Family

Mourning at the Magic Kingdom

Right after my father’s funeral, I took my family to Disney World. It turned out to be the right place for me to grieve.

Mother, father, and two children holding a flower looking at fireworks over Cinderella Castle at Disney World.
Doris Liou

The first thing I did after my father’s funeral was get sick. Nothing dramatic, just a garden-variety cold passed to me by my mother. The second thing I did was go to Disney World.

As I watched my husband pack our things after the mercy meal—placing our somber, dark-hued, long-sleeved funeral outfits at the bottom, layering jeans and T-shirts and our 7-year-old’s Belle costume on top, attaching the Disney tags to our luggage so it would be retrieved from the Orlando airport by Disney cast members and taken directly to our Disney resort—I wondered if I was a terrible daughter. Was I being callous? Abandoning my mother? Once again prioritizing my husband’s family over mine? My husband’s parents have always lived much closer to us than my parents; over the last 15 years, I’ve spent far more time with them than I have at home. I’ve always felt sad about the ratio, but have never known what to do about it.

We’d had the Disney trip planned with my in-laws—who had generously offered to pay all expenses—for weeks. But I knew we weren’t really going for them, or for ourselves. We were going for our kids. Neither of our daughters had been to Disney World before, and they’d been counting down the days since they opened up the box containing their Disney MagicBands on Christmas morning.

After my father died, quite suddenly, in early January, all the adults made a half-hearted stab at the “cancel or reschedule?” talk. But it was difficult to find imminent dates that would work for everyone, and I hated the idea of telling the kids, No, we aren’t going now because we are going to a funeral, and no, I don’t know when we can go. Also, we had already booked all of our FastPasses, and I did not feel prepared to debate the relative merits of Dwarf Mine Train and Frozen Ever After again.

A celebration was the last thing I wanted. But what was so great, I wondered, about leaving the funeral and returning to normal life—to school and work, to meetings and obligations, to dreaded book edits? Nothing felt normal with my father in the ground. Why not prolong the surreality, and take my grief along on my first-ever Disney Experience?

One of many things I didn’t know about grief is that it doesn’t hit you all at once. After my dad’s death, I kept waiting to mourn. Any time now, I thought. Here we go. But for days, what kept me feeling listless and confused and impatient with everyone around me was more like shock than sorrow.

Both of our kids still seemed far from comprehending what had happened. Our 10-year-old kept shaking her head and looking either surly or sick when we tried to talk with her about the grandfather she’d loved, but hadn’t known as well as I wished she had. Our 7-year-old, who is autistic, seemed to have some trouble grasping the abstract yet absolute finality of death—she could repeat our words about what had happened, but grief was not yet a real, solid concept to her; not obvious to her in the books or movies that touched on it, even less obvious in real life. We tried to explain it, but it felt impossible and wearying, and I didn’t know how to bridge the gap between our definitions and her understanding.

I thought—hoped—that arriving home, seeing my mom, would open the floodgates for me. Yet every time I felt myself edging close to grief, to feeling and coping with my loss, our 10-year-old would say that she wasn’t feeling well (her own psychosomatic reaction to the upheaval in our family), or our 7-year-old would fuss over something (she’s not always the best traveler). Though my husband handled the lion’s share of the parenting on that trip, I still felt distracted every time one of the kids complained or talked back or picked a pointless argument.

I’ve been a parent for 10 years; I’m used to overlooking my own needs. But I wasn’t prepared for how raw and resentful I would feel doing so in the wake of my father’s death. In the days leading up to the funeral, our older daughter seemed determined to limit herself to one-word, often irritable answers. Her younger sister, jarred by the change in routine, was clingy and hard to manage. Their behavior, I knew, had to be excused. It’s not their fault, I reminded myself. How are they supposed to know what to do with death at their ages?

Still, the sight of my grieving mother trying to cheer up her out-of-sorts grandchildren the night before she buried her husband infuriated me. I began to wish I’d let the kids stay home with my husband during the funeral, just told them all I’d meet them in Disney World. If I’d gone to my father’s burial by myself, I would have been lonely, perhaps, but at least I would have been able to focus on my mother and our loss. When I texted as much to friends—there is no room at all for my grief with the kids here—they sent back sympathetic responses, but reminded me it was important for our daughters to be there. Even if they weren’t super close to your dad, one friend wrote, it’s their first real experience with death. They need to witness it. She was right, of course. Still, I kept wondering: What about what I need?

Prioritizing my children, making allowances for them, taking care of them before I took care of myself should have just been business as usual after a decade of parenting. But as I worked to make myself believe that yes, my father was really gone, and yes, we were going to see him one last time and say goodbye, I realized I didn’t want to be a parent at my own father’s funeral—I just wanted to be a grieving daughter.

