26 October 2012

What It's Like to Lose a Parent as a Kid

My father died when I was six years old. I have a strange relationship with this fact. On the one hand, it's not something I think about on a daily basis. I seldom talk about it. It doesn't noticeably impact the things I say or do. And, really, it just doesn't often cross my mind. On the other hand, there is no doubt that this is probably one of the major and most life-changing events in my life. After all, I doubt anything about my life would be the same if he was still alive (or even if he had died at a different time). So this is also something important for people close to me to know, and for me to consider on my life journey.

Kids with dead parents seem to show up in all sorts of media: just look at this and this and this and this and this. I don't exactly have a problem with this being visible in society. After all, with all the generally "bad" experiences I've had in my life, it's nice that at least one of them gets recognized in the mainstream, even if it is by virtue of being practical and convenient in storytelling. My issue, though, is that these tropes and narratives are monolithic and seldom accurately reflect the lived experiences of those who lose a parent as a kid. This really came to my attention this summer, when I went though a much-belated Harry Potter furur, and went as far as to participate in an online Potterverse role-play. As one would expect, RPs in a fandom for a story in which the main character is an orphan, and death, especially the death of parents, is a frequent in-universe occurrence, many people RP characters with dead parents. It was then, when RPing and actually putting myself in this situation, that I realized how inaccurate people's perceptions of what it's like to lose a parent as a kid are. I am thus targeting this post at writers and at critical readers.

I must note that everyone's experiences of losing a parent as a kid are vastly different. Although in this post I might speak as if I am generalizing my experience, I don't intend to do so. I do believe that some of my experiences can in some ways be generalized to describe the experiences of all or most people who lose a parent as a kid. Still, everyone's experience is different, and I do not know what generalizable, and what is not. That being said, I will begin by listing out a few things that might have made my experience distinct from others', so that my readers can keep these things in mind as I work my way though the rest of this post:
  • My father died when I was six years old.
  • I am an oldest sibling.
  • I did not feel a lot of empathy as a child. I also had thorough understandings of some adult concepts, including death.
  • I have very few memories of my father.
  • My father was an alcoholic for several years before his death. This means that I probably did not have many meaningful connective experiences with him for some time prior to his death. It also means that the things I learned about my father growing up included both positive elements about what a kind, nurturing, loving father he was, and negative elements about the drunk and neglecting man he became in the years prior to his death.
  • I was raised by a single mother who dated frequently when I was young and re-married when I was 13.
I will divide this post by separate but overlapping elements of my experience.

Grief for those who lose a parent as a kid has a complex dynamic that spans both the complicated ways in which children experience loss and the unusual ways loss impacts us through time.

The overwhelming truth is that it's difficult to understand death as children, especially the death of someone who plays as a significant role in one's life as a parent. From multiple conversations with people who experienced loss as children, it seems that many popular narratives of children's understanding of death are, indeed, true. Overwhelmingly, it seems, death is confusing to children: children may struggle to understand where someone went, and how, children may wait for them to return, or try and find them in other places. Personally, this was not my experience. I feel like I understood death for as long back as I can remember, and certainly I understood it when my father died. Nonetheless, as my experience seems to be the exception rather than the rule, we should not disregard and should perhaps promote narratives of children's understanding of death that do occur more frequently.

I am no expert on childhood grief. I am sure there are experts out there who's words you should take a lot more seriously than mine. Everything I say here is from my own experience, and from the experiences my friends have described to me. Yet it seems to me that childhood grief differs from adult grief in a few specific ways: (1) childhood grief is a lot less linear than adult grief; it's not that adults don't have fluctuating up-and-down emotions as they go through grief, but it's that this phenomenon is even more pronounced in children; (2) childhood grief is less cognitive than adult grief; by that I mean, childhood grief stems more from raw emotions, and incorporates much less introspection and reflection; (3) of the emotions that make up childhood grief, confusion (and perhaps non-cognitive fear) are probably the most powerful; this is in contrast to emotions such as sadness and anger that we typically associate with grief; (4) childhood grief, or at least the most powerful, intense period of grieving, has a shorter duration than adult grief.

To go through grief of that variety as a child is necessary but not sufficient in recovering from the death of a parent. Unlike (usually) losing a friend, a pet, a grandparent, or another relative, losing a parent is not something one ever stops grieving from (I anticipate this experience is similar when losing a sibling). That's because parents tend to be such an integral part of who we are, that it's impossible to truly separate the loss of a parent from one's current life. As one grows up, elements of "adult grief" become necessary in dealing with losses. In the case of the death of a parent, wherein the grief-wound never truly closes, this means that childhood-grief becomes insufficient and incomplete. Elements of grieving as an adult appear during this time. The first time I cried over my father's death, I was sixteen, ten years after he died. Since that time, I found myself grieving over him in ways I never had before. I have episodes of overboard expressions of love, a common symptom of death; I tie in my feelings about his death with other emotions and things happening in my life; and I find myself spontaneously in tears, battling feelings of sadness and anger. The other day, for example, I found myself tearing up at the thought of my father as a child, and how sad his parents (who I never really knew) must have been about his death. I had never thought about this before, and this was a grief-hurdle I had to overcome in order to move on.

