Healing with Charlotte, One Morning at a Time

Daniel Overholt
Human Parts
Published in
8 min readMar 12, 2024

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Every morning, my daughter Charlotte and I go to our living room and we “say good morning to the world.” This daily routine — one she seemingly enjoys — has us circling the room, opening curtains, turning on lights, and pointing to everything along the way. We marvel at the patches of burnt grass in the backyard, the teenage pine trees scattered behind our house, the lights from our neighbors’ homes, and, of course, the clouds. I carry Charlotte on my hip from window to window, but I hardly have to. Her grip on me tightens with each car that passes in the distance, lighting up her eyes and widening her most precious smile. It’s as if she’s been dreaming of these ordinary details all night and they’re finally real. We finish our window tour and kneel next to a side table, turning on the salt lamp that, based on Charlotte’s beaming grin, might as well be the sun. The final step is saying hello to her Grandpa Jim.

Two framed photos of him sit on a bookshelf in the corner of the room. One is from my college graduation and the other a few years later, when he came to visit me after I moved out of state. In both pictures, we’re in restaurants and his arm is around me, a warm smile shining through his greyed goatee. Each picture boasts my favorite version of him: the not-sick one. Sure, he might be a bit overweight, but he’s still healthy, full of joy, intelligence, and humor. Not yet filled with cancer. Still full of life. It’s the version etched in my fondest memories of him, but also the one my daughter and wife will never know. As we turn toward his place on the bookshelf, our last stop on the “Good Morning World” tour, Charlotte’s already in another gear of excitement.

She begins “cheesing,” as my wife calls it. It’s one of those eyes-squinted, head-flung-back, mouth-wide-open smiles that instantly melts away every ounce of my stress, reminding me how lucky I am to be a parent — her parent. As I watch, I’m struck knowing all this joy is being pulled out of her by an unseen, almost magical force. Charlotte points to everything else, but to my dad, she waves. And that moment — the faint glimmer of a bond I thought would never exist — is everything to me.

She flails as we approach the bookshelf and begin our conversation, mostly a line of questioning:

“Did you have a nice sleep, Grandpa Jim?”

“Can you believe the Lions are winning playoff games?”

“Isn’t it a wonderful morning?”

Charlotte leans in until I let her touch his face. She’s never met her Grandpa Jim, but she knows who he is.

Finally, I pick up the urn that sits between the photos and blow it a kiss. Charlotte shifts her gaze to me and bends forward, wanting a turn. Sometimes, she’ll even want to tap her pacifier against it, embracing her grandpa.

And that’s it, that’s our morning ritual. One minute to start almost every day. A cherished, grounding sequence of events bringing me daily sparks of joy. Certainly more than just a minute’s worth, lasting well beyond when she has to leave for daycare. I want to call it a break from the sobering realization that I’ll never have a moment with my father and daughter together, but it’s much more than that. Each day I’m recognizing the profound impact this routine is having on my own healing. It’s the bridge between my past and present on this ever-evolving journey of grief.

From my recollection of the stupidly simplistic lecture on the “stages of grief,” I don’t recall that grief would be a relentless force, endlessly thrashing me with emotional attacks utterly impossible to prepare for. It was supposed to be a rollercoaster of ups and downs, a non-linear path to finding some semblance of peace. What I ended up encountering was a ruthless assailant with a penchant for blindsiding me.

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When my dad first received his late-stage cancer diagnosis, the shock was all-consuming, a frenzied mental state with just enough available room to squeeze in some of the other standard, knee-jerk emotions that terrify loved ones: confusion, disbelief, and to an extent, denial, that I might lose someone. The this can’t be happening to us feeling, opening up a pit of overwhelming dread in me that, until then, didn’t exist.

Logistical matters soon tried to take over, the we can fix this mindset. Discussion pivoted to treatment options, hospitals, second opinions, timelines, finances. Life’s radar had identified a small blip, nothing more. It was chalked up as an issue to be dealt with that would one day pass. But it wouldn’t.

Months passed. Major surgeries, chemo, radiation, clinical trials, immunotherapies, endless tests. All leading to nothing but bad news after bad news. Repeat and repeat and repeat until my underlying mental state became a dark combination of cynicism and a bitter disdain for the phrase “everything happens for a reason.”

I watched as my father became weak, less mobile, less himself. An obvious conclusion was being written, but as someone knee-deep in it — living through each day holding onto whatever glimmer of hope was left — I struggled to see it that way. Too much time passed before I finally did. I did whatever I could to avoid peering over the cliff we were sprinting toward. I’m not sure if that’s denial, or simply a subconscious attempt to savor the present. Looking back, so much of those final months were a blur. Perhaps that’s for the best.

