Growing up without a dad

“Laura, you are just like your dad,” my mom tells me after I crack a joke. I smile to myself, liking how we share something similar. But then my heartbeat accelerates faster and I start to taste the salty tears that pour down my face. I feel a culmination of grief, sadness, and anger. It was not until then that I realized I will never get to witness this similarity in person. Although grief requires moving on, it is important to cherish the memories I have with him.

When I was six years old, my dad passed away unexpectedly. My mom and I moved to San Francisco to start a new life, leaving behind a house, community, and a sense of normalcy. This move was an attempt to move on—to leave behind the things that would remind us of our loss. To overcome the little knowledge I had of my dad, I was interested in learning about him.

As a child, I never had to think about death, so my dad’s passing felt surreal to me. As I grew older, however, the reality that my dad was gone, slowly became real and more intense. The heavy feeling strikes range from the most random moments to the big milestones in my life. Rather than turning inwards, I started to learn more about my dad through family members and stories.

“I used what he embodied to propel me in my life experiences. With time and getting to know him more, his absence became less heavy and less negative. I finally began to think positively when I think of him.

Starting in the second grade, I felt sorry for myself. Whenever the discussion of my dad’s death came up, I felt uncomfortable and powerless. I would always awkwardly explain my situation and my friends would send me sympathy. While I valued their support, the sympathy only triggered a perpetual cycle of extreme sadness, accompanied by crying. I wanted to think of happy things when I thought of my dad, but every time I did, it was only the fact that he wasn’t here with me that came to mind.

To fill in the void, I started to talk about him more. In the third grade, I attended therapy sessions at my school. When my counselor asked me about my favorite memories with him, I could only list a couple of moments that I kept on recycling in my mind. Playing catch with him, eating his Korean BBQ ribs, or eating at my favorite noodle soup place after school first came to mind. Talking about him made me realize the little time we shared. But then my mom started to tell me more about my dad through stories. She would always describe our similarities: our laughs, extraversion, caringness, and even stubbornness. I laughed and cried along while looking at the pictures of the horrendous bowl haircuts he gave me. I saw more and more how we were alike, not just physically. These similarities allowed me to feel closer to him.

Through the stories I was told about him, I learned the importance of hard work, kindness, showing up, and helping people. I discovered the immense amount of love he had for me. The more I learned about him, the more I felt connected and more happy than sad. On the tenth anniversary of his passing, I started a book where his co-workers, friends, and relatives wrote their favorite memories of him. As a result of reading these stories and having conversations with people that knew him, the event became more of a celebration of my father’s life rather than the marking of a grim milestone.

My dad has inspired me to be someone to do good in the world. I adopted his kindness and caringness by supporting social issues I care about through volunteering and advocacy. My mom told me about his random acts of kindness like giving some cash or food to homeless people at a stoplight. I carry his values when volunteering at food banks, or community projects, remembering to pay it forward whenever I can.

“My dad has been with me for my entire life—it just took some time for me to realize it.

The big milestones like getting my driver’s license or turning a year older makes me feel his absence the most. For my 18th birthday, my aunt and uncle made a video showing me through the years. They displayed videos showcasing memories we shared that I never knew I had. The clips ranged from him carrying me on his back while running on the beach to reading to me on a bed. When watching the video, I could feel our connection. My mom’s stories were true, and a flush of red filled my face.

To this day, there are still times I find myself missing him greatly and bawling my eyes out in my room. However, through learning more about him and valuing what I had, I realized the bond we had together was truly unbreakable. Now, when I cry, I cry more happy tears than sad ones. My dad has been with me for my entire life—it just took some time for me to realize it.