Throughout our coffee date, Ingrid Nilsen from time to time refers to her dad in the present tense. She’s aware he’s passed away, but speaking in the present tense is a choice she says helps her feel close to her dad.
I’m able to see how deeply Ingrid is going to be affected by our conversation from the minute she walks into the Brooklyn cafe. The YouTube star is wearing a bright yellow coat and a smile that matches, but one look in her eyes and I can see they’re overflowing with memories.
She’s ready to take me back almost nine years, but it won’t be easy. As she starts to tell me about her dad her voice grows in intensity, but manages to never lose its soft and welcoming tone.
She isn’t afraid to look me in the eye, either. Even in the moments when sadness and longing are all you can see in hers. At the end of the conversation, when the recorder goes off, I’m convinced that the reason she wasn’t afraid to show me, a stranger, her heart is because she’s proud of herself.
She lost someone she loves with her entire self and she made it out the other side. Looking back, the only thing she can credit for getting here is letting herself grieve, one second at a time.
Below is an excerpt of our conversation.
Tell me about your dad…
My dad was my best friend. He’s the most creative person that I knew and really always encouraged me to be creative and to be whoever it is I was — whether it was like everyone else or different from everyone else. He really just wanted me to follow my own path and that’s what we really bonded over because we both had this innate force within us to create.
What did your dad do for a living?
He was an architect, which is a huge reason why I pursued architecture when I was in school. I grew up with it and it was something that I never tried to love, it just happened. My dad never forced it upon me. I actually remember one day after being onsite with him, coming back and telling him that I really loved it and I thought that this would be something that maybe I wanted to pursue. He was so happy because he never expected it.
He also painted as a hobby, which he did for most of his life and he wanted to keep it as a hobby because he was already doing something that he loved for his career. He was like, “I just want to have this as the thing that I can escape to when things are stressful.”
I remember growing up with him always painting, whether it was going on site with him somewhere to a beautiful location…or he would paint in our front yard. I just always grew up around someone who was constantly creative and someone who was a rebel in a lot of ways. Maybe not in the way that a lot of people picture a rebel. There are so many other ways that you can be a rebel. Whether it’s in the way you think, the way that you dress, the way that you speak and he was definitely somebody who pushed limits and pushed boundaries. That’s where I think that I get the rebel inside of me.
What’s your favorite painting your dad ever made?
I had one up in my bedroom for a long time. It was this painting that he had done in Mexico and it was really bright, vibrant and colorful and it was just of these boats in the water, but I loved it. My favorite color is cerulean blue and that’s the color he chose to paint the water. So, it was a lot brighter than a lot of the other stuff that I had seen him do, which is why I loved it.
If your dad liked painting, what’s your go to hobby to relieve stress?
My hobbies are reading and writing. I love it, and honestly I hate it sometimes. It is really a love-hate relationship, but definitely more on the love side. I think anybody who reads or writes, you inherently get frustrated with yourself. Whether it’s with your writing or how you’re living your life because you’re so aware of everything that’s going on and that can be a great thing or [something that keeps you up at night] because you have so much going on in your head.
Reading and writing are definitely two things that have helped get me through so many different times in my life. I remember just as a young kid using reading and writing as my escape….to let out emotions that I didn’t otherwise know how to express or have anyone to express them to.
I also really love drawing. Those three things have always been my BFF trifecta.
Did you lean on this trifecta after you lost your dad?
The thing that was immediately soothing for me, for some reason, was being outside. It’s where I found comfort a lot whenever I was fighting with my parents as a kid or getting into some little tiff with a friend. I was lucky because we had this little creek between properties in our neighborhood and I would always escape there, it was this calm, peaceful place that I could go to.
And that was my immediate, knee jerk reaction when we got back from the hospital it was immediately to be outside and to just sit. To this day it’s one of the clearest memories that I have because I would really just take in every single second and just taking it one second at a time.
How would you describe losing your dad?
