Today is the one year anniversary of my father’s death. I wanted to write this because with all my travels I meet so many amazing people across the country, who often become fast friends. Despite having only met some of you once, my heart always goes out to those I see who have lost a loved one, especially a parent. If I can provide any comfort or healing through this blog, it’s worth it. I know it goes a long way to know you’re not alone.
On Good Friday of last year, my father died suddenly and unexpectedly of a brain aneurysm in the middle of the night. He was only 51 years old. He left behind a wife and nine children, the youngest of whom was 5. I remember the words as clear as day in the hospital room when the doctor gave us the news; “this is unsurvivable”. The most comforting thing from such a tragic situation was that because my father was so healthy, he was able to donate all his major organs and saved the lives of four people on Easter Sunday. I was given the great honour of saying his eulogy, and one of the hardest parts for me to get through was:
The sacrificial love that marked dad’s life also marked his death. The lives of four people were saved by his organ donation, a gift the recipients were given on Easter. So a death on Good Friday led to life on Easter Sunday.
As you can well imagine, the last year brought many trials and tribulations in the aftermath of such a devastating loss, but also many blessings as well. Anyone who knew my father, knew that his lovable personality and generous spirit made him a joy to be around. When you were with him, you felt safe and loved (even if he was teasing you- which was often the case). My father was the perfect example of an honourable and respectable man. I remember one Christmas writing in his card, “thank-you for being an amazing father and raising us without any daddy issues”. He laughed when he read it out loud, but everyone knew it was 100% true.
One of the greatest blessings for me personally was receiving the endless messages of how his witness and example in the wake of his death touched so many people. One young woman wrote, “thank you for sharing about your Dad. I have tears running down my face as I write this. I have not had great male role models in my life. The men in my family are truthfully, terrible men. Growing up, I felt like I only knew what kind of guy not to go for. So when I read stories of men like your Dad, I am beyond overjoyed. It instills in me hope that there are men who care for their children and for their wives.” Another wrote, “even though you and I have never met, I was always so inspired by you and your family. I was just recently telling my husband how your father treated his daughters on Valentine’s Day. So please know that your father’s devotion to your mother and you children has touched and inspired people that he never even met.”
The challenges of course were the firsts. First Thanksgiving. First Christmas. First New Years. All the holidays my father got so excited about because everyone would be home together, lost some joy for us this past year. At Christmas, my family decided to do something completely different and spend the holidays in Florida. Waking up on Christmas morning and going to the beach was not something we’d ever done before, but getting away from the ordinary was extremely helpful and therapeutic. In true Alissa fashion, I documented the entire trip, and made a family video about it, mostly just to showcase the wonderful world of “Thoughts With Mary”.
It was also the year I turned 30. It’s strange to think of all the little things you find joy in after the passing of a loved one. On my 29th birthday, just 2 weeks before he died, my father sent me some money (as good fathers do) in an interac money e-transfer. In the notes section, he wrote “happy 30th birthday” just to bother me (I was paranoid about turning 30). Who knew something so small could be so meaningful just one year later.
And then there was work. At the end of January, I left my job of 6 years at Campaign Life Coalition, to start RightNow, a new political pro-life organization with a few of my colleagues. While we were at the beginning stages of getting this start-up off the ground, my father died. I know that many people didn’t know what this meant for our new organization, including my business partner Scott, given that I moved home to Sarnia indefinitely to help with my family. I remember I was scheduled to speak at a small youth conference in Windsor one week later, and I barely remember any of it. Thankfully Scott was there to fill in for me, even though I still did a short testimony at the beginning. Starting a new organization is difficult enough, with the fundraising, website launch, database building and other essentials needed to get off the ground. It’s even harder when your partner in crime is undergoing insurmountable grief. I couldn’t have asked for a more supportive and understanding business partner. Although I’ve always had tremendous respect for Scott, it grew tenfold in the wake of this familial tragedy.
That is, until I spoke at the NCLN Symposium 6 months later.
