7 Things No One Tells You About Losing A Parent As A Child
When it comes to my father, my memory is my biggest asset – and my biggest enemy.
1. People will unintentionally belittle your pain.
My father died from pancreatic cancer at the age of 38 on 29 September 1999, 39 days before my 7th birthday.
I used to get defensive when people assumed I couldn't possibly have understood the magnitude of what happened. They'd tell me I was "lucky" because "at least it happened when you were little" and I'd insist that I knew and remembered everything in a vain attempt to validate my own experience. We're all guilty of placing suffering in a hierarchy: We assume dying in your sleep isn't as terrible as dying from cancer, that losing a grandparent isn't as tragic as losing a parent. And we assume losing a parent as a minor – when you're apparently unable to fully comprehend the situation – can't possibly be worse than losing a parent as an adult. We all know which we'd prefer, right?
It took me a long time to accept that while I may not have been completely aware at the time, it didn't take away from how I felt or currently feel about my dad's passing. There is no one way to experience death, and whether you like it or not your pain belongs to you, nobody else.
2. You'll get to know your loss with time.
Realising the magnitude of my loss didn't come immediately. I barely "mourned" the death of my dad as a child. I cried once or twice, then I carried on, too busy being young and revelling in the love of my mum and auntie. In some ways, I actually did feel lucky. I had a good relationship with my mum, and in general I continued to have a happy childhood.
The weight of my grief came to me in small doses at random stages of my life. It came when I sat in the back of my friend's car and listened to her chat with her dad about what they were going to eat for dinner. It came when I watched my classmates trail behind their mums and dads at parents' evening. It came on various Father's Days, when I'd joke smugly about not having to spend any money, and then wonder what it would be like if I actually had a dad to spend money on. It came, and it came, and it came. Each wave hit me just that little bit harder, until 13 years after my dad's death, on the front pew at my grandfather's funeral, I began to cry. I cried for every moment my father and I never had and never will have, and I finally understood how dreadful it actually was. Losing a parent when you're a child means you learn your loss as you go along. You not only learn to live without a parent, you eventually learn what it means to live without one.
3. You'll learn to fill the gaps for yourself.
Losing my father at the age of 6 meant I had an almost entirely blank slate on which to draw a picture of who my dad was. I knew he was studying to be a solicitor before he died, I knew he smoked occasionally, and I knew he was really bloody good at giving piggyback rides. Everything else I took from the fragmented second-hand memories of other people to help me understand who he was and in turn who I am. It is from him I apparently get my nose and eyes and, according to my mother, my large smile. Often though, my dad feels more like a fictional character than a real person, someone whose qualities I can change at will to suit my own childish fantasies and whims. With only three years of tangible memories to choose from, my dad can essentially be whoever I want him to be.
Truth be told, I'm somewhat thankful that I never got to know my dad's flaws for myself. He wasn't alive long enough to ever hurt me, disappoint me, or argue with me. He is the perfect protagonist in my own made-up story. My final memory of him is of a dying man who, despite being minutes away from the end of his life, managed to utter a raspy "goodbye" to his 6-year-old daughter as she left the hospital room for the last time. What flaw could I possibly find in that?
4. You'll dread that one day you will no longer remember them.
I used to play a game after my dad died where I'd sit in bed and test myself to see how well I still remembered his face. I'd think of his eyes, his nose, and imagine running my hands over every crease on his forehead. As the years went on, the game became more infrequent and I began to remember less and less. The details of his face became less distinct; I no longer remembered the timbre of his voice. The image of my dad mutated from a crisp still photo into a blurry watercolour, and I became scared that I was forgetting him.
When you lose a parent as a child, you don't have a lot of memories to choose from. You cling on to the precious few that you have, and then you start to panic when even the edges of those get fuzzy. I have an enormous fear of forgetting my dad completely. I imagine passing him on a busy street and I wonder whether I'd even recognise him at all. When it comes to my father, my memory has become both my biggest asset and my biggest enemy.
5. It may be the first time you discover that people don’t always keep their word.
I don't remember much from my dad's funeral, but as every child usually does, I remember the promises. I'll keep in touch; call me whenever you want; you can ask me for anything. The words spilled from the mouths of many who looked at my mother and me with pity. It wasn't long before we were completely on our own, and I never saw the majority of those people again.
When they did appear, their visits were random and inconsistent throughout my life: attempts to make up for lost time in a single day before they faded away again. People say a lot of things they don't actually mean when they feel sorry for you. They promise the world when they can barely manage a phone call, unaware of the effect that kind of broken vow has on a child. I grew to expect very little, which made the disappointment easier and the pleasant surprises even better. It was my very first lesson in scepticism and one I've returned to many times.
6. There will be very few people who knew you when you had two parents.
I have one friend who has ever met my dad. Just one. She came to my house after school and he came into the living room as we were sat on the sofa. She remarked on how tall he was and I remember being filled with pride. She is one of very few people who knew me both before and after. Since then, every friend I've ever made has known me as a person with only one parent, and it's become a defining feature of my identity. If I had to introduce myself in a sentence, I'd say: "Hi, my name is Gena-mour, I'm a Scorpio, and – let's get this out of the way now – my father is dead."
I occasionally feel as though a small part is missing from all of my friendships because of this, like starting a book with the first chapter torn out. No matter how well anyone gets to know me, they'll never have known me when I had a dad. They, like me, will only know his absence. I thank God for that one friend who met my dad on a grey afternoon after school. She is a perfect reminder that there was a reality where both my parents existed at the same time.
7. You’ll eventually learn to accept the hand life has dealt you.
When you lose a parent as a child, you can only hope there's a person alive who loves you enough to make your loss feel a little less tragic. For the past 17 years, it's been my mum and me. The void my father left made space for us to thrive as a two-person team, sticking together as a survival mechanism against life's casual cruelties, and as close as a mother and daughter can be.
I like to imagine that if my dad could see my mum and me now, he'd see we were OK, and I reckon he'd be very, very proud. As long as we're both here, everything will be all right, and even better than that, in the end, it may actually be OK.