Daddy’s Little Girl: What I’ve learned since losing my dad

My dad, Fred Stagnaro, and I at my cousin Elizabeth's wedding in 2008.

My dad and I at my cousin Elizabeth’s wedding in 2008.

This weekend, a post reminded me that today was a somber anniversary for three siblings I call friends. You see, two years ago, they lost their dad.

Frederick L. Stagnaro (a.k.a. Fred, Roy, Uncle Fred, Gramps, the Pops, Freddy, Fred-o…)

My dad, Frederick L. Stagnaro (a.k.a. Fred, Roy, Uncle Fred, Gramps, Dad, the Pops, Freddy, Fred-o…)

Truth was, I didn’t need to be reminded. I’ll never forget the death of their dad, because he died just two weeks after my father. In my heart, their grief is inexorably linked with mine.

This may seem odd, particularly given the fact that we’ve been more acquaintances than friends for most of our lives. I didn’t really know their dad; they didn’t really know mine. But now we share this bond; a bond formed out of the pain of losing one of the most important people in our lives. For we had each stood by, helpless, as the men who had been our heroes our whole lives passed from our world into the next.

My dad fought a courageous three-year battle with cancer. They were three incredibly difficult years. In the end, I knew it was his time. He was in so much pain, and I didn’t want to see him suffer any longer.

Losing him tore my heart out. And I knew I would never, ever be the same. Don’t get me wrong, I put one foot in front of the other. Life hasn’t stopped, but it’s as if my personal history is now broken into two distinct parts: before my dad died and after.

If you’ve lost a parent, you’re probably nodding in agreement right now. If you haven’t, then cherish EVERY minute. Yes, even the ones where they drive you absolutely crazy. Especially those. Because in a strange twist of fate, those are the things you’ll miss the most.

I’m not sure that anyone who hasn’t lost a parent (or parent figure), can truly understand the emptiness that comes from knowing one of the people who shaped you into who you are as a human being – not simply on a genetic level, but on every level – is no longer there. No longer there…

…to talk to.

…to lean on.

…to love you unconditionally.

…to confide in.

…to teach you what it means to be a good person.

…to give you that advice you don’t want to hear.

…to roll their eyes when you wear something a little “fashion-forward”.

…to intimidate your boyfriends.

…to frustrate you more than any other living being.

…to be your hero.

…to hold your hand.

But you get through it. You have to. Because life goes on, even though you can’t understand why the world didn’t stop when they died. Because your world did.

In the days, weeks, months and now years since I lost my dad, I have been so incredibly lucky to have the love and support of so many amazing people. Collectively, these friends and family members have been my rock. They never let me forget that my dad is still with me and always will be. I carry him in my heart, just as I carry him in my DNA.

I have also been incredibly lucky to have one friend in particular: Tina.

A couple of days after my father’s death, Tina sent me a note. In it, she started out by saying that she didn’t want me to feel obligated to respond. But as soon as I read the rest, nothing in the world could have stopped me from telling her how her words had touched me.

You see, she shared with me her own experience with losing a parent. And in doing so, she validated everything I was going through. Everything I was feeling. She showed me that I wasn’t alone in my grief, because others had gone through the same thing. And, perhaps most importantly, that I would be ok. It would always be hard, but I would be ok.

Her words, which were both incredibly kind and impossibly wise, still give me goose bumps. Because yes, I have trundled them out a time or twenty over the last two years.

I can’t think of a better way to pay that forward, then to share some of what I’ve learned/discovered about myself these past two years – mostly through the kindness of amazing people like Tina.

(Disclaimer: Please remember my degree is in Economics, not Psychology. I’m sharing my personal experience, not giving unsolicited medical advice..)

Here goes…

1. First and foremost: it is OK to miss my dad like crazy. 

Getting ready for a father-daughter golf outing, circa 2010. (Note the coordinating golf shirts!)

Getting ready for a father-daughter golf outing, circa 2010.                                     (Note the coordinating golf shirts!)

I lucked out in the father department. My dad was an amazing guy (yes, that’s been independently verified) and I have always felt incredibly privileged to be his daughter. We had a very special relationship and I have a lifetime of cherished memories to show for it – birthday fishing trips, flying, golfing, hiking through the woods and far, far too many hours spent watching Clint Eastwood movies and so much more…

I know how lucky I am, because not everyone is so fortunate to have that kind of bond with their fatherAnd I fully believe it gives me license to miss him forever.

2. I’m going to miss him forever.

Silly me, I thought the first year would be the hardest. I was ready for every holiday to hit me like a ton of bricks. But I think the second year was worse because, damn it, I THOUGHT it was going to be so much easier and it wasn’t. So I guess I better wrap my head around the fact that I will always miss him.