As the days went on, it was really a strange feeling because it was surreal. It was almost like my dad had gone away on vacation or a business trip and it felt like he was coming back and then when I would have the realization that he wasn’t coming back, that’s when it would really hurt.
It’s a hard thing to grasp that somebody is not coming back.
Especially when all of the familiar things that they would use everyday or the environment that you would see them in are still there. You can even smell them still, too. It’s a really surreal experience. That’s the way I’ve always described it to my friends, it felt like he was on a business trip and that he was going to come back but I would have that realization of, “Oh wait, he’s not coming back” and that’s when it would sting.
How did your dad pass?
He had a stroke unexpectedly. There was a point when everyone thought that he was going to be okay, but it turned really quickly. He was gone just as quickly as we thought he was going to get better. He was gone before anyone had time to process it.
It was rough because you’re teased. You’re teased with hope. You’re teased with hope and that’s the worst feeling to have that taken away from you.
I think one of the hardest things, immediately after, is that my mom and I both dealt with it very differently. My mom did not understand my way of grieving because my way of grieving was much more internal and personal, whereas she really relied on the people around her for support.
I relied on my friends and things like that, but it really, for me, was a very personal, internal process. My personal way of getting through it [was] through writing, through reading, through being outside. I preferred it to be that way and so it was difficult because we had these two very opposite grieving styles, if you will, and I think my mom was worried about me that I wasn’t grieving properly.
How’d this affect the way you grieved?
I want people to know is that there’s no right or wrong way to grieve. As long as you’re grieving in whatever way feels natural to you, that’s what you have to follow. You don’t have to follow somebody else’s path.
If I had tried to grieve the same way that my mom did, it would have been almost like just going through the motions. It wouldn’t have felt natural and I wouldn’t have actually been grieving. I would have been doing something just to please somebody else or to make people think that I’m okay, but I wouldn’t actually be okay.
One of the things I’m proudest of is that I stuck through with it, even though there were people around me that were second guessing me and saying, “You know, I don’t if this is the way you should be grieving.” I would say, this is the way I should be grieving. I know because I can feel myself, even if it’s just a little bit better everyday, I feel it. I can feel myself pulling myself out of this and that’s just all I needed. I stuck with it and I’m glad I did because if I had gone any other route I don’t know what would have happened. I don’t think I would have come out of it in as healthy of a way.
Having unique ways of grieving, reflects the fact that everyone may lose the same person, but loses different relationships…
I realized that the minute I lost my dad and saw my mom’s reaction. She lost her life partner, I lost my dad. It’s just really different. I think that my mom definitely realized that the way I chose to grieve is the way that I needed to grieve. Ultimately it brought us closer together because we were able to understand each other more — I’ve never been closer with my mom than I am now.
When my dad passed away, my mom was also going through breast cancer. She was diagnosed with it again around the time that my dad passed away and so it was hard because everybody was going through things.
I was dealing with the fact that I could possibly lose my mom, when all of a sudden I lose my dad. My mom is going through 10 million things — worrying about me, what’s going to happen if something happens to her, what my dad is going to do and then she loses her partner and everything changes.
It’s just strange how Life can just throw a curveball at you and just shake you to your core. It really wakes you up. It’s like, “Hello, here I am, it’s Life ready to just come in and make things interesting.”
Losing someone is not something that I would ever wish upon anyone, and of course if I had the chance to bring my dad back, I would; but, I think there are these crisis points in our life where we’re left with a decision. Either you can choose to ruminate in it and really disappear, or you can just take it one step at a time and know that you can make it through it. I don’t think it’s about getting over the loss. It’s just getting through it one baby step at a time.
How old were you when your dad passed away and how many years has it been since?
I had just turned 17 a couple of months previously. When I actually think about the time that has passed, it has been almost nine years. It feels so short and then long at the same time. It’s just a really strange thing to wrap your head around because you can remember things so clearly and so vividly, but then you realize, life happened.
