Finally Singing My Dad's Song

Dec 10, 2023

We're honored to share powerful words from Grieve Leave community member, Elizabeth Villalta.

In her contributed blog post titled 'Finally Singing My Dad's Song,' Elizabeth shares her journey, offering a reflection on the impact of her father's passing and the steps she took to navigate through this chapter of her life.

My dad died March 29, 2018 at 11:30PM in San Miguel, El Salvador, making me a member of the Dead Dads Club. We had a complicated relationship while he was alive, mostly due to the fact that my dad was, until his death, a raging alcoholic, as well as emotionally and verbally (and less frequently, physically) abusive towards my mom and his kids. According to my mom, the fracture in our relationship occurred when I was nine months old and my dad was imprisoned for drug trafficking. I was walking by then, and I’d always stay up until my dad came home and put me to sleep. While he was gone, I stopped walking and cried constantly. When he returned, I was skittish and distrustful of him, and this feeling only grew as I got older.

My dad’s addiction caused trauma to everyone in my home. As a kid in elementary school, my dad once put everything we owned on the lawn because my mom was taking us to church. My younger siblings and I cried until someone from church came to pick us up. He walked over to the car window and said, “Thank you for ruining my family,” as if he hadn’t just destroyed our sense of safety and acceptance by throwing our belongings on the front lawn for all to see. When we moved to North Carolina, my dad left us for 6 months. My mom and five children, including me, lived in my uncle’s house, where we’d sleep on the floor because we couldn’t fit more than one bed in the room. When my dad came back, he said he was sober and everything would be different. I remember watching him take my mom’s hand in his own and feeling disgusted and angry that she was going back to him after what he’d done. 

My mom finally left my dad after my then 12-year-old sister saw my dad choking my mom and told her, “Mom, we have to leave.” Dad said he wanted to go to California and stay with his mom to get away from “all the drama your mom is putting me through,” but he didn’t have the money for it. I forked over $800, all the savings I had at the time, and told him, “Leave.” It was worth it to me to have no financial safety net if it meant that he wasn’t going to keep hurting my mom and younger brother and sister. We stopped speaking when I was 19 and in college (which I was attending on a full scholarship) after I told him that I was considering changing my major from accounting, which I hated, to something in the humanities, which I loved. I remember sitting in my bedroom, crying on my bed, while he yelled at me on the phone about how I was throwing my life away and I wouldn’t ever amount to anything. I told him to stop or I wasn’t going to talk to him again; he continued to do so, and that was it. After this conversation, he’d call me on my birthday sometimes and leave me voicemails saying that one day, I’d realize what a good father he was and how he gave me everything and that I was a spoiled brat.

I’ve worked since I was 15 to cover my personal expenses, worked 3 jobs in college to pay for my living expenses, and even worked a part-time job while I was teaching full-time and attending grad school. I’d never accepted any money from him after I started working, because everything from my dad felt conditional, from love, to clothes, to validation. I never once heard my dad tell me he was proud of me. I lost count of the number of times he’d embarrassed me, didn’t show up at my school events (even my high school graduation, where I was salutatorian of my class), or just plain disappointed me. He’d promise the world when he was drinking, then forget that he’d said anything the next day. He’d accuse you of lying and taking advantage of him. It was always like that.

All of this to say, clearly, my dad and I had a terrible relationship. I did not trust him, and I never felt loved or understood by him. 

When he died, I cried for a few minutes, but it wasn’t the end of the world. Nothing in my life felt different from before him dying. My world wasn’t shaken. I didn’t find myself calling him and remembering he was gone. I’d always known cirrhosis would claim him eventually, as he drank two cases of Budweisser a night my whole life and I’m not an idiot. 

It wasn’t until a year later, on the first anniversary of his death, that I began to feel a sense of mourning. It was an “I can’t believe that I never got to have a relationship with my dad that wasn’t marred by trauma” moment. I mourned the fact that my dad, a skilled handyman, was never going to help me fix up my first house; that he didn’t get to see me have a fulfilling career, even if it wasn’t the career he’d wanted for me; that the only memories of my dad I’d ever have were tinted with anger and frustration. I mourned the fact that my dad had died and I’d never been able to count on him for anything. 

