A friend posted a link on facebook this morning, “Saying goodbye to my mother and my childhood” and it resonated with me in some ways. The sudden unexpected loss of a parent is difficult at any time, but particularly difficult for children. Depending on the age of the child, it can affect them in different ways. Other experiences and feelings are the same regardless of how old they were when the parent dies but only come to the surface much later.
This is a topic I’ve touched on a few years ago when writing about ensuring your children don’t lose their heritage in the digital age, but I thought I’d spend a little more time on it here.
The main difference between the author of the article and me is that I was in a two parent family when I lost my dad suddenly to epilepsy, aged 46, so I still had a parent to take care of me. I was 14 at the time. He had fallen in the bathroom in the middle of the night which woke me. I roused my mum up as I usually did. When mum realised it was worse than normal, she went to a neighbour to call an ambulance as we didn’t have a phone of our own.
I remember saying “It’ll be alright, dad” as he lay there in silence. I thought he was just sleeping it off. When the ambulance came they spoke to him as if he was conscious, then took him away. I don’t recall why mum and I didn’t go with him in the ambulance there and then. A police car soon arrived at our door and took us to the hospital where we were given the news. There was a coroner’s report, which attributed his death to Sudden Death in Epilepsy (SUDEP) – a term I only found out when I was older.
Whether he’d been alive or not, I was entering into a period of time where things change. Not having a father figure to guide you through a turbulent period of life doesn’t help.
The timing of it happened during exams that defined which classes I took going into GCSE years. My mum later found a new partner, which meant I pretty much had the house to myself most evenings. Looking back, it’s not just a trust thing, I was pretty much being asked to act more like an adult at that point.
On top of that, as my mum had previously been unemployed and acting as a carer for my father who’d been on disability benefits, we now had to adjust to a new way of life after his death. My mum probably struggled to cope. Every decision I was taking as a teenager had to take into account how it would affect my mum, the housing benefit, etc. Want to go to college? Let the benefits office know. Want to get a part time job? Fine, but if you earn too much, you need to let the benefits office know. Trying to do what was right in the context of my future, but also living in fear that failing to do something could penalise us further. Within a space of a year or so, my grandmother and grandfather had also passed away. and I broke my wrist. I couldn’t just be a teenager and be damned with the consequences. But I got through it with gallows humour – making light of the fact I’d attended four funerals and a wedding, in a dark reversal of the film – and one or two blips of bad judgements common for the young.
Now though, having kids of my own brought thoughts about my dad back to the surface, I realised that I had never really had an “adult” conversation with him. I often wonder what he’d have made of the world. The internet, music, politics, the family history I’ve researched, his grandchildren, the man I’ve become. My recent love of writing – inherited from him – but only surfacing in the last few years. Hobbies and interests that we could have bonded over. Many opportunities and experiences that were taken away.
When my children want to have conversations about grandparents, I have enough memories and photos to answer them. As I edge closer to the age my dad died, I also begin to worry about my health. I was lucky that my dad taught me many things while he was alive that helped me in later life, but I now worry about making sure that similar foundations and memories are in place for my own children should they have to suffer the same sudden loss that I did. In some ways, the digital world makes this easier, but in other ways, much harder. Imagine trying to share MP3, eBook and photo collections that are stored in password-protected clouds or on technology that may later be obsolete and hard to find? Rather than the simple physical mementoes photos, books and albums/CDs?
The loss of a parent at a young age certainly impacts how you view the world you live in and makes you consider what you want to leave behind for others.