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The emotional war of grieving my father while welcoming my daughter

I learned I was pregnant in my childhood bathroom while my father, a few miles away, was living out his final days in hospice care.
A photo of my late father holding me as a baby.
A photo of my late father holding me as a baby.Courtesy Leah Rocketto

On July 7, 2021, I sat on the floor of my childhood bathroom in Rhode Island and took stock of my surroundings. This room, with its faded blue walls and speckled countertop, had been the setting of many major milestones. It was where I secretly taught myself how to shave my legs using my father’s razor, where I successfully learned how to use a tampon after months of struggling, where I put on the final touches before my wedding. And, a few minutes later, as my phone chimed and I picked the stick up from the counter, another major milestone occurred: I found out I was pregnant.

I’d pictured this moment many times. I’d envisioned a smile spreading across my face as I let out a celebratory squeal. I’d seen myself stealthily hiding the test so I could surprise my husband with a grand reveal later in the evening. I’d imagined myself being happy.

And I was — just not completely. Because mere miles away, my father was living out his final days in hospice care after a two-year battle with prostate cancer.

Or, rather, his final day. On July 8, my father died.

Our last Christmas together.
Our last Christmas together.Courtesy Leah Rocketto

I knew I could emotionally handle these two moments separately. But how do you handle opposing events — literally, life and death — simultaneously? After all, there’s no book titled “What to Expect When You’re Expecting and Grieving,” no support groups for bereavement and happiness. 

So I did my best to keep them separate, to allow the emotions to exist side by side, but not blend.

With my father’s funeral approaching, I focused solely on my grief. I reminisced with family members about holidays and the themed puns he’d share during them. I reread the morning emails he’d sent every weekday since I started college in 2007. I pored over photos of him, which were rare as he was often behind the camera. I cried to the point that my stomach ached as much as my heart.

Eventually, I returned to my life in New York, hoping the distance from my family would make things easier and allow me to turn my attention to my pregnancy. My OB-GYN confirmed the news with a sonogram, and I gave myself permission to lean into happiness. 

My grief, however, wouldn’t let me lean into it completely. It found its way into many baby-related conversations that would normally be free from despair. In placing bets on the sex, I wondered if the baby was a boy, as some sort of cosmic rebirth of my dad. In brainstorming names, we debated “H” names in honor of my father, whose name was Harold. 

Nursery decorations inspired by my father.
Nursery decorations inspired by my father.Courtesy Leah Rocketto

My emotions collided in August when we told my mom the news.

For her birthday, we gifted her a Willow Tree Angel depicting a grandmother and grandchild. As she unwrapped the wooden figurine and pieced together the puzzle, her eyes welled with tears. She was quiet for a moment but assured me she was excited about the news.

“I just wish your dad was here,” she said through a cracked voice. “He would have been a great grandfather.”

As tears fell down our faces, I realized an emotional war had begun — and I was without any armor or battle plans.

Over the next few months, the war raged on with both sides claiming victories on the battlefield. Hearing my baby’s heartbeat for the first time outweighed the agony of disclosing my family’s history of cancer. During conversations with friends and therapists, the regret of not visiting my dad enough would overpower the anticipation of becoming a mom. Well-intended wishes from family and friends served as a reminder of my new reality: my world without my dad and with my baby.

“I’m sure your father is watching over you with a smile.”

“Your dad would have been so happy for you.”

“This must be such welcomed good news.”

I was exhausted from feeling all the feels. So I tried to feel nothing by pretending the death of my father and the birth of my child weren’t happening. I would switch the subject with warped speed, telling people I was fine before turning the spotlight on them. I cut off contact with my dads’ friends. I refused to have a baby shower.

I tried to feel nothing by pretending the death of my father and the birth of my child weren’t happening. I would switch the subject with warped speed, telling people I was fine before turning the spotlight on them.

But ignoring these events and emotions was never going to work in the long term. Not only that, but it wasn’t fair to my dad or my daughter-to-be. My father had loved me through screaming matches, slammed doors and silent treatments. He had supported me when I took risks, cheering me on when they paid off and picking me up when they didn’t. He deserved to be remembered, even if it was painful for me. And my daughter deserved to be celebrated.

So rather than avoid the emotional war, I decided to embrace it by honoring my father through my daughter.

It started with the nursery, which was decorated with subtle nods to my dad. Crocheted dolls of his favorite Muppets, Kermit and Miss Piggy, sit atop one bookshelf. Across the room is his Red Sox teddy bear, much to the dismay of my Yankees-loving husband. I placed all three so they would face the crib, keeping an eye on my daughter like my father would have.

Her middle name, Hope, would be a feminine play off my dad’s nickname Hap, a moniker given to him by his mother for his happy demeanor, something I’d hoped my daughter would inherit. 

My daughter was born in February 2022.
My daughter was born in February 2022.Courtesy Leah Rocketto

On February 27, about a month after my dad’s birthday, my daughter Olivia was born. As she was placed in my arms, wailing as all newborns do, I began to cry — tears of joy from holding her for the first time and tears of sorrow knowing my father never would. I didn’t fight the flow and allowed tears to run down my face.

These dueling tears have been shed more than once since that day. When a baby photo of my dad showed the similarities between him and Olivia. When my dad’s brother met Olivia and coaxed a smile out of her through a silly song. When Olivia spotted a photo of my dad and refused to look away. I’ve taken each of these moments as they’ve come, allowing every emotion to be felt.

My daughter staring at a photo of my dad.
My daughter staring at a photo of my dad.Courtesy Leah Rocketto

As I approach Father’s Day — the first one for my husband and the first one without my dad — I’m preparing for another battle. I’m thrilled to celebrate my husband, who has taken on his new role with such glee. I’ve purchased heartfelt cards and am preparing a sentimental gift that should leave him speechless.

I’m also heartbroken that I won’t be celebrating my father. No barbecue on the back deck. No punny cards that warrant a hearty laugh. No stacks of Chuckles or nonpareils, his candies of choice.

As much as I want the day to be solely about my husband, we both know it won’t be. We know there will be cheers and tears, moments of joy and moments of sadness. We know there is no use in separating or hiding our emotions, because they will only find their way out.

Sometimes you just have to let the war rage on, knowing that it will end someday.