On the morning of the funeral, I changed into a black dress and deep blue cardigan, then inspected the girls in their dresses and white sweaters, adjusted the ponytails my husband had given them. I tried again to explain to our younger daughter what was about to happen, though it was my first Orthodox Christian funeral—my parents had converted after I left home—and I didn’t truly know. “We’re going to pray and then bury Grandpa,” I said, hardly believing it myself. “You’ll get to see him and say goodbye.”

Before the service, I met my parents’ friends—the people who became their family in my absence. I couldn’t help but compare their steadfast presence in my dad’s life to my distance as the wayward only child who rarely made it home. People I knew and some I didn’t told me my father looked better than he had in ages. Not that Dad ever complained about the pain he was in—until the week he died, whenever I asked how he was doing on the phone, his standard reply was, “I’m doing so wonderful, you wish you were me.”

A priest who knew and loved my father talked about him with great respect and affection. He said that he always felt my father had loved him “far beyond [his] merits,” a sentiment to which I could relate. Dad and I had our issues; we sometimes disappointed one another. But our love for each other was never in question. He usually thought better of me than I thought of myself.

In his casket—one a family friend had made and then refused to take a dime of my mother’s money for—he did look peaceful. But that wasn’t much of a comfort. My mother, who was mostly cried out by then, put her arm around my shoulders. “Don’t despair,” she said. “This is our hope in the Resurrection.” It would have annoyed me coming from anyone else, but her loss was so much greater than mine. In the past decade or more, I’ve questioned beliefs I once held dear, discarded plenty of others. But the faith you’re raised in can still move fathoms below the surface, even when your relationship to it has altered beyond recognition. As I stood in my parents’ church a few feet away from my father’s body, listening to the parishioners around me chant antiphons I didn’t know, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to feel the old belief stir, bearing me up like a strong current, as undeniable as it was unseen.

After the service, my mother and I went up one last time to see Dad. Then my husband brought our children up to say goodbye. For the first time in days, our older daughter no longer looked moody, or one breath away from throwing up. Tears were drifting down her cheeks as she said a sweet goodbye to her grandfather. I took her hand, then put my arm around her and drew her close as we both crumpled. My younger daughter reached out, hesitantly, and touched my father’s gray beard. Her fingers brushed his cold cheek. She smiled down at him, just a little.

Suddenly I knew we’d made the right decision to bring the kids with us. There are no easy shortcuts when it comes to helping your children learn what it means to love people who will die, and to live with that knowledge. Seeing my dad in his casket, touching his face, registering that he wasn’t getting up to make one of his silly jokes to get her to laugh—these moments are what allowed our 7-year-old to finally understand what had happened to him and to our family. She would refer to the funeral for weeks, for months in our conversations about my dad; it would stay with her, make his loss believable, where all of our well-meaning words had fallen short.

“Goodbye, Grandpa,” she said to him. “We love you. We’ll miss you.”

In the end I found my space to begin grieving not at home with my mother, nor at my father’s funeral, but on our first day at the Magic Kingdom. A dear friend of mine happened to be in Orlando at the same time we were because her grandmother, who lived there, had just died. She met us there, and we rode the Dwarf Mine Train with our arms raised, whispered about the astonishing racism of the “It’s a Small World” ride, and watched my enraptured younger daughter meet Belle.

Until then I had been too shell-shocked, or I’d been traveling, or I’d been worried about my mom, or there’d been too many people to talk to and not enough time—but now, in the company of a good friend who was also grieving, I was able to speak for the first time about my messiest feelings and regrets where my father was concerned. The two of us often trailed a few steps behind the rest of my family, talking about complicated families and how death—no matter when or how it occurs—leaves so much open and aching and unresolved. I felt sad, and strangely comforted, and somehow I was managing to have a good time, too. It made me wonder how many other people in the massive crowds around us were also mourning someone or something here, at The Happiest Place on Earth.

I kept thinking of my dad all through the fireworks display that evening, trying to reassure myself that no one was staring at me or the tears on my face, because this program had clearly been choreographed for maximum emotional impact (rude!) and it was normal for people to cry throughout, wasn’t it? Mixed in with my grief was a new, futile but fierce wish that my dad’s life had been not just longer, but easier, with fewer worries and more time for thismore time for joy. He had worked as hard as he could for as long as he could, and he would never have been able to afford a vacation like this—between the park-hopping and the resort accommodations and the food and the souvenirs, it was an experience of unbelievable excess compared to our modest family trips to the beach in my grandparents’ RV. Even those were often taken without my dad because he got so few weekends off during the years he managed restaurants.

