My dad was so many things, and yet I can’t use words to describe him. We had not lived in the same town for 10 years, so as you can imagine, we rarely got the chance to see each other.
When I was 23, my dad was diagnosed with AIDS, and it sucked.
I went to the hospital to see him after the doctor had given him his results, and we held each other and cried. It had been at least 4 years since we had last seen each other.
I hated that I was seeing him when he was sick rather than before that. Yet, it felt like his diagnosis was a chance for us to grow closer together, and for a while, we did. Unfortunately, our differences felt too great at times and we stopped talking simply to avoid arguing.
Then, the moment came. In February 2019, my sister called me and told me that our dad, Joe, had passed away. Suddenly, all of those issues that seemed so difficult to surmount dissolved.
Our 2 year silent streak didn’t matter anymore, and it definitely didn’t matter why it had started to begin with.
All I knew was that I had lost my chance of ever making any of that right with my dad.
I hung up the phone and sat on my bedroom floor to process the terrible news.
But I couldn’t actually process it. I was stuck in a loop. I kept replaying our last conversation over and over, and I began to experience deep grief for the first time in my life.
I wasn’t just grieving the loss of my dad. I was also grieving the loss of a chance to ever mend our relationship.
A New, Heavier Type of Grief
My sister and I were born as a pair to our parents when my dad was 26 years old. We were 26 when he left us.
I had never experienced grief from losing someone close to me before he died. I had lost my grandpa, my dad’s father, in 2012. I was heartbroken, of course, but I didn’t grieve the way that I did for my dad. I didn’t cry as much as I felt like I was supposed to, and I felt guilty about that.
I still think about my grandpa often, and wish that I could have more time and conversations with him. And still, that grief was different.
When my grandma called my sister and I to let us know that hospice had taken over and our grandpa was fading, we packed up immediately and crossed state lines to make it to him that evening.
When we arrived, my grandpa responded for the first time in over a week once he heard our voices. He reached his arm toward us while we brushed through his big beard. He knew that we were there and we made it to him just in time to share some last, sweet moments with him.
When we left the house, we kissed his forehead, told him we loved him and that we would see him in the morning. He was ready to go, and he left before we made it back. I had gotten to say my goodbyes, and I appreciated that he waited for us. I was at peace.
I did not have the same experience when I lost my dad.
Honoring What Was, and Letting Go of What Was Left Unsaid
There was no prior warning that my dad’s health had been declining more and more. There was not a viewing of his body. Even the funeral home that we went through had not delivered what should have been a compassionate experience.
- His obituary was 3 sentences, with typos. Nothing less. Nothing more.
- There was no money for a burial, so our only option was to have him cremated.
- There were no sweet last moments with him. There wasn’t an exchange of positive conversation beforehand.
I felt so much grief.
I had just graduated from college the August before that fateful February, and I had no clue what my purpose was going to be in this life. More importantly to this story, however, was that I never sent him an invite to the graduation.
It was so stupid.
- Why and how were our differences so big that I couldn’t even share the good news with him?
- Why didn’t I want him to celebrate such a special day with me?
On Thanksgiving, he sent me a message saying he loved me. I never responded, but I told myself I was going to call him soon to get over all of our issues.
Then Christmas passed. Then New Year’s.
I kept building up courage and grace to talk to him, and when the time came, I couldn’t find either any longer.
February rolled around, and I had a conversation with a friend who had lost her mom when they were arguing. I remember telling myself that I had to text my dad soon.
Three days later, he passed. The grief was so heavy. All I could do was mourn, and cry. I couldn’t leave the house, I didn’t want to.
I was so blessed to have so many amazing friends who circled around me and made time to be there for me.
- I only ate because of them.
- I only changed clothes and showered because of them.
It was their love and support surrounding me that made me realize what I needed while I was grieving.
I needed my friends to ask me about my dad. It gave me an opportunity to honor him and talk about the good times that we had.
It helped me form a positive perspective of my dad in a way that humanized him and honored who he was. Not just the things that he did or said. He was so much more than that.
- He was outgoing, loud, friendly, your best friend and worst enemy at the same time.
- He was a queen. He was fabulous, opinionated, and “always right even when he was wrong.”
I yearned for more time with him and I wanted to keep him in my mind always. I knew that there was so much that I didn’t know about my dad, and I wanted the chance to learn more about him.
Leveraging social media for good grief.
So, I asked everyone on my social media accounts that had encounters with my dad to tell me about him. I wanted to hear the good, bad, and the ugly. I was amazed by the stories I heard, but I wasn’t surprised. They were very on brand for him.
I copied and pasted all of those comments people left, and I read them everyday and cried until I read them at his memorial service. It was healing for me to do it in this way, but I can’t explain why.
