Why I Didn't Attend My Dad's Funeral

by Dana Harder
Originally Published: 
Woman looking through the window because she didn't attend her dad's funeral

Anyone who knows me would agree that I am the kind of person who does their best to send a card to let someone know that I’m thinking of them, whether it’s a loved one, friend, business associate, or friend of a friend, to congratulate, send condolences, or for any other occasion. My husband and I have hosted dinners and overnight stays at our home with his ex-wife’s parents to maintain a sense of family and community for my step-daughter. They have become my family.

I pride myself on being a person who is considerate and mindful of the emotional wellbeing and health of others. I have serially put others before myself my whole life, much to my detriment. It’s actually something I work on in counseling and struggle with daily.

When my father fell ill, his brain racked with dementia, his body rapidly deteriorating, I declined the request to be his Medical Power of Attorney. I wished him well and thought of him sometimes. I visited him very infrequently. My father has passed away and I do not regret my choices, although I understand they are not choices everyone would make, or choices even those closest to me understand.

I have learned that some people are quick to assume that I do not grieve and that I am not in pain. Other people go out of their way to be kind and supportive and have even tried to help justify and make sense of my grief. Most people have no idea what to say or how to act, so they don’t say anything.

It would be untruthful if I said that didn’t hurt. It hurts. I have struggled with guilt that my internal insecurities and perceived external judgment have imposed. I have struggled to find the words to explain and rationalize my choices… until now.

My dad worked manual labor, and he was a very hard worker. Sometimes he would work multiple jobs concurrently. He valued financial independence arguably more than anything else. Sometimes he would ask that we whisper a secret in his ear as kids, and almost every time, my brothers and I would forget that he was deaf in one of his ears, not so coincidentally, the ear he told us to tell the secret in. He joked that he would never tell anyone our secrets.

My dad had really tasty Slim Fast pretzels that he would sometimes share with us as a snack. I remember this as an exciting treat.

My dad was very sullen and often dull, but for some reason, he wore a Goofy character hat all through Disney World. It was ironic before irony was cool, and my family thought it was hilarious.

My dad sewed all of my ice skating patches I had collected onto my figure skating team jacket. I had been collecting the patches for years, and one day, he just offered. The jacket made me look accomplished, and him sewing the patches on made me feel like he was proud of me.

Once in the middle of a sales negotiation at a car dealership, my father and I devised a skit in which I would tell him that I got kicked out of band practice for my parents not paying the band tuition, implying financial peril in our home. He thought that would make the dealership a little more sympathetic to our financial circumstances and be more flexible on negotiating a sale price. I was excited to be part of the performance. A variation of this role would be played multiples times during various sales negotiations with my father. I think he valued my contribution to the cause.

These are some — though very few — warm memories of my father. He was funny, hard-working, tortured, generous, dark, conflicted, lonely, stubborn, determined, angry and industrious. He had a very difficult childhood and expressed his resentment with great emotion and disgust for the way he was treated often. We had a tumultuous, volatile, and abusive history. Because of our estrangement, it seemed logical to me that my father’s passing would not be a great loss, nor would it be one that I would be adversely affected by.

The most we were ever on the same page was the unspoken mutual respect we had for each other, to just leave each other the hell alone… until he got sick. I was certain that I was mentally prepared for his passing. He was not kind, supportive, or loving. He was not present or interested in my life. He was violent, miserable, and hateful. He expressed on several occasions that he hated me verbally, and more often in his actions, physically and otherwise. I recall how much genuinely kind people threatened and baffled him, as he did not recognize kindness in himself.

As a child, I always knew that he had no respect for women or people of other races and cultures. As a teenager and a young adult, I started to realize that his ignorance stemmed from not having respect for himself. This realization prompted the fear I had for him to dissipate and my strength to become much more of a driving force. I remember studying his face and realizing I had never really looked at it before as a teenager, as I was so fearful to catch his glance and poke the beast.

This newfound confidence intimidated him and he rebelled violently and hatefully, but it didn’t break me. He gave up after a few years and left me alone after that, until I met my husband, whose kindness and light-hearted disposition drew my father back into my life, as he wanted a relationship… with him.

We made an effort to be a part of each other’s lives then. When he gave my husband permission to “hit me” if he needed to, I began to second guess my choice. My husband chivalrously asked my father if he would bless the concept of him proposing marriage to me. My father responded that he had been married twice and it’s not worth it. I could go on, but it wouldn’t do me any good. Despite how it may sound, I forgave all of this a long time ago, however, I will never forget. It might be hard to believe there would be anything to grieve over when he died.

