When my father died, I was 19 and he was 49. I didn’t cry as I cleaned out his apartment. I didn’t cry as I told his mother that he’d passed. I didn’t cry as I read the obituary in the paper. I didn’t cry at his funeral. In fact, I didn’t cry for almost a year.
It eventually hit me when I was in the shower. It was evening, and as I sat down on the tile, knees in my chest until the water ran cold, I finally cried — but not because I’d lost my father. I cried because I knew he’d never have the opportunity to get clean, and become the father I knew he could’ve been.
This is what it looks like when you grieve the death of an estranged parent. It’s this surreal thing, where everyone expects you to feel something — yet you don’t. For me, it didn’t feel like I lost a parent, or a loved one, or even a close friend. It felt like I’d lost what could have been.
To put this into perspective for those of you who have never lost an estranged parent, when I was 16 years old, my father was given an 18-month sentence in the Utah County Jail. This was his longest sentence. During the last 10 years of his life, he was in and out of jail, mostly for driving while intoxicated.
Sadly, that 18-month stretch included the most consistent communication of our relationship. He had two phone calls a week, and he often spent them on me because I was one of the few people still willing to pick up the phone when he called. I knew where to find him, and I knew when he’d be available. But at the same time, I hated having my father in jail. I hated having to explain it to friends and teachers, because I knew that they would look at me differently. I often lied about him. Sometimes I said that he lived in another state, but mostly I said he was dead. It just seemed easier than the truth, which was that my father was not much of a father at all.
After his actual death, it felt like I’d missed out on something that so many other people around me had — a loving father. It felt like that hope I’d always had growing up that my father would one day get clean, figure out his live, and be the father I always longed for was now dead, and that is what I mourned. The loss of my actual father didn’t hit me nearly as hard.
And yet, how do you explain that to someone?
During the year after his death, people asked me how I was doing, and although they didn’t mention the death of my father, it seemed clear that this is what they were referring to. I just told them I was fine, that I was holding up okay. That I was moving on. I didn’t know how to tell them that his death wasn’t crippling me emotionally. In fact, in some ways, I felt some sense of relief that he was gone. I didn’t have to worry about him suddenly reaching out in a drunken stupor, asking to rekindle our relationship, only for him to sober up the next day and forget he called. I didn’t have to worry about him calling me for bail money. I didn’t have to wonder if he’d get clean for a bit, and we’d start to reconnect, only for him to fall back under the grip of drug addiction.
I know that seems cold, but when your parent doesn’t really want you in their life, or they can’t seem to find room for you because of their own personal demons, having them die feels a lot like closure.
My father died divorcing his fourth wife. There were so many times in my childhood that it felt like I was this lingering thread from his second marriage that just wouldn’t snap, so he could move on with his new wife, his new family, his new children.
But if there is one silver lining from my father’s life and death, it’s this: I know what not to do. I know that being an absent father is a horrible way to raise a child. I learned that the relationship I have with my own children has a deep value, and that me being involved in their lives is one of the most noble callings I could ever accept.
Each evening I come home from work, and all three of my children hug me. They tell me about their day, and I tell them about mine. I tuck them in each night. I sit across from them during meals, and help them with their homework, and teach them to play sports, and ride bikes, and all the other things my father never took the opportunity to enjoy with me. And in so many ways, I’m getting what I always wanted from a father-child relationship, only this time I’m on the other end of the dynamic.
If there is one silver lining from my father’s life and death, it’s this: I know what not to do.
Having that connection in my life as an adult when I never had it as a child is one of the most rewarding feelings I’ve ever felt, and it makes me really value the life I have now.