My daughter was 10 when the unthinkable happened.

On March 30, 2017, her father died following what was supposed to be a fairly routine procedure.

When Natalie walked in the door of our home the evening Brian died, I immediately grabbed her and couldn’t keep the tears from falling.

She knew as soon as she saw my face something terrible had happened, but she still looked stunned when I delivered the news. As soon as I spoke the words, she started sobbing. We stood there for several minutes, just holding on to each other and crying, a broken family forever missing a vital piece.

There was barely a goodbye the last time she saw him.

The morning of his surgery we dropped Natalie off at her grandparents’ house so they could bring her to school and we could get to the hospital on time. There was the usual rush to get backpacks and lunch together, hair brushed, school clothes on, and then we still had our bags to pack for a hospital stay that could last several days. Nine months later, I barely remember that early morning in March, but I know he said “I love you” before she got out of the car, and I’m sure she said it back.

It never occurred to us that I would return alone.

But sometimes, life throws a curveball and surgeries go unexpectedly wrong. Sometimes, your world is shattered and the tragedy you didn’t think could possibly happen to you does. And then you’re faced with the impossible task of telling your child that dad isn’t coming home. Ever.

In the days that followed, she seemed to deal with the tragedy better than I did. She had moments when she would fall silent and I knew she was grieving over her loss. Some days she seemed angry and belligerent. I think sometimes she was afraid to truly express her feelings for fear of unleashing my tears and adding to my grief, even though in reality it was more painful not to talk about Brian than to remember and speak of him. I think it scared my daughter to see me so shaken. She only remembers seeing me cry two or three times in her life, then suddenly, mom is in tears every day.

At 10, she is old enough to understand the concept of death, but I think it has taken at least six months for the full impact of what it really means to sink in. Sometimes, a certain song will come on the radio or one of us will use a word or phrase Brian often said and she’ll softly say, “I miss Dad.”

The other day she told me Christmas just wasn’t the same without him. Once, she told me she hated life. She’s always terrified something will happen to me. If her dad could die, then so could her mom.

Nearly a year later we are both inching forward, sometimes a two steps forward, one step back process. We are still reeling from the loss and working our way through a grief that feels bottomless.

I am so proud of my girl through all of this. She has been so strong and I’ve seen her grow these past few months. We have our bad days, days where we fight and every word we say to each other just seems like the wrong one. On those days, I want to run away where I can lick my wounds in solitude, run away to a place where I don’t have to care for someone else when I feel I can’t even care for myself. But my daughter has kept me grounded, in this world, and focused on making a future that is bright, even without my husband, the love of my life and the father of my child.

She has adapted to many changes in our lives with greater fortitude than I expected and has taken new hurdles in stride. There have been many dark days, but we’re both counting on brighter ones ahead.

We have spent this past year attempting to honor and remember Brian. We painted a Little Free Library in his memory and had it placed in our little hometown. We’ve started a scholarship to benefit a student pursuing a degree in law enforcement. I’m grateful I have my daughter to share this painful journey with me and I love that I have never completely lost Brian for I see so much of him in his daughter. I see his sense of humor and his ability to relate and talk to nearly anyone. I see his stubbornness and strength. Together, my daughter and I will continue to feel our way forward in this new future of ours and learn to love life again, for us and for Brian.

Becca Sitzes

Becca Sitzes is the mother of a rambunctious 11-year-old tomboy and also shares her home with two rescue dogs, Biscuit and Charlie. A transplanted Canadian in the south, she has put down deep roots in her adopted state of North Carolina and loves to travel to new places. Addicted to words and caffeine, you will usually find her hiding away with a cup of coffee and a book.