The trip that helped me to find joy after my dad’s death

When an opportunity landed in my lap to sublet a room in a friend-of-a-friend’s apartment on Maui, Hawaii for a month I snapped it up. The offer came out of the blue and it was perfectly timed.

The first anniversary of my Dad’s death was looming, and I was filled with dread. Flying more than 7,000 miles across the world to a tropical island, a mere speck in the Pacific Ocean, seemed like the best way to mark the day and end a really difficult year. 

The apartment was in Lahaina, a small town on the northwest coast of Maui that was the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom for almost half of the 19th century. I quietly settled into my new island life with early morning yoga classes by the beach, hours spent bobbing like a cork on top of gigantic waves and plenty of mahi-mahi fish tacos and fresh mango. 

A stand-up paddle boarder off Launiupoko Beach Park, south of Lahaina town (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)
A stand-up paddle boarder off Launiupoko Beach Park, south of Lahaina town (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

But while on paper everything was idyllic, a heavy sadness intruded my days. Spotting green sea turtles and breathing in the scent of tropical flowers didn’t veil the immense grief I was carrying ever since my dad, Dick Cogan, died suddenly from heart failure on 10 May 2022. 

A turbulent swell of emotion rolled in like a massive Pacific wave, but the tide never seemed to go out. It just rose up and spilled over whenever and wherever it pleased. “You’ll take your head with you, you know,” my mum had warned before I left.

My sister told me Dad had visited Honolulu on a rugby tour in the eighties. He was a proud, larger-than-life man from Cork who knew how to enjoy himself and never cared what people thought of him. We shared the same sense of occasion and any-excuse approach to celebrations. I resolved to sit with my sadness, but celebrate him. 

I felt reassured to learn early on in my trip, from a friendly local woman called Ashley, that Maui is the “heart centre” of the Hawaiian archipelago and a place that people come to heal.

That feels even more pertinent now. In early August last year, three months after my stay on Maui, devastating wildfires ripped through Lahaina killing more than 100 people and destroying thousands of businesses and homes. Miraculously, one of the few things to survive the wind-driven blaze was the town’s 150-year-old Banyan tree. Recovery efforts have brought the already- close community together to rebuild and hopefully heal, but Lahaina remains off-limits to visitors.

The banyan tree in Lahaina, planted in 1873 (Photo: Meredith Narrowe/Getty Images)
The banyan tree in Lahaina, planted in 1873 (Photo: Meredith Narrowe/Getty Images)

On the day of the anniversary, I got up early, lit a candle and propped a framed photo of Dad up in the kitchen while I cooked eggs. I played his favourite songs: My Way by Frank Sinatra; Only Sixteen by Sam Cooke and the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack, which he’d blast in the car at full volume, windows rolled down. As a child, the bombastic opening organ would make me sink into the backseat and squirm. Now, I realised the value of his quirks. 

A day behind

I hadn’t considered that Maui is 11 hours behind GMT. I’d already received heartfelt texts from my family and a handful of close friends. But when the day of the anniversary started for me, it was already yesterday at home. I felt out of sync with my siblings and terribly alone. That morning, I stubbed my toe on a rock on the beach and cried hot tears curled up on my travel towel wondering why on earth I’d travelled so far away from the people I loved.  

Later, I found some serendipitous solace in an enormous heart shaped stone lapped by the surf. I’d heard that it’s a sign someone you’ve lost is close by, similar to seeing a single white feather. 

The heart-shaped stone (Photo: Judy Cogan)
The heart-shaped stone (Photo: Judy Cogan)

My Dad and I always enjoyed the ritual of eating out together. We’d sat opposite each other in countless restaurants over the years, from my first McDonalds to Roast in Borough Market and plenty of curry houses. We shared stories, made plans, laughed, rowed and even shed tears. Our last meal out together was at a Thai restaurant in my hometown of Harpenden. 

It felt natural to end this up-and-down anniversary with a meal out in his honour. I’d go alone, the empty chair opposite signifying his presence and absence simultaneously. 

I chose a laid-back burger joint called Cheeseburger in Paradise, set in a wood-panelled building looking out to sea with an open-air deck at the top and tiki decor downstairs. 

I felt nervous, unsure of the emotions that might rise – was this even a good idea? But before I could back out, a waiter led me to a table, passing sun-pinked families in floral dresses and hot-from-the-rail Hawaiian shirts, positioning me next to a window with a clear view of the ocean.

The anniversary meal at Cheeseburger in Paradise (Photo: Judy Cogan)
The anniversary meal at Cheeseburger in Paradise (Photo: Judy Cogan)

As I sat down the sunset was in mid-performance: an epic sky brushed with soft smudges of violet and swirls of pink and blue. Clouds, blended like the fruity milkshakes that children slurped on nearby tables, were punctured with slices of vivid orange. 

I could imagine my dad opposite me, glasses low on his nose, surveying the laminated menu: “Have whatever you like, it’s on me”, he’d say, even though he rarely let me pay. “This one’s on me tonight, Dad,” I thought as the waiter took my order. 

When my cheeseburger and fries arrived, I chuckled. The portions were small and I could just see Dad’s mouth fall open, the disappointment palpable. “We’re paying for the view,” he’d grumble, before panic-ordering extra sides, adding: “Let’s wreck the place.” 

I took my time eating, wondering what we’d have talked about (probably the tiny portions). Tears rose, of course, but he felt close, even though I was alone. And as darkness cloaked the sky I asked for the bill, tipping heavily just as Dad did. 

The road to Hana on the east coast (Photo: Shobeir Ansari/Getty Images)
The road to Hana on the east coast (Photo: Shobeir Ansari/Getty Images)

In the days that followed, I made the most of every minute on Maui. Paddleboarding alongside seals, chatting to locals and signing up for surf lessons. I joined a small group of locals taking the famously precarious but scenic road trip to Hana, watched the sunset from the top of Haleakalā, the world’s largest dormant volcano (still technically active), and hopped on a ferry to explore the neighbouring island of Lanai. 

To have experienced this pocket of Hawaii, in all its incredible natural beauty and when my own grief was so raw, is something I’ll cherish forever. I hope in time the island can heal too.

For information on Lahaina’s recovery and tourism in Maui, see gohawaii.com