The Surprise Gifts from My Father’s Death

As it turns out, even the the terrible events in our lives come with gifts when we look closely.

“Is there any gift that you have gotten from the death of your father?”

That was a question that my therapist asked me years ago, and I thought she might be having an off day. “Do you mean was there a gift from having him as a father,” I replied. No, she said, and reiterated that she was asking whether there was a gift that came from his actual dying. I sat on her sofa shocked. She added: “Just take a moment and see if something comes up for you.”

Sure enough something did.

I realized that from my father’s death — he died in a car accident when I was 20; he was in his 40s — there were in fact a couple of poignant gifts that showed up. One is that I ended up creating a nonprofit that empowers girls and young women by teaching them how to use media to advocate for themselves. I always wanted to do good in the world but it became imperative to me after my father’s death to make my time on earth as meaningful as possible. After six years of leading this organization and readying it to scale nationally, I handed over the reins and prepared myself for the next chapter. I wanted to go back to storytelling full-time and for another cause that felt deeply personal.

I found it this spring when I took a job as the Senior Communications Manager of Experience Camps, a national nonprofit that empowers kids who are grieving the death of a parent or sibling to build both their resilience and a life rich with possibility.

My father’s death made me more fearless about going after what I wanted because I know waiting for “someday” is not always an option.

For people who experience the sudden death of a family member (or close friend), there is shock on top of dealing with the actual loss. There is also deep realization for many of us that we don’t know how much time we have to be alive or if there will be a someday. I knew that in a hazy way but not in my bones like I do now. While that sounds depressing, I would argue that it can make life richer and sweeter.

The gift: My father’s death made me more fearless about going after what I wanted, like starting the nonprofit and also knowing when to step down and start a new chapter. I know waiting for “someday” is not always an option so I follow my heart more.

Recently I was listening to a podcast in which Reverend Michael Beckwith, founder of Agape International Spiritual Center (a non-denominational center), talked about “the hidden meaning of hardships.” He said that many congregants ask him why someone in their life died so young, what the meaning of that was. He advises, “The meaning of a death itself is unanswerable but you can reverse the question and ask: based on knowing the person, how can I give my life meaning?”

What a perfect way to get back to this idea of gifts that can arise from death. Don’t get me wrong: The gifts that I described above? I would return them in a heartbeat to have my father back in my life. But given that this is not an option, I can at least recognize the gifts for what they are and be intentional about using and appreciating them.

If this is a conversation you might like to explore with a grieving young person in your life, I caution you: It’s jarring even as an adult to be asked to recognize gifts that came from the death of a loved one. It can take time, perspective and life experience to wade through this complicated question. But when the time feels right, you can bring up the idea that we can choose to find meaning from a person’s death and let it guide us in deciding what matters most in how we choose to live. Perhaps share how this has impacted your own life. Even if the conversation doesn’t seem to take root, you’ll have planted an important seed of possibility.

Michelle Cove is the Senior Communications Manager at Experience Camps. She founded the nonprofit MEDIAGIRLS. She is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, journalist, and national bestselling author whose projects have been featured on numerous national platforms including “The Today Show,” The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and The New York Times.

Michelle Cove is the Sr. Communications Manager at Experience Camps (www.experiencecamps.org) and an award-winning journalist, author and doc filmmaker.