Derrick McMillin had been clean for eight months when he learned his 10-year-old daughter Kassidie was fighting for her life. McMillin received horrific news that day in May at the drug treatment center where he was living: His ex-wife had put Kassidie to bed in her Dunedin home, shot her in the head and then killed herself.
Kassidie died two days later, and it was McMillin who made the decision to donate her organs, giving a 14-year-old boy and two women ages 44 and 51 a chance for a healthier future.
As Christmas looms, McMillin is still living at the treatment center, fighting for his sobriety and struggling with his grief.
"With the holidays coming up, it's like a roller coaster. A lot of days I break down crying. I just can't believe it's been seven months," said McMillin, 36.
He's steeling himself for a tough holiday, but looking forward to spending Christmas with his mom, who lives in Seminole. The treatment facility provides occasional day passes for residents to visit family and also transports McMillin to his temporary job at HoneyBaked Ham in Pinellas Park.
McMillin usually spent Christmas with Kassidie, a vivacious little girl who loved hugging him, riding her scooter and curling up with Maddy, her grandmother's cocker spaniel.
They had their own holiday traditions. On Christmas Eve, he and Kassidie would go to his grandma's house and his mother's home. And on Christmas day, they'd open presents at his house.
Last year, Kassidie visited him at another treatment center.
The year before, he spent nearly $1,000 on her.
"I did her room with all kinds of Tinkerbell stuff," McMillin said.
This holiday season, everything has changed. Most Fridays, he and his mother go to grief counseling provided by Suncoast Hospice.
"If it wasn't for Hospice, I would probably be a wreck right now," said McMillin, who sees his recovery from addiction to pain pills intertwined with his grief.
Tina Foster, Kassidie's mother and McMillin's ex-wife, left a suicide note for her husband William the night she shot Kassidie and then killed herself. The couple was breaking up. In the note, Foster told William she couldn't live with him or without him, felt like a failure, and "I would not want (Kassidie) going through her life without me in it."
McMillin is trying to find a way to forgive his ex-wife for what she did. It isn't working.
"Right now, it's a little too soon," he said, but he knows he must let go of the resentment to remain sober.
"Keeping that un-forgiveness is like keeping poison in you," McMillin said.
His mom, Bonnie Fedor, is worried that too often, he keeps his feelings bottled up inside. He admitted that he often feels uncomfortable showing his pain.
"I'm around 85 other people," said McMillin, who stays at the WestCare Florida addiction treatment center in St. Petersburg. "It's really hard to grieve in there. I know the real test will be when I get out."
McMillin is trying to look ahead. He's thinking about becoming a veterinary technician or a counselor. He also plans to write a book about his recovery and how he's dealing with the trauma of losing Kassidie.
"I'm hoping to help other people," McMillin said.
He wants to be home for good by Feb. 28, his mother's birthday. To get out of WestCare, he'll have to land a permanent job.
He thinks he has the skills to pull that off. He knows how to operate a forklift. He worked five years at Joto's Pizza. And, right now, he's not picky.
"I'll do anything," McMillin said. "I need to be with my family."
Lorri Helfand can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4155.