Lessons on grief after I lost my dad.

This December it will be twenty years ago since I lost my dad to leukemia. Snowflakes fell down from heaven the day we buried him. For a second the white world looked serene and pure; harmless even.

I still remember how unreal it felt and how overwhelmed and lost I was. I couldn’t speak when I tried to recite a poem on his funeral; there were only tears and raw grief. Two days later it would have been his birthday. For months I thought I saw my dad at places where he could not be. I saw him walking, but it wasn’t him. I saw life was vulnerable.

Finding my way through grief has made me a compassionate human being. I have experienced what it means to grieve, how it feels to wake up in the morning and it seems impossible to wash away the aftertaste of the nightmare I’m in. I have learned to understand grief, but it doesn’t mean that I always know how to react in the right way, if there were such a thing as a “right way”. I can be speechless when someone tells me about the loss of a beloved person. Sometimes mourning can only be answered by a silent embrace as it is too deep to fathom and too heavy to carry.

Yet, we will be able to carry a heavy loss, something we never could have imagined before. We will go through the sorrow by taking three steps forward and two steps back. We will see through the sadness the appearance of a sudden smile. We will walk through the messy battlefield of life and death, maybe not fearlessly, but more accepting than before.

Grief will lose its sharp edges until it becomes softer and a part of us, where it finds a home to stay. I feel the pain has found a home within me as it has turned into a place of comfort, warmth and gratefulness. It’s no longer a place of panic and chaos.

It has taken me twenty years to feel peaceful about my father’s death. His face appears at moments when the world around me looks shiny and without a single worry. When I cycle through the green fields, the sun shines on my back and I’m all by myself. When I’m mesmerizing while I try to write. When I’m with my mom, sister and brother, drinking glasses of wine and having conversations about who did what, where and when, and each of us has a different story to tell.

I see his smiling face.

Twenty years passed by and still so close, regardless the country’s borders I have crossed so far. I guess my dad travels with me wherever I go.

We are stronger than we think we are. We are resilient beings, capable of so many things. In uncertain times we need to remember this as it helps us to keep our sanity. We must not be afraid to ask for support when we feel there’s nobody to share our sorrow with. We must lift the taboo on grief and death. In this human existence where living a slow life is the exception, we should take our time to mourn and we shouldn’t be ashamed for taking that time. Don’t be afraid to ask your parent or friend how they’re feeling after a major loss, even after much time has passed. Yes, death is part of life, but it shouldn’t be the end of the conversation as it usually is when someone tells us these words.

In western cultures we are assumed to get over our grief quickly. The sooner we go back to normal life, the better. And nobody asks us about our loss anymore.

Death is death. The way we are dealing with something so important as death could do with more compassion and understanding, also with regard to ourselves. We can’t heal our wounds when we are rushed and without caring for ourselves. It needs time and patience and compassion. This we should wish each other and ourselves. It’s nothing to be ashamed for. Of course, the way how we’re dealing with death is personal and also depends on our traditions and cultures, but no one will be saved from death and therefore it’s deeply universal. Similar to death, does compassion go beyond borders, cultures and traditions.

In times of mourning it’s more important than ever to be open about grief and to care for each other with compassion. It makes us, as human beings, more complete and more beautiful. In a world where countries are burning and we don’t seem to understand how to save them from destruction, we shouldn’t forget this.

Earlier published on Elephant Journal:


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Con Amor,


Image by Laura Makabresku

It’s So Unfair.

Why is it that some of us have so much on their plates? Not in the sense of work or activities. No, I mean too much as in loss, pain and grief.

fairness doesn’t seem to belong here
a heart doesn’t beat unchanged
lungs don’t breathe air parallelly
a body doesn’t survive equally
body cells don’t divide unvaryingly
a baby crib’s country doesn’t count evenly
no, fairness doesn’t seem to belong here
sometimes the spirits have other plans
and care for us differently in ways
we cannot comprehend.

Too much

Why is it that some of us have so much on their plates? Not in the sense of work or activities. No, I mean too much as in loss, pain and grief.

Every now and then this question grabs me and words as “it’s so unfair” always end up rolling off my tongue. Last Thursday morning I said these words again. I opened my mailbox and I scrolled down the bullshit information (most of it). Since three months or so I receive a daily newsletter of a Dutch newspaper which is kind of strange as I’ve never subscribed to it. Anyway, I don’t always take a further look, but that morning I did. My eyes stopped when I read the headline and I decided to open the article. I was able to read it as it wasn’t hidden behind a paid wall. Yes, it was about her. His sister he was so proud and fond of.


I read that she died at the age of 37, Paulien van Deutekom, the former Dutch world champion all round speed skating. She left behind a 1-year-old little daughter and husband, her family and friends after she suffered from cancer.

For quite some years I lived together with her brother in a student home in Rotterdam. I remember he said how disciplined she was, always moving, training, cycling. Living a healthy life. Working hard. On top of that she had such a sweet heart. I met her a couple of times in our student home years ago. Her brother was so proud of her. Unfortunately over the years I lost contact with him, but I was able to send him a message which he replied the other day. What can you say to someone who experiences such a painful loss? I mentioned it’s so unfair to lose her at such a young age, just like I felt it. This unfairness lingers in my head.

