When I was young, from about eight years old until I was in high school, I collected things. A lot of things: feathers, rocks, bouncy balls, coins, stamps, styrofoam assemble-it-yourself airplanes, and more. I kept them all in a large plastic trunk. Back then, my biggest fear in life was that I would forget everything– how life was in that moment, the vacations I took, the daily occurrences, and so on. My collections gave me something tangible to hold on to and an ability to save moments in time.

Looking back, it was an odd thing for someone so young to worry so much about.

I eventually stopped adding to my collections, but never had the heart to get rid of anything for fear that I’d regret letting go of something.

In my early twenties, the same habit manifested in a different form. As I navigated adult life, I held on to relationships for far past their expiration date: From a very unhealthy relationship, to a job I was half-hearted about, to friendships that were hollow. I had cluttered my life and was too scared to let go of anything, for fear that I’d let go of the wrong thing.

In memory of this Father’s Day, I want to share with you the story of how after losing my father, I learned to reevaluate the way I lived my life, and surround myself only with what I loved.

My situation

In the months leading up to September 11, 2010, when I lost my dad, I was still figuring out a lot about myself.

Somehow, I had ended up in a situation where I was co-habitating with my boyfriend at the time, and we had an unhealthy relationship. He was dependent on me for finances, and alcohol for everything else. I wanted to help him. We had been together for two years, and the beginning of it was great.

I can’t pinpoint when it all went downhill, or when I decided I wasn’t happy. Don’t get me wrong, he was a wonderful person– but he had problems I couldn’t fix. It was frustrating to endure insincere promises and glimmers of hope that things would change. He said he’d attend AA meetings, get rid of alcohol in our home, find a job and so on.

As some things started to seem like they were falling in place though, other things began to feel off. I’d find clues that things weren’t changing, only that he got better at hiding them. I would listen to the justifications that negated any suspicions I had. I lived in a world full of doubt, distrust, and inklings of thinking I was going crazy. I’d get whiffs of alcohol, or hone in to discreet text messaging. I’d wonder, was I making a bigger deal than things really were? The pain, the confusion, and the anger of wanting things to just be normal would come in cycles. There would be a standoff. Somehow after confrontations escalated, though, we would end up being okay again. I’d feel like we were in it together, and things would really get better this time around.

Hearing the voice

At the same time, I was still discovering what I wanted out of life. As I continued to figure out what I wanted for myself and my career, I started looking into design programs. Despite being in debt and holding only a part-time job, I decided to enroll in a Master’s program. It was a risky thing to do, and I agonized over it for months. I had a panic attack one evening and almost chickened out. But, something inside me was strong enough to say “do this now” with such an urgency that I knew I had to trust and do it for myself. The fear of not listening felt like I would be missing out on something that could affect my whole life. I decided that if I were going to do one thing meaningful for myself, this would be it. So I took the plunge.

Listening to the voice

After my first semester of the Master’s program, I met a lot of wonderful people. As I delved more into my projects and homework, I grew more and more resentful about my current relationship. The one investment I had made for myself, school, made me take a hard look on what was and wasn’t working for me in my life. Why couldn’t my whole life feel the way I felt about going back to school? Why couldn’t my life be filled with things I actually wanted to be a part of, instead of what I felt obligated to feel a part of? By going back to school, I had started to define the story I wanted to tell about my life. I just didn’t know it yet.

I tried to integrate my boyfriend to this new part of my life, to make him understand what I was passionate about, introduce him to my new friends, and so on. But the more I became present to my own needs, the more I realized I couldn’t continue working 110% to meet his. By end of August 2010, I told him I couldn’t do it anymore. Of course, I had been in this situation a few times before, trying to leave, then coming back. This time was different though. I knew– and he came to realize it– that this time, I really meant it.

A turn of events

The weeks to come were hell. I stayed away from my apartment when I could. I didn’t talk to my ex anymore. I stayed in the master bedroom, and he was in the living room. It grew to be so stressful that I ended up talking to a counselor about my fears, from leaving the relationship to trying to stay on top of my classes and find a new place to live. It felt good to let it out and tell someone.

I remember telling my dad that I had broken up with my boyfriend, and would be moving out. He told me, “I trust your judgement.” That’s how my dad was, always understanding, observant, and never meddling.

My dad was a cancer survivor, first diagnosed when I was 8 years old. He underwent various treatments and surgeries, and was eventually cancer-free (he was cancer-free for 18 years at the time of his passing). Growing up though, I had grown accustomed to him being admitted to the hospital a couple of times a year, for one thing or another related to the aftermath of the treatments and surgeries. He was always strong, and I knew he’d always be back home soon enough. However, when I got the call that my dad was in the hospital and would need to undergo a risky surgery, it felt different this time. I rushed to the hospital after work, over two hours away. The hopeful thought that he would be fine and go back home the next day lingered with me though– what would make this time any different from the rest? But, I quickly shoved that thought away.

