July 5th was my dad’s 78th birthday. Cause for celebration you would think, if it wasn’t for the fact that he passed away of lung cancer when he was 43.
Every year we “celebrate” his birthday by going to the cemetery where his ashes were scattered, with flowers. Doesn’t really sound like much of a celebration, but for me this has been a life long tradition. For the last 35 years my mum and I have been doing this twice a year: once on his birthday and once on the day he died. The last 3 years or so, my daughter decided she wants to join us and insists on her very own bouquet of flowers for grandpa.
The first time she came along, she walked all around the cemetery looking for grandpa, calling for him, stopping at every grave, asking: is this where grandpa is?
How do you explain to a toddler that grandpa isn’t anywhere, that he’s gone and he’s not coming back?
And that’s exactly what my mum was faced with when he died. I was only 4 at the time and had no idea what death meant. Like most kids I would ask her when he was coming back. Even though I have no memories of him at all, I do have a vivid memory of asking her when he would be alive again. Just like my daughter who’s been telling me that when our cat (who died 3 years ago) comes back, she’ll give her kisses and cuddles because she misses her.
Dealing with loss is hard enough, but how do you explain to a child that their favourite pets, grandparents or worse, parents aren’t coming back? My mum decided I shouldn’t go to the funeral. He was cremated and she thought that the sight of ashes being scattered would confuse me. I still believe she made the right decision. She was once told by a therapist that she never allowed me to grieve and because of this I have never been able to get over his death. I don’t see it that way. Taking a child to a funeral is confusing enough for them, let alone having to explain what ashes are. That’s the stuff of nightmares in my opinion.
For years, going to the cemetery didn’t even mean that much to me.
It was just something we did. When I turned 18 and went to the States as an exchange student, I couldn’t go. Even worse, I totally forgot about the day cos my mum wasn’t there to remind me. That’s when the guilt started. The feelings of loss. The mourning.
For 14 years, I didn’t grieve because I didn’t know what I’d lost. I’d barely known my dad and had no idea what fathers did, what they were good for. But now, not thinking about him seemed so horrible.
Maybe it was also the time my BPD was setting in, who knows, but I’ve had feelings of guilt and loss ever since. I started a quest in search of as much information on him as I could get. I was obsessed with knowing everything about him. Who he was, what kind of man, husband, friend, father.
In my darkest times I would wish for him to be there so he could protect me from the evil in the world.
I imagined him to be (as most girls probably do) a hero, a strong man who would fight and protect his little girl.
I’ve had 3 father figures in my life to whom I owe a lot. Of course they can never replace my real dad, because he was the best dad in the whole world (a girl can dream). My stepdad joined our family when I was 8. I didn’t start to appreciate him though until after I’d left home. He was tough, but fair and during puberty I always told him he wasn’t my father. Typical reaction, I suppose, but again with the guilt. I still feel bad for what I put him (and my mum) through. But I guess you can’t blame an adolescent for acting out.
The 2nd one is my American dad. As an exchange student, I came into this loving, warm family and was accepted as part of the family immediately.
The third one is my daughter’s dad. To see him play with her, dance with her, encourage her, teach her and adore her makes me think my dad would’ve loved him.
In conclusion, how we deal with grief and loss is different for everyone, especially for children. There is no right or wrong way to grieve or mourn the loss of someone you love. I’m reminded of a poem by Dutch writer Koos Meinderts:
Verdriet is drie sokken
een te weinig,
een te veel,
en altijd ergens één
It translates as:
Grief is like 3 socks
one too few,
one too many
and always one
all on its own.
I still miss my dad a lot and wish I remembered him more vividly instead of just from stories told by others. But as my daughter reminds me when there’s a starry sky: grandpa is one of those stars and he’s having fun playing with our kitty cat.