According to the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, the death of a close family member is the fourth most stressful life event an adult may experience, after martial separation and tied with personal imprisonment. For “non-adults,” death of a parent is the highest ranked life changer.
I don’t care if your father issues are due to your permanent daddy’s girl status or you haven’t spoken to your mother in 30 years. It doesn’t matter if your mom is June Cleaver. Whether there’s a messy divorce, single parenting, or true martial bliss, when a parent dies, it doesn’t matter. It will change the course of your life.
This is my experience in four parts. It’s heavy, and to the best of my knowledge, it’s true.
Part I: By Invitation Only
My parents got divorced when I was 4 or 5. Primarily, I lived with my mother, but for ten years or so, I spent at least weeknight and one overnight weekend with my father.
Growing up, I knew my father was sick. My therapist mother would explain that it wasn’t my fault, there was nothing I could do about it, but he had a nervous breakdown. This made it hard for him to function like other dads, but he loved me no matter what. As I got older, I got more pieces of the puzzle, and the best way I can explain it was that he was depressed, and combined with his manic tendencies, he had a tough time seeing and accepting the world around him (which made the role of “healthy, responsible parent” nearly impossible). He saw the world as a terrible place that was out to get him. This began a few years before the divorce and is something I continue to deal with today.
But as a toddler, I was unaware of the full ramifications. I knew was that we were moving. It wasn’t my fault. My father loved me and he wanted to take care of me, but couldn’t because he was sick – never mentally ill because that term means terrible things to a six-year-old. He will always love me, but he’s sick, I’ll never be able to fix him, and it’s not my job to fix him.
That was my mantra for many, many years. Perhaps it still is.
As time went by, my father grew more severe and it was difficult for him to see the bright side of anything. His view was distorted and he didn’t understand when I changed from a little girl into a teen with the general angst. He struggled to as I made more friends who were boys, because while I wanted to flip my hair and giggle like my idiot peers, he saw his 7-year-old child. While I loved when he came into my 2nd grade class and read stories in his deep NPR voice, I loved it a lot less when he tried to do the same in my 7th grade class.
Somewhere between his personal implosion and the death of his father, he found refuge from the terrifying world around him at our temple. But the sanctuary became his obsession as he spent 10, then 20, then 40 or more hours a week toiling over Torah.
As a true tween, I wanted as little as possible to do with my father. I stopped staying over or seeing him after school. On Sunday mornings, I’d give him a hug and kiss when I saw him at Temple during Sunday School, but outside of major events, I stopped spending time with him. As I dealt with the emotional extremes that came with puberty, I found it tough to spend long periods of time with my father.
Time passed – I made new friends, I did stupid things, I grew up, and life happened. People were born, people died, people got arrested, people made dinner.
Senior year of high school, Dad and Kelsey time started up again. By the time I left for college, we were grabbing dinner or coffee once every month or two. When I came home on school breaks, I always saw him at least once per trip. We only talked on the phone occasionally when I was at school – on holidays, when something of note would happen. We’d email – he’d reply instantly and I’d take ages to respond.
I was 21 when my dad died.