More than crying over the tragedy of the end of my father’s life, I mourned the future we’d never have. I envied (and still do, if I’m being honest) the relationship other dads and their daughters have. Sometimes, I felt like something was wrong with me that I couldn’t have the same. I’ve broken down in front of friends before, asking them why their dads love them, but mine didn’t love me. My dad was never a soft, reliable landing place. He was the voice inside my head that told me that I’d never amount to anything, that I was a failure, that I would never be happy. I still hear his voice in my worst moments.

I used to cringe when my mom would tell me that I was just like my dad. So many of the qualities I detested in my dad are also mine: the intolerance of tardiness, the black and white thinking, the quick temper. Through years of therapy, I’ve learned how to accept and stabilize those parts of myself and turn them into assets. I’ve also learned that I have many of my dad’s better traits as well: a love and reverence of music, a lightning-fast wit and sense of humor, the ability to make any stranger feel like a friend. 

Catharsis finally came to me about a year and a half later, through music. When I was little, my dad would sing a lullaby in Nahuat, a language indigenous to the Nahuat Pipil people of El Salvador, now spoken by less than 200 people (the number could be as low as 20). My dad wasn’t one of these speakers, but he would sing a slow, a cappella version of this song, sometimes accompanying it with his accordion, without knowing the meaning behind the lyrics. When he died, one of the things I mourned was the loss of this song, so I began researching it. This proved to be difficult since I’d only ever heard this song– I’d never seen it written down. I asked my siblings if they had the song anywhere, and one of my brothers gave me a link, which also doesn’t have the words anywhere.

Since Nahuat isn’t broadly spoken, I was left to phonetically write out what I thought the song said and e-mailed every language department, professor, and expert on Nahuat I could find online if they knew the song and had a translation for it. I received countless emails apologizing for not being able to help, and some provided the contact information to someone else they thought could help. After months of these emails, I’d abandoned hope that I would ever get the song translated. I was sitting in a professional development session one day in October, casually browsing through my inbox when I saw the subject, “Re: Translation for song?”. The sender told me that he was working on a project to translate songs from Nuahuat to Spanish, writing down songs that had previously only been passed down orally. I’d been searching for the meaning behind this song my whole life. It was one of a handful of good memories I had and I didn’t know if I was ready to lift the curtain on it. I took a deep breath. When I opened the attachment, I found this:

In English, the song more or less reads, 

When the sun sets, our Father, our Father,

It hurts, it hurts.

When the sun sets, my heart, my heart

The sun’s fire is dying. 

I am loving you, I love you,

Solar fire, solar fire, don’t go. 

My heart, my heart cries,

Solar fire, solar fire, don’t go.

The solar fire is gone.


(My translation skills are not very poetic, maybe solar fire should be “sun rays” or “heat from the sun,” but you get the gist.) 

I sat on the floor and cried until people poured out of the conference room, and then I went into a bathroom stall and cried. I screenshot the lyrics and sent them to all of my siblings. But this was about more than song lyrics. It was about finding closure with my dad’s death, putting into words what I had felt in a way that was true to generations of people before me, with a song that had been a lullaby from my dad to us. 

Read through the eyes of someone mourning the death of an estranged parent, the song reminds you that even though something is normal, common, and expected, there can still be pain associated with it. This song gave me the ability to reflect and realize that, even despite the trauma my dad inflicted upon me and the mental health issues we share, I am allowed to grieve. Even though it’s something I knew was coming, I’m allowed to grieve. Even though I can’t forgive him, I’m allowed to grieve. I got a tattoo to remind myself, the sun setting to a dark purple that looks like a bruise. I think it’s the perfect way to honor my dad. 

Now, when I  listen to the song and I sing my own version: “When my father died, my father, my father, it hurts, it hurts.” 

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