“How old were you when your dad died?”, I was asked.
“Twelve,” I replied.
“Do you remember him?”
Interesting question. I do remember him. But, I remember him from the perspective and eyes of a child. My dad died of pancreatic cancer in 1983 at 54 years old. I remember clearly the illness and the physical suffering he endured. Although it has been 34 years since he died, the impact of losing a parent as a child is still there.
I had 12 years with him which I am grateful for. The memories I have, I lovingly cherish. Of course, I wish there were more. More conversations. More years to get to know him. More milestones to experience with him. More pictures to take with him. More hugs to have, and more wisdom to gain from him.
But how do I describe him? Think about the ability to analyze traits and personalities as an adult vs. when you were 12. It is different. While it’s hard to explain how it is different, it is one of the most profound things I think about as I have moved through the years as a fatherless daughter. How would I describe him differently if we had time for those lost conversations? It’s as if there is a “road closed” sign, and you never get to see what is beyond that sign.
The grieving occurs in many ways and in many phases. The immediate grieving is about adapting to day to day life. I had not only lost a parent and half of what brought me life. I had lost my normality, as the day to day routine changed. It was the empty chair at the dinner table. The empty spot where his car was in the garage. The empty seat at athletic games or school plays. Or realizing we don’t know quite how to fix the broken lawnmower, or where the ladder is. And, of course, getting through that year of “firsts” – first Christmas, first vacation, first birthdays.
Family becomes extended, and I formed bonds with those outside the immediate family to fill some of the void. Life moves on, and the family does adapt to the “new normal” with the support of this extension of family and friends. They help without even knowing how they are helping. Life does become full again despite the emptiness. But it’s a new form of “full.”
Children who have lost a parent also need to grow up much sooner than planned. There is a mandatory need to grow up overnight without a choice, and without proper “adulting” experience. At a time when I should have been focused on which Cabbage Patch doll was the cutest, or how to solve the Rubik’s Cube, I was learning life lessons: Life is short. Only the good die young. Be strong.
The grief comes and goes throughout your life, and it doesn’t go away as you age. It does evolve, however. You grieve the emptiness, the unshared conversations, and events as much as the monstrous physical illness that he endured. Part of the grieving evolves beyond the loss of the person to grieving what is missing; what has not occurred and will not occur.
I am lucky to have had the 12 years. There are children who lose a parent who have less time or are so young that they don’t remember their lost parent. That is why organizations such as Family Lives On are so important, and I wish they had existed when I was going through it! The need to preserve the traditions and help children honor their parent’s memories helps the grieving process.
To those who may be going through it: Know that you do get stronger. You do heal. You do gain comfort in the memories and the photographs. Your personality is colored, but you do adapt to the loss. And you do your best to make the best parts of them shine on through you in your day to day lives. It eventually becomes normal that they are not in the pictures and included in the milestones. And with the realization that the absence has become “normal,” a fleeting sadness enters among the smiles and the laughter. Those conversations that cannot be spoken are perhaps one of the hardest things to grieve. And you continue to wonder how the relationship would have grown over the years if it weren’t for those lost conversations.
By Marty Glidden Holland, volunteer for Family Lives On Foundation