When Sarah Tarca’s beloved stepdad Daryl passed away, she was only 23. In this candid interview, The Wayward co-founder and writer opens up about his legacy, her heartbreak and all that she’s learned from his passing. Get your tissues ready, you’re going to need them!

Sarah Tarca

1. Can you share the story of Daryl’s  passing?

Daryl was my stepdad, my mentor and the single greatest influence in my life . He came into my life when I was 14, and although I didn’t know it at the time, it was when I needed it the most. Even as an angsty, conflicted teenager I knew he was special. My parents had only divorced a year before and although I definitely didn’t want a stepdad – let alone one that drank that ‘weird’ soy milk and ate rye bread – he had a way of gently stealing your heart. He taught me so much about spirituality, about knowing and trusting myself and showing me what a beautiful, respectful marriage looked like. Even now I’m aware of how rare that bond is, and it’s just another gift he gave me.

So of course it was unfathomable that someone who had so much light and brought so much joy would get sick. That happened to other people, not him. And so when he called to tell me he had colon cancer, I assumed it was just a little blip. But after a year and a couple operations I realised it was much more. Despite multiple rounds of chemo and all the will and positive manifestation in the world, the cancer has spread to his lymph nodes, and then his liver. At the beginning of the second year of his illness he was diagnosed terminal, and we knew there was no coming back.

Despite this, he carried on life as he always had. My mum and he had a daughter together who was just three at the time, and he continued to be an amazing father and stepfather even when he was vomiting through yet another round of chemo. In March 2005, he and my mum came to visit me in Sydney for what would be his last visit to a city he loved. Looking back at the photos of that time, it’s still hard to believe he had a disease ravaging his body. He was glowing, full of life, round cheeked and smiling, as is always the imprint of him in my mind. It’s those things that get you… that give you false hope, because the heart keeps telling you it will be ok. That he looked so WELL.

But shortly after he was admitted to a hospice in Adelaide. He decided to no longer receive chemo as it made him so sick and cranky (which was not a Daryl trait), but my mum couldn’t juggle the role of full time carer and mother to a toddler, so it made practical sense. However, the practical isn’t always what’s kindest on the heart. For over six months we watched the rotating beds in the hospice. Not daring to make friends because it would just be another goodbye. Daryl naturally became a favourite of the nurses with his wicked sense of humour and lust for life right until the end. But of course he was deteriorating. Soon, the weight would start to fall off, the skin would turn yellow, and the full cheeks were long gone. With each visit back to Adelaide (where they lived) I held my breath, wondering if this goodbye would be my last.

And that’s the thing with cancer. There are good days and there are bad days. And the good days will have you laughing and thinking “maybe he’ll get through this” even though you know he won’t. And the bad days you watch in unbearable pain as the person you love is eaten away. For two years we were on a roller coaster with Daryl, watching him fight, seeing the light and then crashing back down again. There was even a time where mum called for me to come home because he’d taken a turn, only for me to get there and see him come back again.

But eventually THE phone call came. He was losing consciousness. His breathing was laboured. I had to get home. He was alive but not lucid when I got there. I can’t remember the goodbye because there’d been so many. I just remember not wanting us all to be in pain anymore. In a way I’d been mourning him for two years. He died in the afternoon of December 9, 2005. I was 23. And when we cleaned his room later that week, we found an (unfilled) Christmas card he’d bought for my mum, thinking he’d be there for it. Because that was Daryl, even with his last breath he was optimistic that it wasn’t the end.

2. How did you get through those initial hours, days, weeks? 

Honestly I think I was just in denial. I had just moved to Sydney to start my career at Cosmopolitan, and I had so much change around me I just felt like this was another one of those things. Like many people will tell you, it didn’t feel real at the time… because he didn’t look sick. He just looked like Daz. I was always very resilient and used to big change, having moved schools and cities when my parents divorced, and then interstate for the hope of a job, so I knew I could do it – it was just a matter of if I wanted to.

But after the initial shock, it was actually Daryl that helped me get through. My first instinct was to move back home and ditch the career, but Daryl continually told me I was where I was supposed to be, and that as much as he loved me, he didn’t want me to come home because there was nothing I could do. Knowing he was proud of me and wanted me to stay kept me moving through each day. All those years of Daz helping me to trust and believe in myself became a tool within itself. He’d always instilled that everything happens for a reason, and I just had to believe whatever happened was part of a bigger plan.

