Most of the time, anniversaries are marked with celebration and excitement. Three years dating, ten years married, or even six years sober are deserving of celebratory activities such as fancy dinners and gifts. But how do you mark the anniversary of someone’s passing? Unlike the intensified joy of other anniversaries, these observances can intensify feelings that may have been pushed beneath the surface as the years pass.

Five years ago I lost my father unexpectedly and it changed my life forever. So much happens in five years, especially during this formative time of life. This past anniversary was a little different for me than all the previous ones. Instead of acknowledging this December date, visiting the cemetery, and feeling a sense of melancholy all day, I have been really contemplating the overwhelming fact that five years have gone by and reflecting on those years.

Loss is confusing. In the months following his death, I felt so out of control. It felt as if the world started rapidly spinning and all I could do was hold on with my weak grip. I questioned “why me?” Why did I have to be the girl that lost her father? Why did I have to be a part of a family struck by tragedy? Thinking about this time period automatically tightens my chest and makes it harder to breathe. I’ve noticed overtime how trauma lives in the body. Just thinking about the loss can ignite strong bodily reactions, even after time and healing. However, I never avoid talking about my dad or the situation because it is part of who I am. It is uplifting to acknowledge his life, and not just how I felt after his death.

That being said, grieving is exhausting. I had been sad in the past, but never in the way I felt while grieving. Grief can feel very similar to depression, but like depression, it can be masked and overlooked. I remember going to school every day, sitting in class and staring at the white board in a daze; the bell would ring and I realized I had zoned out for an entire 40 minutes. But I pushed through. I went to school, continued all my extracurriculars, and smiled through it all.

Everyone called me strong. Some called me resilient. I was praised for my ability to maintain my GPA and continue my social life, but I did not want praise and I sure as hell did not want pity. I wanted to feel whole again and I wanted my family to feel whole again. In retrospect, I am proud of myself in my pursuit not to allow loss to define me. I am proud of the strength I didn’t know I had and was pushed to manifest through circumstance.

For anyone grieving, you will get through it. I know everyone says it, but I hope you find comfort in my words, as someone who has experienced it firsthand. You are strong and resilient even if you do not believe it. It is not easy to be optimistic in the beginning, but you don’t have to be. I have learned that it is not as easy as transforming from a caterpillar to a beautiful butterfly with so much newfound maturity and life experience. That is bullshit. The cocoon stage is dark. It is suffocating and you will feel stuck. But, after you let yourself accept the grief and experience whatever it is you feel, you will then be able to heal.

As cliche as the butterfly metaphor sounds, it embodies the way I have experienced loss. The sunshine does indeed follow the storm. Metamorphosis does transform a caterpillar into a colorful butterfly. Grief has the potential to motivate growth in extraordinary ways. I wouldn’t be who I am without going through this loss. It forced me to change my very high-school-oriented l perspective at an early age.

I started to acknowledge the finite nature of life. I used to feel like I was always waiting. I was waiting for the weekend, waiting for the summer, or waiting for the day I could finally get my license. Loss made me realize that life is way too short to be waiting for happiness or for something better. As much as people always say “live in the moment,” I did not fully understand what that meant until I realized that this moment is all we can be sure of, so we might as well make the absolute most of it.

I learned to admire the little things and brush off the minor inconveniences of everyday life. Life holds so much more meaning and value to me now, both because I know what it is like for someone to lose the opportunity to live it and because experiencing the dark made me so grateful for the light. I try not to let things that won’t matter in a few months bring me down. I really want to make sure that I do not go through life without stopping to appreciate everything while I have the chance. I can go on and on about how a coffee with a friend can be the best part of my day or how singing my favorite song at the top of my lungs is the best medicine. Life is a treasure with infinite gems, you just have to seek them and appreciate them.

I value my family and my friends more than ever. I am so lucky to have the support system I had when I lost my father. To those people, you have made me and continue to make me stronger. I owe so much of my healing to you. My mom is the absolute strongest human in the world. If you think I am resilient, you should see her. I learned from the best. I owe a lot of my positive outlook on life after loss to her. We have grown so close and have been healing over the years together. Loss can be really isolating, but it is so beneficial to hold onto the people who you have.

Lastly, losing my dad motivated me to keep his memory alive by embracing my similarities to him. My dad was a music lover and was good at any instrument he picked up. All my memories are of him sitting on the couch, guitar in hand, talking to me while continuing to strum to his own rhythm. I always loved music, but now I have a new gratitude for it in the way he did. I appreciate everything from the instrumentals to the lyrics. He also loved nature and taught me to respect and admire the natural world, and place much less importance on material things. If you knew him, you would know he wore the same three shirts for 25 years (holes in them and all). Oh, and he never owned a cell phone. For the most fitting of all, he was an incredibly talented writer. Everytime I finish any piece of writing, while I wish he could read it, it makes me feel closer to him.

Losing someone so close to me has been life altering in many ways. Ironically, the disorder that followed my loss has given order and purpose to my life and experiencing loss has given prodigious value to life as well.

Cover Photo: Justin Haber