When You Lose Your Father

My friend’s father died on Tuesday morning, just past midnight. His siblings had been sitting vigil for a week, trading places to not leave him alone. And then, he was gone.

It’s the oddest feeling when someone you love dies. When life carries on. It seems like the world should stop, if only for a moment. Everything is upside down and yet somehow the earth keeps spinning. People carry on while you feel temporarily frozen, suspended in time.

And then people call. The messages start coming. Work needs you. Nothing stops.

Losing our father is a particularly unsettling event.

When our mother dies, a sense of home is lost forever. When our father dies, a sense of world order shifts.

Our fathers are our connection to the world. They are the chieftains, the bridge to something greater. They lead the way, inspiring us to leave home. Sometimes even pushing us out of the nest, demanding that we fly, calling for our independence, believing we can be more than a child. Our fathers require us to become adults.

It’s a tough role to play. And even harder for us to accept. Especially when we are young. As children, we want to assert our independence while still relying fully on our parents to meet our every need. Mothers are more prone to play along with this while Fathers eventually say, enough.

A good Father teaches us the skills necessary to survive. He speaks the language of the world and reveals the secrets of how to navigate in it. Mother, on the other hand, speaks the language of home.

When our Mothers age and become frail, our hearts soften. It seems somehow right that we would take care of her, just as she took care of us. When our Fathers age, we are often bewildered. To see these larger-than-life beings shrink, stumble, and shake is unsettling. Our Fathers were gods. And then, suddenly, they aren’t. They no longer leave the house, they wander from room to room, mumbling under their breath, and watch too much TV. Their world has shrunk and with it, so has ours. We discover our fathers as people we never knew. There is perhaps a newfound passion for something that once escaped them, a passion that was once reserved for work. If we’re lucky, there is humor and a new lightness, a falling away of formality and seriousness. If we’re not lucky, they become rigid, mean, and more distant.

A Mother’s death can leave us inconsolable, while Father’s death is sobering. Now, who is in charge? Who will lead the way? We are, we will, and we must. It’s all up to us now. We are the new chieftains. We carry on.

My father’s motorcycle jacket, even though he never rode a motorcycle.

Maybe this sounds nothing like your experience. Maybe your relationship with Father was painful and there are wounds that never healed.

One week after my father died, I attended a New Year’s Eve party and a woman I did not know told me she had heard the news. “Were you close to your dad?” she asked. Yes. Very. “You’re lucky,” she said. “My dad was an asshole who abused me.” I flinched. And then I walked away.

I never considered my father a god or infallible. From a very young age, I was indelibly aware of how human he was. And still, I saw him through the eyes of a child, a child who loved him dearly. I stood by him, elevated him, and judged him as only a child can do. It was many, many, years before I could look at him honestly, through mature eyes, as one who has lived, loved, struggled, and hurt. The more I accepted his flaws, the more I recognized his goodness and his yearning. The man he was. Not perfect, but still my dad. My father who loved me. I am, undeniably, who I am today, in large part, because of him. Losing him, when I was just shy of twenty-five, was unbelievably hard. The grief consumed me for years and it was decades before it stopped visiting me regularly on holidays like an unwelcomed friend.

I wonder what it would have been like to see him grow old. His world shrunk so much in his last months, when he was only fifty-six. Would it have been better or worse if he had lived until age eighty? And who would I be if he had? His dying was the catalyst for so much of what I’ve done. In his death, as in his life, he was my teacher. He was my bridge to a world beyond home. Having walked that bridge, I discovered more than I could have possibly imagined. My only sadness now is wishing he could have been around to see it.

With my father at Schloss Linderhof (German), 1988, two years before he died

What has your relationship with your father been like? If he’s gone, has your understanding of him changed?

Leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you.

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