3. What has Daryl’s passing taught you about life, and death?

Don’t wait. To say what you feel, to travel to that country you’ve always wanted to go, to chase that dream. And don’t let fear stand in the way. Nothing incredible ever came from doing nothing and entertaining the status quo. Death doesn’t discriminate, it’s a reality for all of us, so why wait to live?

4. Knowing what you know now about grief, is there anything you wish you’d known back when Daryl passed away to help you through the grieving process?

I didn’t realise just how differently everyone grieves. Some people shut off, some people put walls up, some retreat, some break down. There’s no right or wrong way to feel, but it’s difficult to understand and connect with people when they don’t grieve in the same way as you. At the time I couldn’t comprehend how people (including his own children) didn’t want to say goodbye to him on his final day. But that’s just their process. It’s not up to me to tell them how to feel.

Also, I wish there was a mute button for all the dumb stuff people say to you after someone you love dies. It just makes everyone so uncomfortable that some people would avoid me completely, others would pretend it didn’t happen, and other still would spurt textbook cliches. I wish there was a “read this before someone you love dies” listicle that would’ve prepared me for all that with a side of humour.

5. How is your grief journey now? 

Almost 13 years on I can safely say the ache, the missing never goes away. But I don’t feel winded anymore. Now I think about him and smile, rather than cry.

Universally speaking I also feel like this happened to me first so I could be a support for my best friends. Since Daryl, three of my closest friends have all lost their Dads. Having been through it first, I knew what to say, I knew what they needed, and I was able to be that rock for them. And that is really special.

6. Do you have any ceremonies or rituals when anniversaries or special days roll around?

Whether you believe in spirit guides or not, I’ve always found it helpful to speak to Daz. I speak to him often, ask for advice, guidance, or just think “what would Daz do?” Whether it’s me just tuning into my own intuition, or something greater, this is my way of connecting with him often. And of course on his birthday and on his passing day I take some time to journal, sit with myself and feel all the things. I may have had only nine years with him, but on the other hand I had nine WHOLE years. It’s just the way you look at it right?

I also always talk to my sister Lilly about him often. She was only three so doesn’t remember him, but she is every bit him in personality, temperament and even the way she looks. I’m reminded of him every time I look at her, and I want to keep his memory alive for her also.

7. What advice do you have for other young people experiencing what you did?

It’s bloody unfair to lose a parent. There’s no two ways about it. It’s OK to be angry, or sad or whatever. Scream, kick a wall, do whatever you need to do. And then use that feeling to make sure you’re living your fullest, most authentic life.

Also know this: At the beginning it will consume you. You will think about it every second. Then, every minute, and then weeks later maybe every hour. And then one day it won’t be the first thing you think about anymore. And eventually you’ll go a whole day where you didn’t cry, and you didn’t feel like you were underwater. And that’s when you know the healing has begun. It won’t ever leave you, but it won’t consume you anymore. It will get easier.

8. You recently became a Mama to little Yuki, which can sometimes make you contemplate concepts around death and dying, as well as your own legacy. Have you experienced any of that yet? If so, what?

More than anything, it just makes me sad that Daryl didn’t get to meet Yuki, or even my partner Phil. It’s those times I really feel the hole he left behind.

For me, I just want to keep living brightly, fully, and authentically. I want Yuki to be a part of our world and to know how loved he is… and I don’t want to wait until retirement to do all the good stuff. Phil and I joke that we took an early retirement at 36 when we started travelling and left our 9-to-5s. But also, I think I value my own life more now, because although you can’t control death, you can choose to be careless with your life (or not), and as much as I can I want to be there for him.

9. How do you want to be remembered? What’s your legacy and what kind of funeral or memorial would you like to have?

Ideally, there’d be a glitter drop… LOL.

But actually, that’s not a bad idea, I do love a bit of glitter. I just want there to be colour and lots of stories shared. I don’t expect people to be happy, because it’s grief after all, but if people were able to laugh at some silly stories I’d love that. Because my god are there some silly stories.

All images courtesy of @tarca and @autumnmooneyphotography.