But I do have something that will get me through even the roughest of days: the knowledge that he will always be with me. I can feel him with me in spirit, and he will always be in my heart. (Heck, some days, I can almost hear him whispering in my ear.)

3.  I’m stronger than I think.

stronger than you think

The plaque, as it now hangs in Ryan Frederick’s room.

Two days after my dad died, I missed my best friend’s baby shower. It was in Connecticut, and I couldn’t make it for obvious
reasons. After the party, Liz posted a picture of a plaque someone gave her for the baby’s room. It said something along the lines of: “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you think and smarter than you know, but the most important thing is that even if when we’re apart, I’ll always be with you.”

It felt like a message from my dad when I needed it most. Because it came as I was getting ready to write his obituary. Which I thought was the hardest thing imaginable. Until, that is, I decided I wanted to speak at his funeral.

I had notes with me, as I stood before those gathered for the funeral mass, but they didn’t do me much good. Frankly, I couldn’t see them through my tears. But somehow, I got through it. I’d like to think that I did him justice and, that in doing so, I proved myself to be my father’s daughter.

I closed with the words from that plaque.

4. In order to be there for anyone else, you need to be there for yourself first.

When everyone went home after the funeral, it was just my mom (whom I’ll henceforth refer to as Mumsy) and I. Not to say we didn’t have a huge support network, but at the end of the day it was the two of us. (Well, and Lulu the ninja kitty.) And I felt responsible for her. (No, not the cat.)

But while I was “taking care” of Mumsy, I wasn’t taking care of me. Add in a boatload of work stress, and it was a rather dark

Mumsy and me.

Mumsy and me.

time for me. I was angry, bitter and filled with guilt for all the time I was spending at work when I felt I should have been “taking care” of my mom. I wasn’t really grieving. Not in the healing sense of the word. I was keeping it all in and it was just getting worse.

The good news is, I don’t feel that way anymore. Know why? Because I opened up with my mom about everything I was feeling.

It wasn’t easy. In fact, it involved a couple of what I like to call “Come to Jesus” meetings. There’s usually a fair bit of screaming, crying…you name it. But at the end of the day, it’s helped us both move forward. Because we are in this together…in an admittedly co-dependent kind of way.

5. Pick the right people to talk to.

After my dad died, I felt like I couldn’t talk about it. Not because there weren’t people there to listen, I just felt that I’d already overburdened them with my tales of misery and despair. As time passed, I was even more reluctant, because I figured they’d give me the polite brush off. (You know, the “it will get easier” speech.)

Unfortunately, it was all bubbling up inside me. And it started leaking out at the most inopportune times. Like on a first date, when all I did from appetizer to dessert was talk about my dad. Or in the middle of a business meeting. (Ok, maybe it was more than “a” meeting…)

And I couldn’t talk about it with my mom, or my siblings for that matter. Because I couldn’t handle their grief on top of my own.

I was lucky enough to have friends that understood. Friends that had also experienced profound loss, whether of a parent or loved one. Like Tina, they validated what I was going through and helped me find peace with what I was going through.

That might not work for everyone, I know. But thankfully there are wonderful professionals out there who can help. The important thing is to find someone you can open up with and who can help you heal.

6. Let the tears fall.

I’ve always been a crier. So it will come as no shock to anyone who knows me that I cried for about 2 weeks straight after my dad died. And I’ve cried many times since. I get some of my best crying done in the car, but am no opposed to other locales as well.

Now, some people may interpret this as a sign of weakness. But not me. I firmly believe that tears are cleansing. A good cry helps you get it all out. And then you can move on.

7. Laughter is healing.

I still have a hard time talking about my dad sometimes. And I have an incredibly difficult time talking about the knock-out-drag-out battle he waged for three years against the cancer that ultimately took his life. Perhaps because he wouldn’t let us talk about it while it was happening.

But I have made in-roads. Because there are things we can laugh about, even from those darkest of days.

Humor makes it all a little bit easier to bear. I say that, while smiling through my tears.

I miss my dad so very much, and I know I always will. But as I sit here reflecting on the good times and bad, thinking of all the things he taught me, I can’t help but feel blessed to have had the honor and privilege of having Fred Stagnaro as my friend, my role-model, my hero and most of all, my dad.

I love you, pops.

In loving memory of Frederick L. Stagnaro. June 20, 1934 - January 26, 2012

In loving memory of Frederick L. Stagnaro.                                          June 20, 1934 – January 26, 2012

31 thoughts on “Daddy’s Little Girl: What I’ve learned since losing my dad

  1. Mary Anne Morrone Papelino

    Awesome blog Melissa…I lost my mom the year before you lost your dad. My mom fought a battle with MS for many many years. You are so right with life being split into 2 distinct parts now, before and after the loss. They watch us and protect us and I too know my mom is always there she protects my children as well. Cheers my friend! Angels need to fly!

