I am lucky to be able to have had an amazing father; I am unlucky to have been unable to get to know him.
My father died from a heart attack at the age of 55 on the 6th February 2001, three months after my 3rd Birthday. The first relationship a woman has with a man is the significantly natural father-daughter bond. When this is taken away during the growth and development stages of her life, before even turning 18, it has a major impact on her in a range of different ways. This varies from person to person and there are many different types of fatherless daughters, so my experience only represents one of them.
This isn’t just a therapeutic act of expression for me but I am also hoping it will positively reach out to others who have grown up with a similar experience and make them feel less alone, as well as serve as an eye opener for those who have had no insight into the traumatic loss of a parent. It is very strange for me to come to the realisation that the time I had with my Dad is all I will ever have with him. 3 years. I could live another 70, but I will still only ever have 3 with my father.
I grew up a lot faster than my peers and developed qualities of self-reliance, leadership and perseverance early in life – I have not fully blossomed in any of these areas yet. However, watching my mother have no choice but to possess all of these qualities in every single aspect of her life after my father’s death had a huge affect on my persona in these ways throughout my childhood and into my early adulthood.
When you experience death at a young age, it can ever so slightly deprive you of that naivety of childhood innocence. As a single parent, my mum must have experienced a tremendous amount of pressure that I will forever be unable to comprehend, and during my adolescence when I became more aware of our situation, I began to convince myself I must step into shoes much too large to fill. I subconsciously gained this new and heightened understanding of love, appreciation and gratitude for my mum (even though my ignorant teenage years probably didn’t prove that to her) because I became more aware of how much more she had to sacrifice just for my well-being. For some reason that caused a lot of unnecessary guilt which quite possibly could have triggered the impulse to become more independent. Whether I portrayed this through my behaviour or not, I still felt this weird responsibility over anything and everything.
The grieving process is ongoing – You can’t really “mourn” the death of your Dad as a 3 year old in the way an adult would and during the early stages of my childhood the absence of my father became a normality, so the weight of my grieving process didn’t really hit me that hard until later on. I was too busy being a child and revelling in the immense love of my mum and sister. I am an extremely lucky person to have had such an amazingly happy childhood despite what happened.
Realising the magnitude of my loss came over time and for me it is ongoing. Knowing that he was never able to experience the little things like standing by my mums side as she taught me how to ride a bike is a feeling that’s hard to avoid. Milestones come with bittersweet feelings; moments of excitement during huge celebrations like birthdays and achievements also hold that little bit of sadness that he’s not there to celebrate with you. But carrying his memory throughout all of these things and sharing his stories makes it all that more manageable.
My grief came gradually through different stages of my life, getting harder as I got older. It came during primary school when our class was putting on a Nativity Play for Christmas and I had the role of an Angel. This wasn’t long after my Dad’s death and I got confused as to why I had to be an Angel. I had been told so frequently that my ‘Daddy is on a star’ and ‘he is an Angel now’ that it triggered a lot of upset and confusion. Due to insensitivity from staff and the amount of upset caused, my mum had me switch schools.
It came on the playground after school when I would see other kids running into their dads arms. It came during parents evening. It came every single Father’s Day where we would all make cards for our Dads. Teachers would ask me if I wanted to sit out or do something else but I would always make a card for my Dad even though I wouldn’t be taking it home to him; instead, my mum would drive me to the Cemetery and I would read it out and rest it on his Gravestone. As I got older I would wonder how we would actually spend Father’s Day if he was around.
It came during high school when other kids would bitch about their dad’s for trivial reasons, later causing me to resent them for being unaware of their advantage. It came and it came. And it will continue to come, like when I graduate and he’s not here to tell me how proud he is of me. I will only hear that on behalf of him from other people: “your dad would’ve been so proud of you”. It will come when I plan my wedding and I won’t even have the choice to decide whether I want to be walked down the aisle by my father, or even have the choice to have the famous father-daughter dance.
I don’t mean to be so morbid, it’s just difficult to hold it all in alongside being scared to express the pain of every moment my Dad and I never had and never will. Losing a parent as a child means you get to know your loss as you go along through life. You don’t just learn to live without a parent, you learn what it means.
Envy, Jealousy and Resentment became emotions I faced too frequently – These are natural human emotions that all individuals experience. However, these emotions were persistent throughout my childhood. I would envy those children running up to their dads on the playground and I would be strangely jealous of those who’s parents are going through a divorce. You get the gist.