My need to walk in his footsteps – quite literally.
Of course, I could only get so much from hearing stories about him. I needed an adventure or an experience that would allow me to be close to him in some way.
I decided to take the 8 hour journey West to stay in the trailer that he had been living in. It was the same palace where he took his final breaths.
- I wanted to relive his experiences.
- I wanted to breathe in the same air and enjoy the same view of the sky from his porch.
So I did. His friend and keeper in his last days, Lucus, was the best host. He broke down my dad’s schedule for me from the time he would wake up until bedtime, and I followed that same schedule.
- We woke up in the morning and had coffee.
- Lucus made me breakfast just like he would do for my dad.
- We sat on the porch and watched the peacock and a guineafowl roam around the property.
- We collected feathers that the birds dropped, and we bundled them. My dad had collected a few bundles for my sister and I while he was living, and Lucus gifted them to us after he passed.
- We worked in the garden and koi pond that my dad had played in almost everyday.
- We carved ring molds out of wax so that we could design a ring for the 4 of us in honor of my dad; my grandma, my sister, Lucus, and myself.
- At night, I crawled into the same bed that he laid in every night and I even napped and spent time on the same couch that he was sleeping on when he passed.
I have no clue how I had the strength to do these things, and how I didn’t have the strength to see my dad before he was cremated.
My twin sister did. She visited my dad at the funeral home and spent her final moments with him.
The differences in how my sister and I handled our grief was an eye opening experience for me.
Grief is not black and white.
- It is not one way for one person as it is for another.
- It does not discriminate.
- It does not give any of us the same treatment.
- It doesn’t hold back on our worst days and it doesn’t leave us alone on our good days.
My grief after losing my dad was my battle. I was determined to turn my grief from my dad’s death into a journey for myself and soul.
Memorial Services He Would Have Been Proud to Attend
We were so fortunate to be able to have 2 memorials for my dad.
He passed February 10, 2019 and our first memorial service was a month later on March 9. The next service was at the end of March.
It felt like my grief had been dragged on for way longer than most people have to experience because memorials and funerals generally happen very quickly. Often too quick to process.
But I really embraced this time to learn about my dad, who he was, and who I was because of him.
I didn’t want to focus on the lack of our relationship. I wanted to remember the best memories of him.
So, I looked through every picture that we had –– more than 400 of them! I knew that I was fortunate to even have all of these memories. I picked 100 of my favorite pictures and created a slideshow for him to play at his first memorial service.
I planned his first service and made sure it wasn’t a funeral, but a celebration of his life. My sister and I wanted his friends to speak of him but didn’t want to expect them to join us on the mic if it was too hard.
When guests filed in, we had each of them write a word that described my dad. I read those cards to the room once the memorial began.
We left cards on the tables where my dad's friends could write the first memory they had with him. Those who were comfortable shared what they had written.
The entire room was filled with laughter as we read all of the words that described my dad.
- A bitch.
- The Queen.
- “My best friend.”
When we opened the floor for his friends to share their stories and first encounters with my dad, the first friend of his to share set the tone.
She told the most vulgar story she could think of. It was on brand for him, once again.
My dad could be your best friend and worst enemy. He could roast you and make fun of you better than anyone else could, but would also make you feel like it was your greatest honor to receive such a witty comment perfectly curated by the Queen himself, Joe Bushnell.
As I write this, all I can hear him saying is, “I am the Queen. Even on my worst day, I am still the Queen and the world revolves around me.”
I wish I was lying. He would actually say this. OFTEN.
My dad had always been this way. It was who he was. But of course, that’s not all he was.
My dad loved animals.
My entire childhood, my dad owned a grooming shop. He would breed dogs, show dogs in dog show rings, and he would let my sister and I have the first pick out of our litters.
My grandma even shared a story of when he was in elementary school and the principal called her to ask if, “Joseph could stop selling hamsters that he bred to his classmates at school.” (How funny!
My dad loved working with goats and riding horses.
He was small enough to jump horses well and he enjoyed doing that for a while. We lived in Italy when I was 5 years old and he had a horse there that he would ride.
When my sister retrieved all of my dad’s things after he passed, we found his riding boots. They are still hanging close together in my closet.
For me, it is the smallest moments like that that help heal me. Some people might be floored to see their loved ones items that they left behind, or to be in the space that they took their final breaths, but it made me feel closer to him.
Every space that I enter that I know he was in, I think of him.
- I feel him surrounding me when I am in the house that he and my other dad lived in together until they broke up when I was 16.
- I feel him surrounding me when I look at our pictures together.
- I feel him surrounding me when I make a craft or do something creative.
- I feel him surrounding me when I am in his hometown of Dry Creek, Louisiana.