I was asked to give one of the keynote speeches at the National Campus Life Network’s student symposium in September about ways university student clubs could get involved in political activism. I decided I would end my speech with a story about my dad. It was a simple story about how at the wake, a friend of his walked up to me and told me that the last thing my father ever said to her was how proud he was of me because of my work in the pro-life movement. It was a touching way to end the keynote, except there was one caveat. I couldn’t say it without crying. I would regularly practice with Scott, and it didn’t matter how many times I said it, the tears would alway start welling up. Finally, I just asked him straight up if I should change the ending since it could be very embarrassing if I just started randomly crying. He convinced me that it was emotional and motivating and real, and that even if I did tear up, it would only make my speech that much more powerful.
Well, the symposium finally arrived, and I did my keynote. It went smoothly until the very end, when it was time to tell the story. I paused, because I could feel my throat starting to close in. I looked at the crowd who was obviously wondering what was happening. As I started to speak, I could tell that I was going to get emotional, so in my attempt to prevent this from happening, the most bizarre contortions exploded from my face. My voice changed from a normal tone to going from very high to very low. I blurted out the story, as fast as possible, just to get it over with. I’m positive the onlookers thought I was having a seizure. I was embarrassed, but Scott’s words echoed in my head; “it will make the the speech more powerful”. When I was finished, we packed up our literature and walked to the car, and I asked him how the ending sounded from his perspective. “Yeah….”, he said. “It was super awkward”.
Needless to say, I haven’t told the story again, or listened to Scott’s advice on the personal side of speech-giving.
Although you think your family will never overcome such a tragedy while you are going through it, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Although we haven’t reached that light fully yet, we can see it peaking out. I know it will take years for us to start to feel normal again, which is why I’m so proud of my entire family and the amazing things they’ve accomplished this past year, despite the hardship. My mother ran her first half-marathon, and was the first woman to cross the finish line. My brother Jamie opened up a gym in Mississauga, and is a successful personal trainer and yoga instructor. My sister Helen will be graduating from the University of Guelph in May. My brother Stephen, after much hard work and determination, got into a coveted spot at Lambton College in the paramedic program. My brother Joseph was the president of student council at his high school this year, and will also be the recipient of the Principals Award (very few students ever win this award because you have to have 2 years of student council experience, be a recipient of the varsity award (which means you participated in at least 16 different sports or activities in the school), be recommended by the school chaplain for religious involvement and have 1 year of chaplaincy team experience. Proud sister alert). My brother Patrick started his first year of high school, and was one of 2 students voted to be the grade 9 rep for student council. My brother Owen got to the 14th level in Minecraft, my sister Lucy got her ears pierced and my youngest sister Mary (who I now call Marty) gave herself a haircut and now looks like Johnny Depp from Alice in Wonderland. I just couldn’t be prouder.
No one could ever replace my father because he was truly one of a kind. I know that my brothers will all grow up knowing how to respect women, and be responsible and loving adults because of him. I also have faith that my sisters will find men who will treat them right, because they grew up seeing the immense and powerful selfless love my father had for my mother through thick and thin. I also know that my mother will continue to be given the graces she needs to get through this, and will always have the special gift of being married to a man who she shared the most unique bond with, who loved her unconditionally and provided for her and their family until his death and beyond.
I will end with this. For those of you who may have complicated relationships with your parents, I encourage you to take the first step in rebuilding that relationship. I know it can be hard and situations can get messy, but imagine how much harder it would be when you decide to do this and it’s too late. Try and take that first step.
For those of you whose parents are alive and well, give them a quick call today. Don’t ask them for anything. Just call them and tell them you love them. It will make their day and you will never have any regrets.
And finally, for those of you who have lost a parent or loved one especially in the last year, know that they are watching over you. My grandfather used to say that God is closer to you than your breath. Pray that your loved one is with Him and know that they are both protecting and guiding you. To me, that’s one of the beautiful things about being a Christian. Death isn’t the end; it’s just the beginning.