Three and a half years ago, my father died unexpectedly five days before Christmas. He was in El Salvador training for a bike race, riding on windy roads up lush green mountains to gain endurance. But on December 20th, after riding for three hours through rough terrain, he was hit by a car as he waited on the side of the road to turn into his house. A man swerved to avoid a pothole, hit and killed my father.

He had spent so much of his life abroad in the United States, only to die 500 feet from the house where he was born and where his own mother had died. That day plays in my head all the time. Every second of how it unfolded. The phone call where I was told he was gone, and how I had to pull over into a gas station because I couldn’t comprehend what it meant. Within hours, having to leave my kids, rent a Suburban and drive to Miami with my sisters and our husbands to get passports so we could make it back to him in El Salvador and say goodbye. 

My friend told me to take time for myself, but how exactly does one do that when you have to feed and take care of so many other people first?

We buried him on December 23 and I returned at midnight on December 24, just in time to kiss my children’s sleeping sweet faces and wake with them on Christmas morning. Having the saddest day of your life fall during what’s supposed to be one of the happiest times of the year for your children was hard. I insincerely smiled for them, as I tried to navigate the world without the man who was with me for every second of my life; who championed my every achievement, who comforted me after every failure. Even though I had my family, I felt out of place and alone. The whole world seemed different. The air smelled different. Food didn’t taste the same. Everything seemed so silent sometimes. My friend told me to take time for myself, but how exactly does one do that when you have to feed and take care of so many other people first?

Related: What goes through my mind as I grieve the loss of my mom 

My heart had broken into so many pieces, and for months my body operated out of instinct. Get the children to school. Feed the children. Smile when needed. But underneath, a sadness had set in that became all-consuming. I caught myself not listening to my children sometimes when they were talking because I’d be caught up in a memory floating through my mind, and I’d feel horrible when I realized. I worried they’d remember how sad I was, so I tried to hide my tears. I would feign driving to the grocery store and cry in my car listening to old voicemails and looking at pictures for hours unable to actually go in the store. 

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Photo credit: Julie Calidonio

At 38 years old, I learned that although it takes, at minimum, 10 muscles in your face to make you smile, it only takes one broken heart to make you frown indefinitely. After the first months, I knew I should be getting better, but I still cried every day. I told myself to pull it together. He was almost 70 years old. There was always going to be a time when I would be without him. That is the natural progression of things. I felt selfish and embarrassed for mourning so heavily when others had faced tragedies of a greater magnitude. But even though I’m a rational person, my heart couldn’t process death being forever. 

I’ve learned now that I suffered from prolonged or complicated grief. I should have reached out for professional help. Having to return to parenting so soon after losing my dad had prevented me from dealing with my loss. There’s no paid time-off for mothering. Yes, my children needed me (and I need them), but I can’t take care of them if I don’t take care of myself. Even now, it’s hard for me to admit that although I’m someone who’s poised and put together, someone who’s a mother and a caretaker, someone who’s a Catholic and a Christian, I questioned whether life had any meaning or purpose without my father. In retrospect, that was a dangerous place to be. But I wasn’t mentally sound enough to appreciate the gravity of my grief—let alone conquer it.

Grief is a universal language, but it’s spoken in so many dialects and in so many unique ways that prolonged grief can feel shameful.

I recently stumbled upon a quote while reading Bianca Marais’ Hum If You Don’t Know the Words, which tugged at my heart: “Grief is a city all its own, built high on a hill and surrounded by stone walls. It is a fortress that you will inhabit for the rest of your life, walking its dead-end roads forever. The trick is to stop trying to escape and, instead, to make yourself at home.” It took me over two years to learn to live with loss, to pull myself back from its grasp. And even though sometimes I wanted to be alone in my fortress, I’m in a better place now because my friends and family stayed by my side. 

Related: Mothers’ Day grief: What this day means when you’ve lost your own mom 

It will be my fourth Father’s Day without my dad. My heart no longer floats around in my body looking for his face, listening for his voice. Grief has become my home and, like most homes, on any given day it’s full of a myriad of emotions: sadness and love, regret and hope. Grief is a universal language, but it’s spoken in so many dialects and in so many unique ways that prolonged grief can feel shameful. I was embarrassed that I couldn’t move past the loss of my adult father so I hid it. I focused on taking care of my children and neglected myself. But I’ve learned that it’s okay to talk about being sad. Talking about grief and taking time for yourself is how you heal.

This year for Father’s Day, my family and I are heading to Alaska in his memory. He had always dreamed to go, but never had the chance. Hasta al cielo…