I have nothing tangible that belonged to my father. They are all in my mother’s and brother’s possession. But when I look into the mirror each day, I see my father so clearly. I have his eyes, I have his nose. No one can ever take that away from me.
My father died when I was 16 years old—a critical stage in my development as an adolescent. Mary Gordon wrote, “A fatherless girl thinks all things are possible, and nothing is safe.” And that’s exactly how I felt for many decades. Yes, that’s right, decades.
Adolescent loss, or any loss, for that matter, but more so in childhood (below the age of 18) becomes more complicated when death is sudden. Sudden death creates an unexpected gap in one’s life. The trauma of finding our lives disrupted in such a major way often lingers with us forever. The manner in which we are told of the death is also a significant factor in how to proceed with our grief work.
It was a Monday morning when I stood by the doorway of our house to see my Dad off as we usually did. We had just spent a quiet but beautiful Holy Week holiday in Baguio and returned home on Easter Sunday evening. I stood in my red and blue housedress, thinking how blessed and grateful I was for having a Dad that I could depend on, whose love for us was unconditional and boundless.
My Dad was atypical for a father in the ’70s—he attended PTA meetings, was very hands-on, did the groceries, and he knew all the ingredients and components that went into a good meal or a great party. These were the the thoughts running through my head that morning. I wanted to tell him how grateful I was, and that I loved him.
But “I love yous” weren’t usually said in our home, and Daddy expressed his love to us in many other ways because he, too, did not grow up in a house where love was demonstrated in a verbal or affectionate way.
And so I didn’t tell him how I felt at that moment. I just waved and went back inside the house.
A few minutes later returned home, honking his horn furiously, complaining of chest pains. I knew right then that something was terribly wrong. So my mom scrambled to get an ambulance while my Dad went to lie down for a bit in their bedroom, my brother and I hovering.
The unexpected happened. He made a noise like a loud snore and he passed out right before our eyes.
He was rushed to the hospital, and in the longest two hours of our young lives, we stormed the heavens with prayers. I locked myself in the bathroom and bawled. I somehow knew that my Dad wasn’t coming back. I did not get to say goodbye.
For decades after that loss, I’ve had to struggle and understand a lot of the unfinished business between my father and myself. Psychotherapist Stephen Hersch writes that “survivors of a death of a loved one from heart attack and stroke live with many of the same after-effects as survivors of suicide, homicide, automobile and airplane accidents.” He adds, “It is a uniquely wrenching loss that starts with shock, and may end in familial and personal dysfunction.”
For children like myself who experienced the traumatic and sudden death of a parent, it is so important to look closely at the patterns in our lives to find out what it is that needs to be healed. Often the issues manifest as problems with control, fear of abandonment, or fear of betrayal.
Early father loss has many implications that show up later in intimate relationships, in the men we choose as husbands, lovers and friends. And these issues will keep repeating themselves until we pay attention to what drives them. People will unconsciously choose patterns to repeat in those areas of their lives that still need healing. I knew that I had to take a long, hard look at the storyline of my father’s loss if I wanted to heal and change the course of my life.
It took me a long time to feel safe again, and to complete my unfinished business—to accept that my father was not coming back. It took decades before I could leave that 16-year-old by the doorway, and forgive her for leaving many things unsaid. His early departure was a life-defining moment that impacted a very huge part of my life.
It’s really only the physical that’s been gone, though. Dad continues to be everywhere I am, present in every milestone that I’ve been through. Sometimes I see him in my children. He’s in the reflection in my eyes, but most of all, always in my heart.