of interest

SURVIVING THE “AFTER”

New book from Wahoo’s Fish Taco co-founder Ed Lee explores grief after a child’s death 

By Amy Senk | Contributor

FALL 2022 ISSUE

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Photos courtesy of Ed Lee

Ed Lee is a fixture in the Orange County restaurant community. He and his brothers started Wahoo’s Fish Taco in 1988, growing it from a store in Costa Mesa to more than 60 locations in six states and two countries. He founded Tableau Kitchen & Bar at South Coast Plaza, Toast Kitchen & Bakery, a donut shop and more. Professionally, he’s been dubbed Orange County’s “restaurant whisperer.” He surfs, he runs, he’s a family man, and back in 2016, he thought his life with his wife and two teenage sons was as close to perfect as he could ever hope.

 

On Wednesday Dec. 5, 2016, all of that became the “before.” By lunchtime, he was thrust into the “after” when a police officer called to say his son, Emilio, had been injured. Ed hurried to the hospital where he learned Emilio was suffering from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Emilio never regained consciousness and died at 17.

 

In the days, weeks and years that followed, Ed struggled, eventually reaching out for help and figuring out ways to cope with his devastating loss. This summer, he and his longtime friend, Ron Ottenad, released a book called “After: Learning How to Live After the Death of a Child,” available on Amazon as an e-book or paperback.

 

The book, Ed says, fills a void in the self-help category by presenting a strong, honest and personal male perspective on grief.

 

“When you start the grieving process, for some crazy reason, men are more competitive,” he says. “Whatever it is within us, we want to race through this thing, and most men think this is a fixable problem. It’s not. It is not fixable. It took me a year of a lot of counseling and anger issues. 

 

“They say, ‘Time heals all wounds,’ and it doesn’t,” he continues. “But they keep telling you this, and for some crazy reason, it doesn’t resonate in your mind. Then seven, eight months into the process, I’m like, ‘Shit. This thing is not ever going to go away, and no one has ever told me that.’” 

 

For Ed, the early months after his son took his own life were an unimaginable blur of pain and confusion. His son’s death, he wrote, was not like a hurricane that built up with obvious clues like a history of depression, mental illness, or suicidal thoughts or attempts. 

 

“Emilio’s suicide was more like an earthquake,” he wrote. “No warning. He did not suffer from depression or mental illness. He had no history of suicidal ideation, and he had never done anything harmful to himself. In an instant we found ourselves at the epicenter of a violent quake that sent shockwaves of destruction through the landscape of our lives. There was no time to brace our hearts.”

 

His wife, Michal, handled her grief differently, was open to help and support from the beginning. Ed felt hollow.

 

“In the first year, nothing was making sense,” he says. “Anybody that would approach me, if they were telling me how to grieve or trying to give me advice, it made me absolutely crazy. Christians would come to me and say, ‘It’s part of God’s plan.’ What the eff are you talking about? What kind of God would take away the greatest joy of my life, one of the best things that happened in my life? Why would he do that? How could that be God’s plan?” 

 

He sought relief and numbness and escape with alcohol — something that nearly destroyed him, but eventually led him to ask for help.

 

“You cannot use alcohol or drugs to think you’re going to numb this pain,” Ed says. “That will be the darkest road you’re going to walk through.”

 

Ed finally turned to his longtime friend, a pastor and now co-author, Ron Ottenad. For six months, he focused on getting his drinking under control. Later, he began meeting regularly with a grief counselor and then began group therapy.

 

Ed strongly believes that grieving men should reach out for help, but that they should do it on their own time, perhaps starting with a trusted friend or perhaps a faith-based choice.

 

“Everybody grieves at a different pace, so you’re not going to be able to go, ‘Oh, I can find a counselor within three months,’” he says. “For me, it took two years. … It’s a long journey for most men. First, you’ve got to admit you are broken. I hated all that process. But then you get over the first hump.”

 

Then, he says, you realize that there is no future date when you will realize you are “fixed.”

“You’re never going to get to the end,” he says. “I felt like, ‘This is so annoying, why can’t I get fixed? I don’t want to go through this anymore.’”

Many men, he says, have had similar experiences. He hates to generalize, but men often grow up being told not to cry, to be tough, that being a good man means being able to fix things and handle your business.

 

“It’s hard to ask for help,” he says. “My guy friends are amazing people, but we weren’t sitting there, crying on a Friday night, going, ‘Oh I’m sad.’ We don’t do that. I don’t want to generalize things, but my wife was much more open about getting help.”

 

By sharing about his journey and how it was different from his wife’s, he hopes the book will be useful to men struggling with their grief. The male outlook, told from personal experience, was something he craved but never found in other books. 

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He liberally uses surf metaphors, like how his grief felt like wiping out and being “ragdolled,” or tossed helplessly in the waves — how avoiding grief can be like “duck diving,” or pushing your surfboard beneath the surface and submerging yourself under the energy of the oncoming wave. He writes about feeling competitive, even about grief process, wondering if others are “ahead” of him on their emotional path. The book also has two appendixes, one with “dos and don’ts” for someone suffering a loss and advice for friends of the grieving person, and another with a list of resources. 

 

The idea to write a book came up about a year ago, when he and Ron were talking about Ed’s notes, which he wrote daily when he began counseling. 

 

“Writing notes of the day, what’s happening in your life and timelines are part of the process of getting better,” Ed says. “Ron said I should put them in book form to let other people know about the emotions I’d been through.”

 

Ed took a month or so to review three years of notes, trying to decide if such personal and emotional entries should be turned into something public.

 

“It was hard to go back through my notes and look at some of the dark moments of my life,” he says. “It was just really tough to go through it. Then I took a little breather, and I started.”

 

They would go back and forth on the book collaboration, organizing chapters, and editing. 

“It was therapeutic, reading the book as it was being written, over and over and over,” Ed says. “Parts of it, I remember exactly the choice I had to make, and it was to live. I know that Emilio would be here saying, ‘Daddy you have to live. Don’t let me hold you back.’"

With the book complete, Ed says he’s been making good on the choice to live. He decided to cut back on work, stepping back from Wahoo’s at the beginning of the year and limiting his workdays so he has Mondays through Wednesdays free to “dillydally.” The other days, he’ll stop by Tableau or Toast, where he’ll work for a few hours and hang out with his team. 

 

At 58, he still runs and surfs, sometimes at 32nd Street, but more often these days at Morro Bay, where he can catch waves in the morning and later visit Paso Robles for wine tastings.

 

“That has become my happiest place on earth. You can surf and have amazing wines in the same day,” he says. “But that’s also been the hardest part, to start living all over again. I used to think, four-and-a-half years ago, that the best part of my life is gone. Well, if that was the greatest part of your life, gone now, then why are you living? It was a really good part of your life, and greater things are going to happen, and you have to look forward to that.”

Editor’s note: September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call or text 988, the country’s first nationwide three-digit mental health crisis that went live this summer and will connect callers with trained mental health counselors.