He got very sick, very fast. Everyone looked to me to care for him, being the oldest of my siblings, to be his medical power of attorney, his confidant, his daughter, and his friend. My choice not to care for him did not come from a bitter, revengeful or angry place. I pitied him. I had empathy for him. I saw fear in his eyes and a sense of vulnerability I never would have imagined he was capable of, when dementia began to consume his brain and illness took over his body. My heart ached for him.

At 38 years old, I had just begun to love myself for the first time. My family had been through so much as I had been battling through chronic pain in both of my feet as a result of a botched joint implants. Some days I could barely walk. I had advocated for years to manage the pain and have the hardware removed. My husband and I had also been trying to get pregnant for over five years, and at the same time I was faced with the decision of whether or not to care for my father, we were in the throes of fertility treatments. I chose to say no to being his medical power of attorney. I chose to say no to being his companion on his journey into the afterlife.

I chose me.

The power of attorney appointment was deferred to my siblings, who also declined, as they had challenging and damaging relationships with him also. His last days and the management of his estate was then going to be deferred to the state to handle. The social worker who explained this option to me was appalled that this was a consideration for me and my family.

“The situation is difficult and there are complicated circumstances,” I told her, and many other medical, social work, and insurance professionals. How complicated can things be that I couldn’t care for my father, when his brain would not allow him to remember where he was and why he was there? I can assure you… VERY fucking complicated.

His sister assumed the duty of medical power of attorney. He hated her too. This is not speculation as he was very vocal about it and consistently backed it up with his thoughtlessness and hurtful actions. His sister cares for an ailing 90+ year old mother, her two grandchildren and her two children, all whom are financially, logistically, and emotionally dependent on her. She already had enough on her plate. I grieve for her as well, as she did not choose “her,” however noble or devious her intentions were, as there was a relatively substantial amount of money at stake.

I was reminded by my own my mother, who I am also estranged from, how substantial a monetary loss it would be, for her and me, if I chose not to participate in aiding my father in his last days. My mother did not attend his memorial.

To whom do I owe an explanation? No one, but I am compelled to share my truth, to anyone who may be out there, feeling lonely, regretful and like their grief doesn’t matter because they weren’t close with a toxic parent who died. You may wonder what there is to grieve over. Quite a bit. The father I never had. The years I spent in impossible relationships self sabotaging myself with partners who did not know to give love or didn’t want to. The innocence I lost at my father’s hands. The fear that ruled my life during my childhood. The beast in my own soul, fueled by angry and defensive instincts, although hindered by his death somehow, it is still there deep down.

I have no one but myself to blame or thank for my choices as an adult, whether they were destructive or positive, but I still have plenty to grieve. I work daily to kill that fearful beast, not suppress it, to battle through my depression, and to forgive myself for not loving myself, for thinking I wasn’t enough and that I wasn’t lovable for so many years.

I made a hard decision, and I chose me. If I didn’t, the most joyful beautiful boy, my son, would not be here. Fertility treatments proved unsuccessful, largely due to stress, and my husband and I decided to take a break to “get my mind right.” I worked with a holistic fertility specialist for three months, taking herbs, adjusting my diet, meditating and receiving acupuncture treatments. I made myself believe that I could get pregnant in that time and that I deserved it… and I did. I gave birth to my son six months before my father died.

That precious baby boy, his sister, my husband, and the rest of my family are my reason to fight, to grow, to be better and to be happier.

My dad was a very aggressive driver, and riding as a passenger in the middle row of his Astro minivan in the eighties was the place I felt safest with him, as he was a very skilled driver. I imagine behind the wheel may have also been the safest he felt from himself, focusing on the road, channeling his anger toward the incompetence of the other motorists he would consistently complain about, and putting his disgust for our family and himself aside to get to his intended destination.

My dad is still with me… every time I flinch when I’m caught off guard by my partner’s touch, when I immediately become defensive, when I argue aggressively and unreasonably with my partner as an automated response to conflict, when I learn while reading his will that he only acknowledged having two children (my siblings), when I feel sorry for myself, when I shy away from intimacy, when I feel alone and scared… he is still with me.

I will grieve now for all that happened and all that never was, but it will only make me stronger later. I am strong, I will fight, and I will make peace–with his death, but more importantly, I will make peace with his life, and my life with him. I encourage all other survivors of the passing of a toxic parent to do the same.

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