birthday, and as I write this I realize it would have been his 75th. Looking back I find it amazing how quickly, and slowly, the time has gone since he passed away. Ten years is a long time, but it’s also a blink of an eye.

For most of us, change, loss and grief are hard. Even when we experience positive changes, we sometimes yearn for the way things were before. Intellectually we recognize that change, loss and grief are a natural part of life. Still, it is tough to let go of what we have known and to begin again. When my dad passed away, I grieved long, hard, and completely. His death left me shattered, and I felt incapable, helpless, and under-confident. His departure filled me with the dark void. It was years before I felt like I had the freedom and strength to move on with my life. Years later I realized that the thief that is grief was stealing all that was happy and good in my life, and I made the decision to change that. 

I would give anything and everything I have right now to have my father back in this world. He worked passionately, lived fearlessly, and loved wholeheartedly. He was my greatest ally. He was a titan. Too similar in fiery Iberian temperament, we didn’t always get along, but we were always close. It is hard to imagine life without someone like that, someone you can trace yourself in. Every time I think of the day he passed away, my head on his chest in our home in Hawai’i, when his heart stopped and mine continued to beat, I am engulfed in pain. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t miss him, or wonder what life would be like if he were still here, with me, his only child. 

I was in my 20s when he got sick, in graduate school and unsure about my future.  I was unfulfilled, unsettled and unfocussed. When he died, I had one semester left of grad school to complete and a thesis to write. In a blur, a haze I can barely remember, I graduated on time, second in my class,  and with a 4.0 GPA. My dad didn’t raise a quitter. But once I had my diploma in hand I collapsed for the next two years, and there I remained at an emotional rock bottom. I finally reached the point where I knew that I had no further to fall. So I took some of the biggest risks of my life. And since then, life has continued to throw me numerous curveballs, allowed me to experience adventure, and pushed me into situations that fuel my passions and intellect. There is good that can come from the bad.

But finding happiness isn’t easy. Sometimes, it’s disgustingly difficult, hidden behind your worst fears, and it won’t show itself until you build up your courage and fight for it.  But eventually, you will find it – as long as you don’t give up. I’m proof of that. But most people who meet me now don’t know about my life ten years ago. They don’t know who I was before my father died, or during the year when he was sick with Stage 4 brain cancer, or the few years after when I was consumed by grief.  I was a completely different person. They didn’t experience me during my grief or my metamorphosis.

They didn’t see the panic attacks and insomnia. The forty extra pounds of weight that I gained by being on antidepressants. The disappointing relationship I continued for years just to feel a little bit less alone in the world. 

They get to see the person I am today.  Quick wit and sarcasm, cracking jokes (that aren’t always funny). The unstoppable voice and mind behind the articles found in publications ranging from philosophy to feminist theory. The worldly expat with a zest for life and 37 countries under her belt and stamped in her passport. The doctoral candidate. 

The journey that shaped me into the woman I am today – the woman I am slowly but surely becoming – the woman I hope that my father would be proud of, didn’t come easy. There’s nothing quite like the death of your most favorite person, your support network, your closest family, to kick you in the rear and remind you of how short life actually is. 

I never for a second thought, in my 20s, that I would have to live the rest of my life without my dad. He will not be there to walk me down the aisle if I get married one day. I can’t call him on the phone to talk to him when faced with complicated life decisions. I can’t fly home to Hawai’i, hug him, and have one of his amazing home cooked meals. I can’t thank him for everything he’s done, or repay him for the sacrifices he made for me. I can’t return the inheritance he left me, still untouched, and tell him; “Take it back, I don’t want it! Travel, see the world like you always wanted to. Live out the dreams you put on hold to give me a better life.”

When you lose your favorite person, some of the things that you felt were important will quickly become a waste of time. You will grow and shift, become uncomfortable with your current life, and all of that discomfort creates pressure that forces you to reprioritize, re-examine and reshape the life you want to live. People call me strong but I don’t always feel that way. I have to remind myself that strong women are still allowed to struggle.

I used to fear expressing how I really felt on issues. I used to fear traveling to unknown destinations solo. I used to fear letting a man know what I truly needed to be happy, so I played games and didn’t stay true to myself.  I used to fear making rash decisions, or planning too little, or living without a sense of security. I used to fear change in any shape or form. Then life forced change on me and asked me, can you handle this? Or will you break? What are you made of?

I used to let these fears control my decisions, and my life. Grief sat on me like a boulder, getting me from moving forward, from growing, from progressing. In the heart of my grief, at my frailest, I grieved all that was stolen from me by death; love, security and even my very sense of self. But I now see fear as an opportunity to challenge myself, and prove to myself that I am capable of overcoming each and every one. I have traveled alone to countries on four continents. I’ve spoken in front of huge crowds on controversial issues alongside women I hold in deep admiration.  I walked away from a decade-long relationship that I was scared to leave even though it was damaging to my confidence, mental health, and self esteem. I applied for a PhD program, got accepted, and am on my way to having my doctorate – and I’ll be the first in my family to do so.

I feel every bit of that fear before speaking in front of an audience. When I left my well-paying full time job to lecture part-time at a university to focus on my academic pursuits. Giving my heart to someone new. When I take risks and jump into the unknown. 

And it is because I know that nothing I will ever go through – whatever problem, whatever issue, whatever heartbreak – will be as difficult as my father’s death.  If I can go through that trauma, that hardship, that depression, and make it out alive – I will be able to get through anything. 

Years later, I have looked back on the journey my grief has taken and realized that it has made me a stronger person. If my father hadn’t passed on, would I so willingly have taken on so many challenges? The journey of grief starts bitterly and ends at acceptance. I know that I will always miss my father, but I also know that his love and legacy will live on in my heart. I’m grateful for the time we shared, and I’m confident that I can face whatever life brings my way. 

Published by Jaclynn Joseph

Hawai’i born PhD student and university lecturer. Devourer of books, amateur historian, travel junkie and educator. A curious mind in search of the rational.

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