We woke up

I talked with my partner about it and he always seems to look at death differently than I do. More from a distance. I’m sucked into it and almost can feel the pain of those who experience a heavy loss. I feel sadness when I hear news like that. I imagine the broken hearts. But I also feel it hits me like somebody pinches me and I tell myself “thank God I’m alive”. Dorus and I, we woke up this morning. My mother woke up this morning. My sister. My brother. Dorus’s dad in New Zealand. His brothers and sisters. Their partners woke up. Our friends. We all woke up this morning. Nobody is ill.

Intense life

People like Paulien, they lived their life as all which they experienced had to be squeezed in a short time. Therefore it was an intense life. Maybe to another person it would held a complete lifetime. They truly lived. In their short, but lives well lived my partner sees a certain consolation. Yes, it’s a beautiful thought, yet for a parent or brother we can’t imagine how it must be to live with this cruel reality.

50th birthday

My sister turned 50 last Friday. I wasn’t there, but in thought I was and automatically I went back to March 2015 when a doctor said she possibly had metastatic cancer. I took the first plane to be with her and my family. In that time we were torn between hope and fear. I will never forget how thankful I was my sister wasn’t severely ill, but would be able to become healthy again. In the end she recovered from her illness. My old roommate’s sister didn’t.

Cherish what you have

It’s a fact, we can’t control everything in life. However, as the words which a friend wrote to me say: what we do control is how we cherish what we have and to make the right decisions for ourselves, with love and without regrets. It’s true. It’s powerful.

Con Amor,


How our human experiences connect us.


Why sending hearts to a grieving, distant friend isn’t stupid.

Last December a friend of ours lost his wife to cancer. She was only 48 years old. Some years ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She recovered from this nasty disease, incredibly relieved and grateful she could finally close this black chapter in their lives. Only a couple of years later it snuck up on her again and she found herself struck down by cancer for the second time. This time she wouldn’t survive. In the end she knew she wouldn’t be able to see her three children grow up, with her youngest daughter only 13. She knew she had to leave her husband behind. As the ultimate organiser of this young family she even arranged her own funeral.

A cruel realisation

I still have her message on my phone asking for our latest address. Reading this I got the uncomfortable feeling she was preparing for the worst, but somehow I couldn’t believe this was true, I must be crazy, and I blocked this distressing thought from my mind immediately. Only a week later I found out it was the painful truth. Thinking of the thoughts, the feelings, the emotions she must have felt approaching the end of her life, leaving her family behind, it’s something so incredibly sad and impossible to grasp. I have just one way to express what I feel as my own father had to undergo the same fate: cruel. The cruelty of a disease which slowly dominates the body, slowly killing it while the spirit, the mind, has the intense desire to stay alive and just live. Just live. There are still so many plans in life, so many reasons to live for, so many stories to tell.

Haunting thought

On the days my father was very ill with leukemia and had to stay in the hospital he still thought he would return home, that he would recover from all this and would continue living his precious life with my mother. His spirit was so much alive, his life wasn’t finished yet as he felt there was so much to live for. Spirit and mind full of life, while death creeps into the bodies, destroying organs, veins, cells and the very life blood. Being aware your body won’t survive and you will leave your partner, your children behind, while your mind is still very much alive and healthy. This realisation is one of the cruelest things in life. I think about this and I know it doesn’t make any difference, it doesn’t change a thing, but it haunts me. I need to burry this thought as I suspect I will never make friends with it as long as I live. The death of my father when I was 24 years, a young student who didn’t know much about life, changed me forever. My life which used to be light and without worry, except for the nerves around exam time, suddenly became troubled and heavy and although the sharp edges would fade over time, I knew it would never be the same.


Now I know death is life, life is death. Death is very much part of our lives. However, it doesn’t mean it is always fair. Death sticks his head around the corner, enters young lives, lives which need more time, lives which are full, lives which know love. I didn’t only feel grief, but also hopelessness and anger as it felt extremely unfair my father died of cancer, still young, just like it felt very unfair when our friend’s partner, mother of three children, died.

Tough guy

Last week on a Wednesday evening when I biked through the dark countryside on my way home from yoga class I was thinking of our friend who’s a widower now and a “mappa” as he calls himself (in Dutch: he’s both a pappa (dad) and mamma (mum)). I’m thinking of him and his family quite a lot, but don’t know what to say except that I’m thinking of them. These words accompanied by a heart emoticon I had sent him a couple of times these last months. I noticed that since I don’t know what to say, we’re living in separate countries and the fact he’s absolutely no talker, he’s a tough guy and isn’t particularly known for expressing his feelings, I refrained from getting in contact. That evening on my bike I suddenly thought this was not right. Why not send him another heart and let him know he’s on my mind, although I knew he’d probably reply “thank you” just like before? By the light of the moon and my bicycle lights I rode through the darkness that evening, feeling the crisp air on my face, and I decided to contact him as soon as I got home. I was glad I did since a conversation followed and I truly noticed it was appreciated. It seemed there was a little bit of hope shining through the words on the small screen of my phone in that moment. It’s strange, I know from experience how we need people to care for us when we’re grieving, friends who care for our loss and give us a warm hug, because there is not much to say, the fact somebody cares is all we need, but this time I hesitated. I was filling in his reactions as being a tough guy and thought that to keep sending hearts would be a stupid thing to do. No it certainly isn’t, we all need someone who cares, a distant friend in this case, when we’re dealing with personal loss. Like the sea connecting our countries we are connected by our human experiences of which death and loss are an integral part.


Con Amor,



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