Even as the inevitable reared its head, I was struck by another unforeseen event, one maybe worse than my dad’s eventual passing: seeing him afraid as he approached what he knew were the last few days of his life. Hearing my father, barely sentient, saying that he’s scared was something I wasn’t prepared for. After days of mostly sleeping, he opened his eyes and told my sister and me that he was afraid of what would happen next, what would happen after this life. He cried, and I felt helpless, unsure of how to comfort anyone who was dying, let alone the man who had given me everything in this life. I think the end came on quick for him. To this day, that may be my most haunted memory.

My father died on March 3rd, 2017 at 3:45 am, with all of us around him, holding his hands, telling him how much we loved him, and watching him breathe for the last time.

Soon after, when all I craved was silence and a break from life, action was demanded. A strange dance of obligations began, each contributing to a dam of emotions that would suppress my feelings just long enough to get through the coming days.

There were the phone calls, some of the worst we’d ever have to make. Then came the picture boards, writing and rehearsing and giving a eulogy, playing host to hundreds of people at the wake and funeral, the never-ending line of 50+ people who waited for my mom. Greeting person after person, even comforting them, and feeling confused why I wasn’t crying in those moments, wishing I was more noticeably upset for the world to see. I was anxious that my robotic demeanor would be confused for apathy or something else. The truth is, I was overwhelmed, numb to what was happening. Proud of the man my dad was and deeply touched by the many people who came to pay tribute, but at the same time, wanting it all to end.

Weeks passed, then months, and the world kept spinning, because what else was it supposed to do? I began hating holidays and even my own birthday, each event removing me further from my old life that had my dad in it. My next major chapter wasn’t one of sadness or anger, I simply missed him. I still do. So often — even seven years later — I want to text him, talk about movies, get his career advice, watch a football game with him. The conversations we’d be having right now about the Detroit Lions and Michigan football would be pure bliss.

Eventually, even my closest friends stopped asking how I was doing. The original outpour of support and concern dissipated. Not for any particular reason, just life. Everyone has their own life to live, their own loss, their own grief, not to mention the innate human discomfort of discussing loss or death. And what was I to expect? That they keep checking on me every week for six years? Ten years? Twenty? Of course not. I don’t feel an ounce of ill will, but the effect remains: the loss is now lonelier. The grief does not go away. And sad as it sounds, I don’t necessarily want it to. It’s the love I have for my dad, now in a different form.

Which brings us to now. I’ve experienced what I thought was grief’s full offering of pain and emotion: shock, denial, anger, sadness, regret, longing. But I’m in a new chapter of my life now, facing new angles of grief I never could’ve imagined back in 2017, more blindsiding. There are days I am irate with the world, thinking how both my wife and daughter will never know my dad. It won’t matter how many stories I tell them, or pictures or videos or voice recordings they experience.

Charlotte will never sit on his lap, or look up and see him in the stands at one of her events, or get to hug him on Christmas. My wife won’t get to sit across from him at the dinner table. I’m overwhelmed imagining the moments they’ll both be cheated out of. But selfishly, I know my true gripe is that I won’t get those memories. Charlotte, in particular, won’t know any other life. But for me, I have this intense longing to be in the same room, even just for a minute, with my parents, wife, and daughter. That’s the current chapter of grief that rips at me. I crave the memories I’ll never have.

So I’m doing what I can. Soaking in every moment and detail of this “saying good morning” routine with Charlotte. Finding ways to create new, cherished memories with both her and my dad, however brief or illusory they may be. It’s taught me not to take for granted these moments with other people in my life. I’m taking mental snapshots of every second she has with my mom, her other grandparents, my wife, and with me as well. Life’s brevity is burned into my brain, creating an appreciation for insignificant experiences I know I wouldn’t have before losing my dad.

I’m well aware that one day, probably even soon, these magical moments with Charlotte will transition into memories. At some point, “saying good morning to the world” will lose its appeal. Her dad carrying her from corner to corner of the living room, waving to the grass and sky, opening blinds together, and culminating with the kissing of an ash container won’t be her preferred morning ritual. A shocking revelation, I know. And that’ll be fine, because forcing it won’t be as special for me either. I know I have to let her live her own life, not the one I need to see. This time will become a memory too, and I’ll cherish it.

But until that day, I’ll soak up every minute of these mornings I have with Charlotte, relishing her boundless joy as we make our way over to my dad. Hoping that wherever he is, he’s proud of the person I’ve become, that he’s looking out for my daughter, and that one day she’ll want to know more about him, hear the stories of his life. I dream of a day when Charlotte might come to me and ask to hear more about her Grandpa Jim. Tell me about your dad.

For as long as she’ll let me, we’ll “say good morning to Grandpa Jim,” and I’ll treasure every second, knowing that somewhere out there, he’s saying it back.

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