Thus, because completing grief over a parent's death is impossible, and because childhood grief is so different from adult grief, grieving for those who lost a parent as a kid is an entirely distinct experience from the dominant paradigm of grief.

It's hard not to be jealous when you lose a parent as a kid. After all, loss in general feels so much like being denied an experience. Yet, unlike what the dominant narratives about losing a parent would like us to think, our dead parents are not always the ideal epitome of perfection that we always look back at, mourning how a bit of perfect was lost from our lives. Perhaps I am biased, since my father was anything but perfect. Still, overall, those who lost parents as children are well aware that fighting, bitterness, and tears would have been a part of growing up with that parent, just as much as all the good times would have been. And don't let anyone tell you that those things are still "good" because "at least you have a parent to fight with". Because, as far as I know, no one feels that way. And those things are -not- good.

The big-picture things seldom make me jealous. I never once, for example, found myself upset on Father's Day, and I actually really love the holiday now that I have a stepfather to make presents for. (Of course, unlike Mother's Day, Father's Day does not fall during the school year, so that might also be why). Likewise, I have many friends who are self-described "Daddy's Girls", and watching their relationships with their fathers unfold does not make me jealous, or at least not jealous in the way that one might expect. By that I mean, I frequently feel great envy when I see people interacting in close, open, honest ways with their mothers as well, because my relationship with my mother was never a positive relationship of that sort. Likewise, I experience analogous feelings about the relationships others have with their fathers, since I never did have that type of experience. Had my father still been alive, I probably nonetheless would never have these experiences.

When do I feel jealous by virtue of having lost a parent at a young age? The worst episode of this was when the Girl Scout camp at which I work had father-daughter weekend. It meant being surrounded for several days by an environment I never had access to by virtue of losing a parent. It meant systematically watching experiences that never could have been mine unfold around me. And that made me jealous. Usually, though, it's the little things; the brief insights into the lives of others, the more universelizeable parts of growing up with a father that I probably would have to some extent encountered had my father not passed away. For instance, I work in the men's section of Macy's, and the other day, a father-daughter pair came in, shopping for dad's jeans. Overhearing their conversation, for an instant, yes, I did get jealous, because it was so simple and brief and an insight into what my life could have been like if life could have been different.

The Question
Perhaps the most difficult part of growing up having lost a parent as a child is that, oh so often, I have to answer the questions:
  • So, what does your dad do?
  • You talked about your mom, what about your dad?
  • Are your parents divorced?
  • So you have a stepfather, what about your real father?
And so on, and so on, and so on. It's hard to avoid the conversation. There is a time when people want to know, want to find out about your parents. And that's when you have to answer it.

I play with words all the time. A blunt, unempathetic child, I used to simply respond: "Oh, my dad is dead", but that threw people so far off guard that I gradually changed my phrasing. "Passed away" is a term I never found especially appealing. Somehow, this soft euphemism seems to skirt the truth and create a brittle, sensitive environment around the topic. "My father died" is the phrasing I prefer these days, and, more specifically "my father died when I was six", since the age at which it took place plays as great of - maybe more - of a role in determining who I am than the fact that it did once happen.

More difficult are the responses I face in return. More often than not, answering this question causes people to shut down, apologize, then tip-toe around me as if any wrong word is going to set me off in a state of hopeless weeping. A low-battery phone is suddenly "passing away" and not dying, and the father visiting over the weekend becomes "one of their parents". Sometimes, people prod me as if I am a strange object, poking me with the blunt end of a broom from ten feet away. They ask me if I am ok, then hint that they are curious to know more in hushed tones.

I dread the question(s). I dread the shocked responses. I dread the first time I have to tell new friends that I lost a parent as a child. I've even lied before, told people I never expect to know well that I never knew my father, or that my parents are divorced. Here is the thing. Talking about my father's death does not upset me. I've had to do it my whole life. It does not trigger me, it does not break me down, my voice does not crack. For fifteen years I've had to answer the question, and yes, you get used to it after a while. What upsets me are the responses I get in return. I am not fragile or weak, you are not a villain for asking. There is no need to make this part of my life awkward and dreadful in addition to already being sad. Be polite. Be honest. Ask me questions. And please remember: I've talked about this before; I'll talk about it again; and this is nothing new to me.

Talking About It
On the topic of talking about it, let me say this: sometimes, that is important. Personally, I find it necessary to share most of my thoughts and feelings, since I am an extrovert, and I gain a lot from my conversations with others. This is one topic I seldom find myself being able to talk about, especially given the things I just discussed above. I haven't quite figured out how to go about sorting this out. I usually prefer to talk to the friends who have that also lost a parent as a kid, because they seem to understand the things I am going through better. I wish, though, that there was a way to bring this up to other people without the awkwardness that makes it impossible to say anything past the surface. It's hard to cry and have no one to talk to about it, it's hard to have thoughts and feelings that you can't share, it's hard to have all those experiences that I described above, and to keep them to myself. Family, too, is not an option for talking about these topics, since, within my family, it is a sensitive topic, and it's not one I am comfortable navigating.


In conclusion, those are just some of the feelings I have around the experience of growing up having lost a parent as a kid. Feel free to ask me any questions about it, but also please consider these things as a critical reader and writer, and when encountering people who've lost a parent as a kid in everyday life.

No comments:

Post a Comment