The day before his funeral, Mom told me about the many promotions Dad had missed out on because his company wanted to promote and relocate younger single men without families, who would be cheaper to move and who wouldn’t have to sell a house first. “Isn’t that illegal?” I said, furious. My mother, who comes by her pessimism honestly, shrugged and said, “That’s what they told him.”

To my surprise, Disney World was not a difficult place to be while in mourning. To me it didn’t feel like an escape from grief, so much as a continued break from unendurable real life. The cast members were as helpful as everyone told us they’d be; either it was genuine kindness and compassion, or they were all the best in the world at faking it. Our disability access pass made everything easy. I was a little surprised by how completely I was won over by the unstinting friendliness and good cheer. I’d often told my husband that I could happily go my entire life without visiting a Disney theme park—but by day two of our trip, I was smiling and saying things like “it’s amazing, thank you!” whenever a cast member spotted my “1st Visit” button and asked how I was enjoying my inaugural Disney Experience.

We were all focused on the kids, but I wasn’t just going through the motions for their sake. I felt seen and even strangely, tenderly cared-for while we were there—as if I’d stepped into a world where, at least temporarily, nothing terrible could reach me or the people I loved. It was a blessed relief to fall into bed each night, exhausted and footsore, and sleep soundly until morning for the first time since my dad died.

Yes, it was also impossible to escape the fact that I’d been unexpectedly and radically altered by loss, my life clearly divided into before and after: Everywhere I looked, there were happy kids, families celebrating, so much undeniable proof that the rest of the world would go on just fine without my dad. But I wasn’t just pretending to be happy as we rode on roller coasters and met our kids’ favorite characters and ate Mickey-shaped ice cream bars and popcorn by the bucketful. Despite the ravages of grief and the common cold, most of the time I was happy, because my kids were, their first experience with death tempered by sturdy youthful resiliency, the love of my husband’s extended family, the thrill of a new and welcome adventure.

Back at the Disney resort that first night, I called to tell my mother about our first day. I sent her photos and shared everything the kids had done. When you tell people you are going on your Disney vacation, as planned, the day after you bury your father, you halfway expect to be called a monster. But my mom was so glad we’d made it there after all, and her selfless happiness in our daughters’ excitement finally convinced me that it was alright.

I try not to feel guilty about missing so much time with my dad in his final years while I was busy raising children and working on the other side of the country. I am now, and have been for years, more parent than daughter, and I think Dad understood that. With limited time, limited vacation, limited resources, we did the best we could.

After he died, though, one of the first truths to pierce the haze of my grief and bewilderment was that having little guilt is not the same thing as having few regrets. I will always have regrets. If I’d known how little time we had, if I’d known my father would die suddenly at 67, I might have made different choices. I might not have chosen a university 3,000 miles from home. I might not have stayed on the East Coast after I got married. I might not have put my name on two mortgages, or pursued my own graduate studies, or had children when and where we did—all decisions that kept us out here, made it even more difficult to visit home, and consistently kept me torn between my kids’ significant needs and my parents’.

But I have to remember that my father, too, was more parent than anything else. He never got to experience deep professional satisfaction, so while he worked hard, work was never his life. He left his whole family behind in Ohio to start a new one with my mother and me. We were his life.

By the time he got sick, my children and husband and career were my life, and he wouldn’t have wanted me to put any of it on hold because of him. If there’s one thing I know about my dad, it’s that he wanted me to be happy. And he also would have wanted his grandkids to get to say goodbye to him, and then go on their long-awaited Disney trip—even if he’d never get to hear about it.

Sometimes I feel as though I have spent the months since his death apologizing to everyone in my life. I’m so sorry, I keep saying and typing and thinking and sometimes crying. To my mother, for not living closer to her. To my husband, for everything he’s had to do, all the pieces he’s had to pick up, while I grieve. To my children, for my distraction and shorter temper. To friends, for missing their parties, birthdays, bylines, readings, emails, texts because I was unprepared for how all-consuming grief would be. I didn’t realize how much time you lose, simply cannot track or account for, in the throes of it.

I have missed so much this year. Mostly, since the day he died, I have missed my father, but I have also missed myself. Some days, in truth, I still feel lost, grasping in the dark for a thread I can follow back to the person I was before this pain struck. And so maybe I didn’t go to Disney World just because my kids wanted to. Maybe I also went because this trip seemed like a chance to build some memories with my own family, and hold them fierce and close while I can. God knows I didn’t want to lose anything else after my father died—not precious time with my kids, certainly not the opportunity to see them having the time of their lives. By then, we had all lost enough.