I would resent those who failed to understand. Having a desire to be understood by people who really couldn’t actually understand what I was going through growing up without my Dad, which was by no fault of their own, would honestly make me resent them for it. Mainly because of the way certain people went about it. Some people would tell me I was “lucky” and say “at least it happened when you were little”. I began to start saying this to myself hoping it would give me some kind of closure, I did this for years. It never did, it just made me feel less crazy, judged and guilty by those who made this statement. During my late teens I realised that actually there’s two sides to the statement and I gradually became envious of those who’d lost their fathers at an older age – “at least you had the chance to create memories that you will remember”.
All I have are second-hand memories from other people who knew my Dad to help me understand who he was. He was very old fashioned and out of all his children he was the softest with me. It is from him I get my eyes, smile and dimple and I carry on his memory. It’s often that my Dad feels less like a real person and more like a fictional character because I can’t remember him; this makes me envious of the people who knew him.
People react in different ways – This is something I have learnt to get used to and every person who has lost someone will most likely experience them all too.
There is the insensitive reaction – same kind of thing I mentioned earlier: “you’re lucky, at least it happened when you were little”. Even though it’s said with good intentions, the receiving end can feel as though you’re being attacked and you should now have less of a reason to feel sad.
There’s the forgetful reaction: when someone is aware of your loss, but aren’t at the same time. For example, I had a school counsellor once whom I asked permission from to go home for lunch as my mum was ill, let me just emphasise the school counsellor part. So she had every knowledge in the world about my loss, especially since she had known my older sister for the 5 years of her school education too… Anyway, my request obviously rubbed her the wrong way and she replied with a very angry and frustrated, “And where’s your dad?! If she’s that ill why isn’t he taking care of her?!”. Obviously I was speechless. She eventually remembered.
Then there’s the most common, awkward reaction where you can tell that the other person is completely and utterly uncomfortable with the situation. After someone asking about your Dad, what he does etc, and you reply with, “He passed away when I was 3”, you get that weird sensation of guilt, waiting for the inevitable, “Oh my god, I’m so sorry!”. It gives you this strong impulse to just lie instead in order to avoid the awkwardness. I don’t know why we feel this apologetic guilt for having to explain our own loss and the uncomfortableness it may bring to someone else. But it exists, nevertheless.
I learnt the importance of loyalty and compassion from an extremely young age – My mother’s strength, intelligence and empathy after our loss spared me and my sister many emotionally traumatic problems a large number of adults who grew up fatherless face today. Hell, my mum trained to be a childminder just so that she could be at home to be there for my sister and I 24/7. We were spoilt rotten. Name anything, I had it – to an extent of course. She wasn’t a pushover. In fact as we got older, she got tougher, ironically taking on the roles of mum and dad. She was there if you needed a cuddle, but get home 30 seconds after curfew and you’ve convinced yourself you have a death wish.
After my Dad’s death my mum lead me out onto the patio garden, pointed up to the sky and said “Daddy’s gone to live on a star now”. How she managed to control her pain when her child responds with “when is he coming back?” significantly proves the inconceivable strength of a mother. From that day on, my mum showed me that no matter how debilitating your hardship you always have the ability to rise higher than you ever thought you could. She is an absolute role model in everything she’s achieved in life and despite my father’s absence, she gave me the happiest childhood a girl could ever dream of. I can’t emphasise that enough.
I guess throughout all of this though, I have developed an extreme fear of loss. From building such intense, close relationships with not just my family, I feel as though I am putting myself in a vulnerable position and I am often very, very scared of losing people – not just by death. I have noticed that this anxiety causes me to latch on to people, even if they are toxic, and I often have to distract myself from getting into the thought process of someone I love dying.
The void our loss left made space for my mum, sister and I to thrive as the three musketeers, loyally sticking together against life’s casual cruelties and having an intense compassion for each other and others going through misfortune.
I was taught acceptance of the things I cannot change; I have become accepting of my dad’s absence and have adopted the mindset of: my life would not necessarily have been better if he had not passed away; it would have been different, undoubtedly, but not necessarily better.
I like to imagine that if he could see us all now, he’d see that we’re alright, and like everyone says – he’d be extremely proud.
I am allowed to share this experience with others without feeling ashamed – Expressing my experience and emotions from losing a parent should not make me feel guilty. I craved and longed for a father-figure in many different ways. This does not mean I should be ashamed.