All of these things happened to me over the course of these years. I have moments when I’ll think back to when I lost him and how much has changed since then. Putting myself back in that moment when I had those times of thinking — I’m never going to get through this…how am I supposed to survive this…I can’t even think five minutes ahead how am I supposed to even think about five years. Before you know it it’s five years later and you look back and you just think, “Oh my gosh, I’m somehow here how did this happen.”
How was it going back to school?
I remember being shuffled from my classes to the guidance counselor to another room, they were unsure of what to do with me. There were some teachers who were having me go to class and other teachers who were like she doesn’t have to be in class. I was being juggled around like this rag doll.
It was [overall] so strange going back to school. I went back the next day because I just didn’t want to be at home, I needed to just get out. I remember making it through my first class and not saying anything. I didn’t really know people that well in that class, so it wasn’t that big of an issue.
Then the next class was my Spanish class and I remember the girl that sat next to me in class, we would always be laughing and talking. She would just always make me laugh and I remember she came up to me, because she had no idea what had happened, she just thought I had been sick. I forget what exactly she asked me, but it was something so normal and so mundane, like, “hey, how are you?” but someone just asking that made me break down.
Because she asked, “how are you?” and no one had asked that and I just lost it.
I remember she pulled me outside to a private place and told the teacher. [Once there] I just told her what happened. She was like “Okay, I’m going to take you to your guidance counselor,” and she went and told my teacher and that’s kind of how the school came into play, but I think she was the most valuable part of all of that.
She was the one who was really wanted to be there and she was actually asking me things that no one else had asked.
At school it was [a lot of] “maybe she should go here, or sit here, or she shouldn’t be in the classroom” and it was like, why don’t you just ask me what I want? I did have a couple of teachers who did do that and it made such a difference to just have somebody ask, “What’s going to help you? You tell me because I want to help you” and that was really powerful.
How would you describe the loss now?
I know it’s always there and there are moments where it’ll sting more on some days than other days. It’s this reminder and it’s not necessarily something that depresses me or makes me super happy, it’s just something that’s there that I’m like, I went through this and I’m proud of myself.
It’s a reminder that this is part of life. It’s also a reminder for me that I want to be there for other people no matter what they’re going through. I try to empathize as much as I can with somebody, if I can’t understand what they’re going through I try to give them their space and just be there. I know how it felt to have people whose intentions were for the best, but they couldn’t completely understand so they didn’t know how to deal with it. They didn’t know what to say or how to say it. For me, I would say I’m just happy for you being here and the fact that you care enough to come and see me — that’s all that matters. I remember the day that my dad passed away, my best friend called me because she couldn’t physically be there and we just sat on the phone crying together.
Grief is definitely a silent kind of reminder, that most times catches you off guard…
I’ve had so many moments when my initial reaction is to pick up the phone and call my dad. Then, I realize, wait I can’t do that. I still have those moments because it’s just something that you naturally want to do. I’m at a point now too where I’ve had people say to me, I didn’t even realize you’ve lost your dad because you talk about him in the present tense so much. It’s how I choose to remember him and that’s how I keep memories of him alive and I like talking about him in the present tense because it gives me comfort.
What have you learned about grief since your dad’s passing?
In America it’s like you’re allowed to grieve for this amount of time but then you have to jump back into your regular life — like, we’re only going to feel sorry for you for this amount of time. That’s just not how it works.
I think that being present in it is so important. Learning how to be present in the grief and not thinking that you have to push it aside. There’s almost like this blanket of shame around grief and if you feel anything other than happiness or the will to get through it or anything that’s bad, there’s this blanket of shame that goes across you. We’re human beings — you should feel what you need to feel, that’s the important part.
That’s what I tell people, it’s so much more powerful to feel what you need to feel whatever it is than to try to make yourself feel what you think you should feel. You need to feel what you need to feel and only you know what that is.
I wish that people would stop putting that blanket of shame over people and making them feel bad for losing someone.
Losing someone, whether you lose a parent or you’re losing a partner, they’re very different, but to measure that pain is cruel. It’s not something that people should do, it’s a very special relationship that that person had and who’s to say that I’m hurting more than you are. That’s not okay.
