Gaining Life Lessons After the Loss of a Loved One

Trigger warning: This story contains descriptions and information about self-harm. If you or someone you know is experiencing self-harming thoughts, please contact Crisis Text Line for 24/7 support by texting HOME to 741741.

When “High School Musical” first aired, I naively envisioned my high school experience would somehow play out as this teen movie: an adorable love story, singing and dancing on tables, and a large amount of free time. However, this idea was soon proven wrong.

In October 2015, during my freshman year of high school, my father passed away from a ruptured aneurysm in his brain leaving behind an open wound — a wound that still has not fully healed.

My father was a very handy-man; he knew answers to what seemed like every question I had. Thus, when I began experiencing many “firsts” without him — my first time flying on a plane alone, my first time driving alone, my first time having a heartbreak, my first time questioning my own existence — I couldn’t help but yearn for his presence.

Initially, after this unexpected tragedy, I resumed my daily life as normal as possible by conditioning myself to not validate my grieving emotions, or more so, I did not know how to handle the tragedy of losing a loved one because I was so young. Despite the raw feelings of loss and confusion, I chose to take on the responsibility of an English-speaking representative for my mom and a caregiver to my younger brother. Thus, I concealed the unfamiliar feelings and slowly got through the school year.

Once summer came around, the hope for the lingering cloud over my head to disappear diminished, as it was now not only lingering but raining above my head. The unfamiliar feelings I spent my entire freshman year concealing were no longer manageable as I slowly lost grip of reality. It often felt like I had no one to turn to about my burdens. Growing up in a traditional Vietnamese household, personal emotions were often neglected or unspoken about because of either language barriers or cultural differences. As a result, I was unable to openly speak to my mom or other family members about the loss of my father.

I felt stuck.

I soon fell into my biggest slump. My daily routines now felt harder to carry out. Getting out of bed every morning felt like an internal war with no real winner, attending school was no longer enjoyable, and living no longer felt — real.

Despite all of these intense emotions, I refused to confide in anyone about my irrational thoughts because I was afraid of letting people who knew of my tough persona down. Mentioning the death of my father in any situation made me feel awkward; I simply didn’t want pity. I continued to bottle up all the negative energy by focusing on my academics and my immediate family’s growth. It was an endless cycle: school, extracurriculars, house-chores, translate documents, babysit my brother.

I never showed how vulnerable I was feeling at home, in time, I reached for a way to experience a more tangible feeling to divert the unfamiliar emotions away — I began self-harming. This was the peak of my darkest times as I felt the need to release the suffocating cloud by reaching for another outlet of pain. In the midst of these dark times, I continued to attend school, laugh with friends, and bond with my mother and brother like I had completely healed from the tragedy. As the first few months of junior year passed, the physical pain no longer had any real effect, and I finally decided to reach out to my closest friends.

Reaching out to my friends about my mental state was the most relieving yet terrifying feeling. After opening myself up to others, I gained a large amount of love and support that I will be eternally thankful for. When I opened up about my struggles to close friends, I was greeted with respect, acknowledgment, and advice. Slowly, I swayed away from self-harming and began taking the time to acknowledge my own state of grief.

I realized I truthfully never let myself heal through the pain of losing my dad. Instead, I continually focused all my energy into helping my mom and raising my brother that I failed to realize I needed to be emotionally cared for as well. I always shied away from speaking about my father’s death to friends because no one else was truly able to relate. At the time, losing my dad was like a tree losing all its rusty leaves once winter came — I felt lonely and abandoned. However, I now feel a sense of peace with my grief after understanding how I heal from sorrow. Despite the fact that the void within me still has not fully filled, it is more manageable than before. As of this year, in 2018, I have made it a genuine goal of mine to be patient with myself and trust the process of life.

Here are the three important lessons I have learned throughout the past three years:

  • Be patient with yourself. If you have lost a loved one, it’s OK to be angry, sad, lost, and any other emotions you are currently feeling because all of those emotions are completely valid. It is imperative to remember that everyone has a different time clock when it comes to grief; thus, don’t rush yourself in the process of healing. Be kind to yourself. Let those around you know how you would like to be treated and guide them through your journey of healing as well. Soon enough, the pain you are feeling will slowly become more bearable; trust the process.
  • Always remember the good things about your loved ones. There have been numerous times when I have heard a song or smelled a certain scent that would cause memories of my dad would to rush into my mind. Hold on to these memories. It’s OK to laugh at funny memories, and it’s OK to cry at sad memories. Share those memories with those close to you; cherish those memories.
  • Be grateful for the time you have. Be grateful not only for the people and materials you have but also for the time to improve yourself. Do not feel like the world owes you anything as entitlement towards life will only harm you further. Take life with a grain of salt, because in time, through healing, everything soon everything will be OK.

As I enter my senior year of high school unsure of what the future holds, I will continuously remind myself: I am truly capable of anything I put my heart and mind towards, and it’s OK if I am unsure of what I specifically want right now or at any moment because things will eventually fall into place. Though it’s been almost 2 1/2 years since my father has passed, I am confident in stating that I am not 100 percent healed. I am not fully independent or confident with myself — I still have self-doubt. But I am also confident in stating that I am resilient. I am OK with not being OK all the time, and I am a fighter against grief.

Though I will continue to experience many “firsts,” “seconds,” and “thirds,” without my father beside me physically, I know he will always be close to my heart living in my memories eternally. My traumatic circumstances do not define my life, but instead, empower me to reach for bigger and brighter stars.

If you are experiencing grief of a family member or friend, visit, or call the Grief Recovery Hotline at 1-800-445-4808.

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Rose Nguyen

Rose Nguyen, 17, is a junior at Western Heights High School in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. She is the representative for Ward 1 in the Oklahoma City's Youth Council. She also served on the Federal Reserve's Student Board of Directors for Oklahoma City. Through the Oklahoman's Teen Journalism Program, Rose published an article about the effects of family death on adolescents. Rose hopes to major in neuroscience and become a pediatrician. In her free time, she enjoys dancing, knitting, crocheting and spending time teaching her little brother the alphabet.

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