12 Years of Grief

Author: Kaitlyn Branson

Editor’s note: Today is Children's Grief Awareness Day. Throughout this month, we are featuring stories from surviving children, grief professionals and TAPS staff to draw attention to the needs of grieving children, their experiences and how best to support them. This essay first appeared on the author's Facebook page.

As many of you know, I lost my dad 12 years ago.

I want to start by saying this post focuses completely on ONE traumatic experience and how that has impacted my life over a 12-year period. It skips entirely the happy moments and the many good ways God has blessed me. It is meant to be a glimpse into the different sides of grief—from sadness to guilt and everything in between. I wrote this with no intention of posting it, but I hope someone will find comfort in the fact that grief clearly has no roadmap, no end destination, and no properly laid out order of emotions. 

At 13 years and 359 days old I didn't know what it was like to lose a parent, and then all of a sudden at 13 years and 360 days old I was sitting on the hospital floor holding my baby brother knowing exactly what it felt like. On that day, everything changed. You see at 13 years and 360 days old you don't expect to be the person who tells your older brothers that they too will suddenly know what it feels like to lose a parent.

Kaitlyn and father Alan

The hardest part is that 13-year-and-359-days-old me didn’t know what was coming. I couldn’t know that I should spend all of my time committing to memory every word, every second.

Suddenly from 13 years and 360 days old and on for the rest of your life — all you do is start to forget. Of course, you remember the major events BUT the small moments, the 99 percent where life happens — those start to fade fast.

Next thing you know you’re exactly 14 years old and feeling guilty for smiling. The surprise party was nice, but you realize it only happened because, well, you lost your dad. You definitely should not be smiling — smiling isn’t for people who lost their dad 5 days ago. What is wrong with me?

Two weeks later you are sitting in your first 9th-grade literature class. Everyone else is looking at the iPod someone brought to school — you are looking at the picture on the front of your binder. You didn’t buy the binder, someone dropped it off at your house knowing you would be ill prepared for the school year.

The teacher comes by and asks if the guy in the picture is your dad. You say yes, because that’s still true, right? Then he asks, “Is he deployed?” No, he died two weeks ago. There is shock in his face, honestly mine too, I probably could have put that better. What is wrong with me? He asks, “How are you here? You’re very brave.” That seems silly to me, I’m 14 years and 10 days old, where else would I be? I don’t answer, just shake my head, “I don’t know.” He moves on.

I think I ended up making the softball team, or they just didn’t cut anyone, I don’t remember. I know I wasn’t very good, and was relieved when I didn’t play. I noticed dad’s absence less from the dugout. I didn’t bond much with the girls on the team, they were nice and it wasn’t their fault — it just wasn’t fun to be friends with the 14-year-old girl who cried awkwardly in the back of the bus. What is wrong with me?

It’s louder than you think. You wince a bit each time and realize you will probably be haunted in the future by the 21 gunshots. You file it away with other sounds that make you cry: helicopters, ambulances, the front door opening in the evening and gunshots. Oddly enough, it’s September 11 and let me tell you 50 days is a strange amount of time to lack closure. Being at Arlington is an honor, I should be proud, but it seems like an awfully faraway place to leave him. What’s wrong with me?

You’re 14 years and a lot of months old and already you’re starting to forget, so sometimes you dial his cell phone just to listen to the voicemail: “You know the drill, leave a message after the beep.” It’s cheesy in a way only a dad could pull off. You’ve had a rough day so you give it a quick ring. “Hello? ...Hello?” You don’t answer, you hang up and run into your mom’s room. Now your phone is ringing, ‘DAD calling.’ Mom answers, “Hello,” “Hi, who is this?” “I’m sorry this use to be my husband’s number.” After a quick exchange of niceties and a little bit of understanding, she hangs up. I can’t believe I thought it was dad. What’s wrong with me?

Next was 15 years and something—you don’t really count after so long, and I’m 100 percent better and on with my life. At least that is what I portrayed and what society accepted. I mean it’s been a year, right? I shouldn’t still be crying or maybe I should be crying more? I wasn’t sure… what is wrong with me? 

Maybe now I’m 16 years and something—it’s all really starting to run together. 

There’s cross country regionals, college acceptance, high school graduation. I turn around and I’m 18 years old and 4 years out—about to go off to college. Every major event is a weird combination of happy and sad. There is always that one well-meaning person who says right before snapping a picture, “Your dad, he would be so proud of you.” Instant ugly crying face. The picture is ruined, what is wrong with me?

 Now entire years are blanks, am I 19 or 20 years old? My brother is getting married. He reminds me of dad in a lot of ways actually, all three of my brothers do. My sister-in-law was nice enough to make me a bridesmaid, but when I see the empty chair with dad’s picture in it, I lose it. Important to note: still an ugly crier. I am crying so hard now that an old man feels it is his gentleman’s duty to stand up and give me a tissue, right in the middle of the service… still sorry about that, Lauren. (P.S. what is wrong with me?) 

Kaitlyn and father Alan dancing

I’m definitely 21, graduating college finally, and it’s like seven years out. I don’t cry anymore in the big moments but rather in the small random moments. It is the strangest thing but kind of a relief because usually, I’m alone in the small moments. But this, this is a big moment and I don’t cry. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. I worked hard for four years and dad and I never talked about college. The last thing he knew I wanted to be was an artist living in the basement, or president. Vastly different lifestyles my young heart desired. 

Primary runoff—I’m running on two hours of sleep, coffee and pure adrenaline. Anyone who works on campaigns knows this is the slowest day of your life. All I can think about is winning. It’s what I’ve worked for well over a year. I’m so consumed by it that I almost forget it is exactly eight years. The final: 54-46. We win, I cried in excitement. Later that day the adrenaline wore off. I cried again, this time not in excitement. I don’t consider this crying for a big moment, rather a big moment fell on a crying day. Not fair. I’ll never forget this day, but I never had before. 

Ages 22, 23, 24… I’ve started to notice Facebook is strange. I feel obligated to post but there are SO many days… Father’s Day, birthday, death day (or heaven day would be the way normal, non-abrasive people say it), Memorial Day, Veterans Day… my Facebook is starting to feel like a shrine. I’m running out of materials. I mean at 13 years and 359 days old, selfies weren’t even a thing, there was no cloud filled with thousands of pictures. Luckily “Facebook memories” makes a debut—no need to be original, a quick share of last year’s “on this day” will keep me guilt-free. I mean it’s been like 10 years. 

I’m 25 years and 360 days old. Today—exactly 12 years out. This year I feel most strange about the fact I have almost reached the point of more life without dad then with dad. I mean technically if you are generous and say you start to form memories at age 3, then I’m already there. But I’m not sure that is factual, I just made it up. 

I wonder if you read this entire thing hoping there was an end revelation where I realized there was nothing wrong with me or that I finally learned at 25 years and 360 days old to cope with losing a parent at a young age. But that’s not how this works. You don’t hit a magic number and get over it. It does get lighter — but it changes shape and becomes more awkward and clunky to carry through life. You start to forget everything and it makes you feel slightly less than human. Like the sharp edge of your humanity has been dulled because you can’t remember the exact words to the bedtime song he used to sing. But then again, it’s been 12 years.


From the pen of..
Kaitlyn T. Branson graduated in 2014 from the University of Georgia where she majored in political science. She works as a political consultant and is a partner at War Room Strategies located in Watkinsville, Georgia. She is the surviving daughter of Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 Clifford Alan Branson.

Photos courtesy of Kaitlyn Branson