On that car ride, I recall feeling extremely alive in the moment. Everything else that had seemed so pressing in my life quickly faded to the background, and the only important thing was to see my dad.


My family slept in the waiting room overnight, and I visited my dad in his bed at intervals. At parts of the surgery he was unconscious, but as I held his hand, I would feel a slight reassuring squeeze at times. I like to think he knew I was there…

When the doctor told us the news the next day, it was the most devastating moment of my life. With just a few words, “He didn’t make it,” in a blink of an eye the world as I knew it was gone.

There is no way for me to describe those moments after, because it all felt so surreal. The rest of that day was a blur of calling people, of crying, of planning a funeral, of planning what happened next. But towards the end of that day, I remember starting to get a feeling that was empowering. A feeling that sounded something like, “Your whole life so far was to cushion the blow of this moment. Of hanging on to everything for fear of losing anything, of losing your dad: memories, photographs, collections, diary entries…everything. Now that it’s happened, you have nothing to fear. What’s next?”

In the weeks to come, I made drastic decisions in my life. What used to be thoughts of “No, I couldn’t possibly do that” became no-brainers: I moved closer to family and quit my job a few months after because the commute was too difficult. I became a full-time student, which I was able to do with the help of my family. My ex came to the funeral, and that was that. I even ended some friendships with those who only brought negativity to my life, who never once visited me the days leading up to the funeral.

Once I realized the barriers I saw to living the life I wanted were self-imposed, it became easy to take charge of redesigning my life.

A life lesson

I share all of this because when my dad passed, a lot of things in life became real for me. At a time where I should have sought to find comfort in the familiar, I instead became catapulted into a world where I could start over: with my living situation, with my career, with my relationships, and with myself.

The fear of losing my dad was a burden I carried for most of my life. After his passing, I felt like I had finally exhaled after years of holding my breath.

When you have a near-death experience or someone close to you passes, the fact hits hard: don’t waste time on things that don’t ultimately matter. When my dad passed, my biggest fear at the time was realized. Once that message came in crystal-clear, I slowly incorporated that fact into the way I lived my life: Don’t waste time on things that don’t ultimately matter.

As I started to change my perspective on life, I essentially moved into the driver’s seat instead of feeling stuck in the passenger’s seat of my life story.

A lot of beautiful things happened in my life after my dad’s passing, a sense of all pieces finally falling into place. A few months after my dad’s passing, my closest friend from my graduate program introduced me to her brother-in-law, who I eventually married. Since completing and graduating from the program, I’ve found a career where I am excited to do the work I do. I am blessed with friends who “get” me, and coworkers who are just as passionate about what they do as I am. I’m able to immerse myself in my passions, including starting a business– things I could never work up the nerve before. Every day I am so grateful for what I have, and trust that as long as I listen to those little tugs of what to do next, I will be filling my life with meaning.

I can’t stress enough how powerful it was to free myself from my own limiting beliefs about my situation, but I’m not sure if I would have realized this had I not lost my dad. I still miss him every day, but instead of longing for the past, I am able keep his memory alive in the present.

Why I write

This was hard to write, and it’s a story I usually just share very intimately. But, if it can reach out to someone, it’s worth it to put it out in public.

Every time I write, I feel my dad’s presence. To me, Life Experience Design is a way to illustrate and verbalize the life lessons he taught me. Growing up, he distilled the notions of working hard but not taking life too seriously…of enjoying this life because it’s the only one we have…of making an effort to stay healthy because health is better than wealth. Of finding humor in situations, laughter as the best medicine and treating everyone with equal respect. Of trusting that everything will be okay in the end and that love is the best present you could ever give anyone.

If there is any way I can get others to wake up, seize and actively live out their lives without having to lose someone they love to get to that conclusion…that’s what drives me. It’s the reason why I write these articles, why I have a newsletter, why I create things. I want to keep inspiring others to live their lives out loud, and to take those risks when it means they will express their true selves to the world, 100%.

It shouldn’t take something like losing a loved one to wake up and realize that every day you are the only one who makes the decision on closing the gap between the life you have and the life you want.

With all my heart, I want you to live your 100% authentic life. Nothing in life is ever guaranteed, and this moment is all you really have.



2 Responses to “Surround yourself only with what you love”
  1. Maryn

    Lia, this was beyond beautiful. I can’t imagine how difficult it was to write, but just know that you are such an inspiration to those of us who are still finding the courage to build the lives we want. I love the line you wrote below and am trying my best to follow your lead!

    “…as long as I listen to those little tugs of what to do next, I will be filling my life with meaning. ”


    • Lia Fetterhoff

      Thank you, Maryn! It helped me as much (if not more) to write it, and I was able to reflect a lot in the process. I’m still figuring things out for myself, for sure, but it helps to remind myself of the path I’ve started to get here and how far I’ve come. You’re on your way, too! Can’t wait to read your story one day. :)


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