There is something special about driving on the same roads that I know he ran a muck on. My grandma still has the same property that my dad grew up on from the time he was born until he moved away.
He used to share stories with my sister and I about the country life he lived and the simple things he found to do for fun.
He also told us stories about the more feminine things he did like knit, sew, braid his friends’ hair, and have talent shows amongst his closest girlfriends.
In fact, the morning of his second memorial service in his hometown of Dry Creek, I was braiding my hair and got so frustrated that I was having a hard time. I started crying.
If my dad had been there, he could have braided my hair for me. It sucked that he couldn’t be there. I wanted him to see my makeup and my dress. I wanted him to be visiting with all of his family that showed up to celebrate him.
It was The Joe Show and he was missing it.
It was held in the same small bible church he grew up in. Sitting in the same pews that he did and singing out of the same hymn book during his own service was healing for me.
Being in the same spaces he lived in was my healing experience. I am grateful that this is what my grief allowed me to do.
I’m sure it is not as healing or a life changing experience for others as it was for me, so I am grateful that it was. I somehow was able to channel all of my grief into something positive and creative.
Finding Bits and Pieces of Him Within Me
My grandma showed me pictures of my dad growing up as a young boy in the 70’s and I was truly inspired by his oversized glasses, haircut, and fashion. It inspired me to direct a photoshoot with these images in mind.
The photos that came out of that shoot were beautiful and still to this day, my favorite photographs that I have ever taken. They would not have been possible without the inspiration of my dad. The shoot took over 8 hours and all I could think about the entire day was what my dad would say if he knew what hobby I had picked up and how beautiful the shots were.
He would have loved it.
My dad is responsible for my creative energy and craft skills. His mother and her mother, my grandma and great-grandma, were his inspiration.
I felt and still feel so important to be a part of our family of creatives.
My dad paved that way for me.
- He taught me how to sew.
- He taught me that failure was never an option.
- He taught me that if I was going to do something, do it to the BEST of my ability. Outshine the competition. Never take shit from anyone. And never give up.
All of these things mattered so much more than how our relationship was when he entered his new realm.
His death is what brought me back to life. It’s what made me realize to NEVER take anything for granted. No matter how challenging or hard it is, it could be gone instantly.
- I have a new perspective on life and how I share myself with others.
- I am more thoughtful when I speak and I am more thoughtful of others when they speak.
- I learned that people can be who they are and not be the person that they want to be.
What if that person that my dad wanted to be was the same version of him that I had wanted him to be?
I don’t think I ever thought of it in this way, but what if the same things that bothered me about my dad, were the same things that bothered him about himself? I wish I would have realized this sooner and given him more grace.
Although I can never undo what time has given me, I can reshape my thoughts and how I chose to see my dad. With that choice, I have decided to honor him, talk about his legacy, and be a part of a huge grief movement.
A Unique and Remarkable Memorial Option for a Unique and Remarkable Man
That is where Eterneva comes in. I was searching for options of what to do with my dad's ashes. He always said he wanted to stay with my sister and I so that he could keep a close eye on both of us even after he was gone.
But an urn wasn’t enough. I searched for hours for the “perfect” urn and it still wasn’t good enough.
Then, I saw Eterneva. I had no idea that you could use ashes to create diamonds, but I knew immediately that my dad would have wanted this for himself.
- He shined bright and you couldn’t miss him.
- He was a conversation piece. Just like a diamond.
I accepted that I wouldn’t be able to create a diamond for my dad just yet, but began reading Eterneva’s blog posts and engaging on their posts on social media. I found it to be such a useful tool in talking about my grief and channeling it into positive outlets.
I started telling my stories about my dad in the comment section because it was an opportunity to speak to someone who I knew wanted to hear my stories and how I was feeling.
I saw how much love and compassion that Eterneva had and I felt comfortable sharing my stories with them.
They didn’t make death all rosy or sugar coat grief for me. They acknowledged how much it sucked and they understood me.
After a terrible day and equally terrible interview with a dead end job, I decided to call Eterneva just to talk. I was able to talk about my dad and share a little bit about my story. I knew that my heart was with Eterneva because their heart was with me, and so many others like me.
I knew that this is where I belonged. I am forever grateful for the opportunity to do meaningful work and be able to love on people who are grieving just like I was.
Eterneva doesn’t allow our loved ones to be forgotten, and that was so important to me. I pictured my dad living on the same picture wall next to hundreds of remarkable people and it overwhelmed me with emotion.
I cannot explain enough how grateful I am for each and every one of their hearts and desires to love on people who are experiencing the hardest times in their lives. And I was one of those people who experienced so much love.
Now, I am one of them. It is incredible that I had to lose my dad to find my true purpose in life. This was my dad's last gift to me.