  2. Well said! I lost my Dad at the young age of 58, so I always wonder if it is weird or insulting to tell someone one who’s parent was over the age of 80 that they are “lucky” to have had them for so long. And I am silently envious of those “lucky” people. My Dad and I had some great battles of the years (imagine that!!), but I ALWAYS knew he loved me….always. And that helps the heart…..where I know that my Dad still lives.
    I love you and am always here for you.

  3. Well said! I lost my Dad at the young age of 58, so I always wonder if it is weird or insulting to tell someone one who’s parent was over the age of 80 that they are “lucky” to have had them for so long. And I am silently envious of those “lucky” people. My Dad and I had some great battles over the years (imagine that!!), but I ALWAYS knew he loved me….always. And that helps the heart…..where I know that my Dad still lives.

    I love you, Melissa (and Mumsy too!) and am always here for you.

  4. Dianne Marrone

    When I lost my sister 11 months ago, my world fell apart. She was not only my sister, but my 2nd mom and my very best friend. I cry at the mention of her name, a photo or even a memory sparked in my brain. Thank you, Melissa. It’s nice to know there is hope and that I am not alone in the hurt, pain and anguish death causes. I do know I have connected and reconnected with so many people who loved my sister. Those people have been a Godsend to me…
    We all know death is going to overtake each and every one of us. You don’t know when or where…but as my sister frequently sang. “You’ve gotta live like you were dying”
    Heaven let you love SHINE down…RIP SAM

  5. Matt

    I lost the head of my single-parent family, my father, at age 19. I found myself nodding as if on queue and then read “If you’ve lost a parent, you’re probably nodding in agreement right now.” Thanks for the connection.

  6. CJH

    All my best. Much of what you share is all too familiar from a loss of 30 years ago. Emotions remain bound creating a constant life-long turbulence. Loved ones, writing and moving with purpose to inspire others can be a calming fuel.

  7. Susan Farrell

    I cried as I read your blog for your loss as well as for my own( my parents have been gone for many years)….and you are right , it doesn’t ever go away… your ‘center’ has been skewed and things will never be the same.
    But keep your eyes ( and your heart ) open for the triggers that bring a smile to your face (even through the tears) …those times that a memory flows through you unexpectedly and brings you back to the ‘time before’. Our loved ones are still here , inside, always waiting to resurface and bring us comfort.
    thanks for sharing.

  8. Sister Joan

    Thank you for sharing your feelings around the loss of your father. He was a great and honorable man and a good friend. I believe he is reaping the rewards of a life well lived.

    Sister Joan

  9. roger connelly

    Very Nice & Touching memorial to your Dad, remember everything that happens to us during our life ( both good & bad ) helps to shape us into the people were supposed to be & as I was reminded many years ago, tho I can’t remember by who, this is the Natural Order of things & It does get easier to talk about in time. ( my experience ) Lost both parents years ago, more recently a brother & a sister even a good friend to suicide while in Leadership.
    the worst funeral I ever went to was for my cousins 3 year old drowned in there pool. not the natural order of things, Now I’ll have a T & T toast to Your Blessed Family & Mine Love one of your leadership buddies Roger

  10. Pingback: JBLOGGER: Stagnaro, Melissa (MC1997) blogs about her Dad | Jasper Jottings

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  12. Tina Huyck

    I woke up this morning the same way I have on January 1st for 10 years now. Trying to forget it was the last day I had ever heard my mother’s voice. Trying to be less ripped apart by that knowledge than I was the year before. Telling myself to focus on the beautiful life I have now and not allowing myself to think of the incredible moments she has missed. Or all the many times I needed her help and just couldn’t believe there is no way to contact her. I decided to read some of your writings about living in paradise to cheer me up, knowing that after you lost your dad you were lost too. I so wanted to read about the joy you found since then but fate had me click on this post instead. Moments like these are the ones when I can hear my mother’s voice clearly from the great beyond in my head. Thank you again for sharing your words Melissa. They are always very much appreciated.

  13. Marisue

    Your words are extremely comforting to me as I too have lost my dad, just two days ago. Like you, I was daddy’s little girl. I want to thank you for your words of wisdom as I now embark on this journey of life without my dad.

  14. Shannon Hancock

    I needed this today thank you so much.
    My dad, avid golfer, passed away from kidney disease despite dialysis and transplant. I watched it for years too and we know how hard that can be. 😦
    Thank you for sharing your story.
    Wayne G. Willis June 20, 1950-May 21, 2014
    Birthday buddies in Heaven

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