I think that people should just be there for other people and not say, “I lost this person and I’m doing fine, so you need to get with it.”
It’s not like that. I want to be there for people, I’m never going to judge someone for how they’re handling a situation because I realize that maybe they just need someone to be there or maybe they need a hug or just to know that someone is there to support them. It’s not about the comparison, it’s not a contest, it’s about support.
I think grief is ultimately a part of happiness. There are so many different parts that make up joy or happiness than just joy and happiness. There are these crisis points that you hit, that can really just change everything and it may seem devastating and earth shattering at first, but they can ultimately change you and change your outlook on life, which I never ever anticipated at all.
How do you think that your loss has changed you?
I’m still very much an introverted person, but when I want to see somebody face to face, it’s because I want to. I’m not doing it just for funsies. I’m doing it because I genuinely want to be around them and because I understand the value of that face-to-face time. That moment that I can never get back.
I think it gives you a much greater appreciation for the present moment and how you’re spending your time and how you’re living your life. Being present and mindful is something that I’m constantly working on and I don’t think I’ll ever perfect but this is something that made me realize the value in life and the value of the relationships around me.
Did you ever hit hard patches while grieving?
After losing my dad there was a period of time — because my dad was such a strong male figure in my life and then that was gone and I had no one else — I relied on relationships, romantic relationships with guys. This wasn’t necessarily the healthiest thing for me to do because I would end up in relationships with people who weren’t the best fit. I wasn’t the best fit for them, they weren’t the best fit for me.
I got dragged down into this dark place and then realized I have the choice to get myself out of this. I needed to really understand what I was getting myself into and not just enter into relationships — romantic or friendships — just ‘cause. I had to understand what I was doing, who I was surrounding myself with and who I was spending time with because that’s so important. I just kind of had this realization one day that maybe some of the people in my life weren’t the best fit for me. This doesn’t mean that they’re bad people or that I’m a horrible person, it’s just we’re not meant for each other.
[I learned] you don’t have to be stuck with these people, you can stand up and change that. It’s not going to be easy, it’s not going to make everyone happy, but it can be changed. I think that’s made such a huge difference in my life because I have gotten to a point where yeah, I don’t have hundreds of friends, but the people that I do choose to hang out with I really love.
You tend to be more conscious of your relationships, but there’s also this added reality of how weird people can get when you tell them about your loss…
I think what a lot of people don’t realize is that people who have lost someone have something so valuable that they can bring to relationships, whether it’s a friendship or romantic relationship. Everyone has their own experiences and different things they’ve learned that can be applied to different aspects of your life. For us, it’s appreciating the relationships that we do have, so that in turn it makes us want to be the best person that we can be. We’re still going to mess up, we’re still going to have our flaws, but we’re trying.
It is awkward though, whether it’s a new friend you’re talking to or [a date.] I’ve definitely learned how to deal with it because it’s not something I’m ashamed of. As awkward as it can be I think it’s definitely a turning point in a relationship. I honestly like seeing the reactions from people because I think that’s a little sign into what the relationship is going to be and everyone reacts differently.
The main takeaway…
I want people to know, people grow differently, you’re going to change. I want people to know that they don’t need to feel ashamed for grieving, they don’t need to feel ashamed for changing and they don’t need to feel ashamed for breaking away from people in their lives, whether it’s something that just happens naturally or it’s something that they choose to do. It’s not something you should be ashamed of because it’s part of life and how awesome is it to be on a path where you are brave enough to do that, and you’re striving to surround yourself with people that you love.
That’s all I ever hope for, to live life to its fullest. That means accepting grief and experiencing it when I need to, basking in moments of true happiness and when I’m feeling [so-so] to understand that too. I think that is really thriving and living life to its fullest potential. It’s not about every day having to be the best day ever, it’s about embracing the nuances of being human.
(Images: Ingrid Nilsen/Instagram)