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5 Things Losing a Parent Taught Me About Myself

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When we lose a loved one, we go through many emotions, experiences, and sometimes changes. It was no different for me when I lost my father. In addition to the intense emotions and experiences I went through, I also experienced some unexpected changes that helped me grow and see myself differently. These are five of my most meaningful changes.

1. I defined myself based on someone else instead of defining myself on my own terms.

My father and I spent long periods where we didn’t speak. I was angry at him for many things. I even cut him out of my life at one point. So needless to say, it came as a complete surprise after he was gone to realize I had defined myself based on him. Many decisions I made, and even how I viewed myself, were based on an unconscious need to one day please my dad or have a better life than he made for himself. When I was mad at him, I wanted to prove to him I could live without him. If someone had accused me of any of the above while he was alive, I would have denied it and thought they were being ridiculous. But after he died, I went through a period where I had a hard time making decisions or viewing myself in the same way. This difficulty came from not having Dad around to base my decisions and viewpoint.

After some soul searching, I am learning how to base my decisions and view of myself on my own terms and no one else’s. It’s not easy, but it’s empowering.

2. I am stronger than I think.

When my dad first passed, I went through unbearable pain and sadness. There were times I didn’t know if I could get through it. I would cry at random times of the day and want to run away to a place where I didn’t have to deal with people. At the time, I thought I would never feel better. However, because I had a full-time job and was completing a yoga teacher training program, I mustered up the strength to show up to work and training in the best shape I could be in. For myself and my husband, I wanted to be present and take care of my responsibilities.

Over the last 10 months, I have found ways to work through my grief, and I have learned to separate my professional life from my personal challenges. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s made me realize how strong I really am. This new discovery has motivated me to think about other things I could do in my life that before my loss I didn’t think I had the strength to do. Sometimes a tragedy makes us tap into dormant strength we didn’t know was there all along.

3. There is so much more to discover about life if I open myself up to it.

When I was a teenager, I lived life to the fullest. The impulsiveness that can come with adolescence hit me hard and benefitted me in many ways. I would randomly go on adventures with friends, and I chose a college because it was my favorite and was highly recommended by some people I respected. I didn’t know how I was going to pay for it. I just knew my gut told me to go. So I did, and it changed my life.

The downside of this spirit, however, is that I ended up racking up a lot of debt in credit cards and student loans. When I entered my 30s, I decided to be more cautious and let go of my impulsivity. I became more practical and down-to-earth. The negative aspect of this practicality is that I began to put off a lot of my desires, postponing them for “another day.” I was so focused on being responsible that I forgot how to live every moment to the fullest.

Then Dad died, and something snapped in me. I woke up and realized I don’t know how much longer I have on this earth. Therefore, I better start living! Now I am focusing on living my heart’s desires because I don’t want to wake up one day and realize it’s too late.

4. Optimism doesn’t solve everything.

I have always taken pride in being a positive person. Anytime something would go wrong, whether it was a job loss, physical setback or family illness, I would look on the bright side. The event itself would make me upset, but I learned how to snap out of my negative feelings and see the positive in the situation. This worked like a charm for many things I went through, until my dad died. When a close family member dies, there’s no philosophy or clever quote that will help the pain. There is no “snapping out of it.” It is hard, brutal and intense. It was like nothing I ever experienced before. And it was uncomfortable.

What made my habit of snapping out of negative feelings so addictive is I am not comfortable with feeling anything but happy. I would rather do anything but stay in a negative frame of mind. This sometimes caused me to use optimism as an escape from “bad feelings.” Instead of dealing with my issues, I used positivity to shove them aside. Then grief hit me, and there was no escape. The pain from grief lingers, and it is overwhelming. I did not want to go down the road of trying to numb the pain through other means. My experience and knowledge as a wellness coach kept me from participating in self-destructive behavior. Without the option of escape, I made the choice to go through the pain.

It is not easy for me, but it is surprisingly empowering. I’m facing the pain instead of running from it, and it is a new thing for me. This is a day-to-day process, and I’m still working through it. However, I’m noticing that over time, as I accept and deal with the pain, it is becoming less intense. Optimism is not a bad trait, and I believe it is needed in many circumstances. I believe there needs to be positivity that balances out the negativity in this world. But it doesn’t solve everything. Sometimes I need to embrace my pain, and that is the only way I will heal.

5. It’s not selfish to put myself first.

I have always been a kind and generous person. My family and friends mean a lot to me, and I show it by being there for them. I am giving in many areas of my life. All this giving, however, doesn’t leave a lot of energy for me.  Putting others before myself has caused me to have empty reserves for my needs. And that is not helpful for anyone. The first change I experienced when I lost my dad was how much energy I had for other people. That reserve was low because I needed to take care of myself. The more time I took to take care of myself after my loss, the more I realized how much I had neglected myself before the loss.

Therefore, I made a conscious choice to put myself first before I tended to others’ needs. It sounds selfish, but it is actually selfless. Once our needs are met, we have the energy and reserves to give others 100 percent. The people we care about the most need us at our best, and the only way we can be at our best is if we tend to our needs first. Putting my needs first isn’t selfish, but it’s necessary so I can truly be there for other people.

When we experience loss, we don’t always expect to go through changes. But that is why loss is so powerful. Sometimes loss shows you a different way of looking at things. For me, I learned how to define myself on my terms, tap into my strength and fearlessness, not use optimism to escape from my grief, face my negative emotions and work through them, and most of all to put my needs first before I help other people. These changes have made me a better person, and I am grateful for that.

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Thinkstock image by lolostock

Originally published: August 7, 2017
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