Learning through loss

The loss of my father changed Christmas time forever. It changed me too. But in coping with his loss, I’ve also come to focus on the lessons he left behind.

I remember getting a San Jose Sharks hockey jersey for Christmas in 2007 labelled “From: Santa, To: Dennis.” It was obviously from my mom and dad, but regardless, Santa always gave the best gifts.

That year was a traditional Christmas morning for all of us. My mom, my dad, my brother, my grandmother and me were all exchanging gifts early in the morning while sitting around the Christmas tree in the pyjamas our grandmother gave us earlier that morning. But that jersey was the most memorable gift I’d ever gotten. My dad never really did gift shopping. Yet, this time, I knew he was the one who went and got it for me.

The holiday is known, after all, for bringing family together regardless of what may have occurred throughout the year. The Christmas season of 2011, however, was a different story for my family. It all started on the night of Dec. 4.

I knew something was wrong the moment my mom didn’t answer any of my phone calls on the night of Dec. 4, 2011.

Even from inside my house I could hear the bone-chilling wind whistle. The type of cold that went through every layer of clothing I was wearing. The moon lit up the night as a light blanket of snow covered the ground. There was something different about that night.

I was 18-years-old and filled with curiosity. I needed to know why everything felt so strange. Whenever I was feeling down or just not right, I would call my mom, but she wasn’t picking up.

I knew my mom and brother went to my dad’s house that evening, so I knew something was wrong. My parents weren’t together at the time but that didn’t mean they didn’t love one another. They were each others’ first loves.

After I finally got through to my mom, all I remember is my brother in the background panicking and shouting as if something horrible happened. Moments later the phone went silent and I was left with thoughts racing through my mind.

“My dad is dead.”

My friend Connor was with me at my house, but in that moment, not even home felt like home. As any good friend would do, he tried to reassure me everything was fine, but I knew this time I was right.

Approximately 10 minutes went by with me repeatedly trying to call my mom and brother back, but I was left alone imagining the worst possible scenario. I had already put everything together when my grandmother finally called me to tell me what had happened.

After 35 years of being together, my parents had recently separated. There were talks of divorce, but as the nosey child I could have sworn things were getting better and plans of getting back together were near. My dad lived in a simple townhouse in Kanata’s Bridlewood neighbourhood. While my mom, my brother and I lived in a spacious two-storey home in Qualicum-Graham Park, a suburban neighbourhood in Ottawa’s west end.

In 2004, my mom and dad bought that home together to accommodate their growing family. Due to school, friends and practically our whole lives being spent in Qualicum, we decided to live full-time with our mom, while visiting my father occasionally. My dad was a big outdoorsman. He spent as much time possible outside, either fishing or hunting. Growing up I tagged along on some minor trips, but since I was too young I never got to experience a full-fledged boys weekend.

Today, I have my own friends, and we have our own trips, but the thought of going out with my dad and my brother is something I always wished would have happened. I was put in a spot to fend for myself, teach myself the things a father teaches his son, from changing a tire to how to fillet a fish.

Not only did the event of my father’s death lead to a period of grief and darkness, but it also brought me to a phase in my life, but after two of my close friends lost their parents shortly after my father’s passing, they came to me for help and support.

I became wise beyond my years and it seemed like all of the hard-hitting questions people had were directed to me. I did face something not many of my friends had experienced, so I was confident I had the answers.

The death of my father shaped the person I am today. It’s tough not to ask, “Who would I be today if my dad was still alive?” From the bad thoughts to the bad decisions, his absence hasn’t gone unnoticed. From then to now, I’ve learned from everything and it has moulded me into the man I am today.

All of this happened during a time in my life when I was finally transitioning from a boy to a man. I was just 18-years-old that December when my dad died, I was left to figure things out on a road that was new to me – alone.

The one thing that has remained consistent for me throughout the entire process is the presence of my family and friends. Regardless of what I’ve lost, there’s still so much for me to gain.

Every Christmas without him will be different, but after six years, I can finally say things are on the right track. The most important man in my life is gone forever, but his lessons have been passed through and I will forever cherish them.

I love you, Dad.