Grieving for a Parent You No Longer Know

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Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

During the night of July 1st, my partner’s father passed away in his sleep. It’s been a sad 24 hours around our house but not for the “typical” reasons of tragedy, loss and mourning.

The last time that my guy had anything to say or do with his father was in the early 1990’s.

His father passed away after a lengthy term of Dementia and Alzheimer’s. These are two mind and body altering thieves that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. My Dave has never had to deal with seeing his father in his struggles through the diseases, but his brother has. Dave’s brother was “given” the responsibility to care for his father for a lengthy term in his house. His responsibilities included diapering, feeding and bathing his dad in the presence of his wife and teenage daughter. It took it’s emotional and mental toll on him and his family, but he endured and made sure the father, he hardly knew, had everything he needed.

Their father’s wife and her adult kids, at some point, determined that the father would “do better” in her care, and in the end he was put into a home. There had been evidence of abuse toward the man that lead him to a facility for aging seniors with challenges. It became an entire process of struggles within the family, based on what the man’s estate could “do” financially for his wife and her kids. He was not of sound mind and had no capabilities of deciding his own fate. A very sad story indeed. Neither Dave or his brother are thinking about their dad’s financial status or what they can gain from him. He is basically a stranger to his sons.

To be honest, I don’t know the entire story, and had only one short opportunity in my 8 year relationship with Dave, to “meet” their father. Dave and I were having coffee in a Tim Horton’s and he happened to glance over at a table not far from us. “See that man over there?” Dave said out loud, without looking at me. He was still trying to meet his father’s gaze. “That’s my dad and his wife”. As we walked out of the restaurant, he nodded at the man who looked beyond his years, tired and disheveled. “Richard”. was all he mustered to say to his dad. The man looked at Dave and nodded back.

That was it. The one and only time I had ever laid eyes on the man who was half responsible for creating my Dave.

From how Dave explains it, there were two other men in his life who he looked to as “father figures”. He learned the skills of hunting and fishing from them, and from how I see him, he learned the skills of being a gentleman from his two mentors as well. It sounds like their father was never that. He wasn’t what anyone would call a “dad”. It breaks my heart.

Dave has a close relationship with his mom, and I am grateful for that. The two of them are like two peas in a pod, with their looks, stubbornness and odd sense of humor. I am unsure at this point, how she is feeling about the death of the father of her two sons. Neither of them are good at emotional discussion.

So, back to yesterday: Dave asked me to come out to the garage, stating that its very important. I roll my eyes and stumble out to talk to him, still in my pajamas, gripping my cup of coffee. Typically when he says “it’s important” it means he wants a kiss, or a cup of tea. I see him sitting in his chair holding his phone in his hand, with an expression on his face, that I am not familiar with. He looks at me and says quietly, “My dad passed away last night”. Of course I set my coffee down and went to hug him. “It’s okay, honey, I’m okay”, is all he said.

Throughout the day, I caught myself watching him out of the corner of my eye, doing “status checks”. As I said, he is not much of an emotional talker, and I just wanted to make sure he was actually “okay”. We had company over in the afternoon and he did really seem like nothing was bothering him. We had dinner and went to bed at our usual 10 pm.

I woke up at 1:00 am and he was not beside me. I got up, stumbled around the dark house to see where he was, and found him, back in the garage, in his chair. He never came back to bed until after 5 am. So, NO. He’s NOT okay.

This morning, he told me, that “he’s okay. That he just needs time to process”.

Both of my parents are still alive, and although we have a very strained relationship, I know that when they are gone, I will struggle. I will cry, I will feel awful and I will talk about it, because that’s how I deal with feelings. I don’t KNOW either of them well, as I had to close a few emotional doors with them, years ago, to save my sanity. Dave had done the same with his father.

I tried to talk with him yesterday. I told him that regrets can be devastating and they can do some damage to relationships. He needs to try and talk to me about how he is feeling. “I’m okay” is all he said.

So, how do we mourn the loss of someone we didn’t really know? How do we grieve for someone who hasn’t been a part of our lives in a very long time? What happens if guilt and regret creep in and steal our sanity? Is it easier to grieve for a parent you don’t really know and chose not to have in our lives?

Two takeaways that I have from the past 24 hours are that: 1) for the first time since I have known Dave, he referred to Richard as his dad. “My Dad passed away last night” and 2) the fact that he never slept last night because his brain and heart were “processing” hurts me. I have never known Dave to allow something to affect him this way. It is difficult to tell whether the “processing” is flashes of childhood memories of he and his dad , or regrets for not going to see him while he was alive, or if it’s the fact that he passed away and now the opportunities are gone. Maybe it’s a matter of his feeling his own mortality and knowing that one day, we all have to die. Or, possibly a combination of any and all of these thoughts. It could also be the pending “service” that he will be forced to attend ( I will be at his side if he wants me to be). I am unsure of what the “processing” is all about.

The worst part of it all, that keeps haunting me, is that we lived 20 minutes from his father’s house for the first 4 years of our relationship. Not once, did Dave go and visit his father or make any effort to spend time with him. I get that. I have been in the same position. It is never easy to try and create relationships that make your life toxic. The expectation of “love” for a parent may reside in your heart, but the pressures of maintaining a relationship where there is a lack of mutual respect and joy, is taxing. It is just easier to close the doors and walk away from hurtful memories and the pain of feeling like you are being rejected by your own flesh and blood.

I was with my ex husband who never had a relationship with his father either. When his father passed away, it tortured him for over a year. His mother, who was the “rock” of the entire family, passed away shortly after that. Our marriage became an emotional disaster. I begged him to get some help. He chose not to, and in the end his anger and regrets became MY anger and pain. I truly feel that he struggled because he had opportunities with his father, but never felt like there was a chance to build a relationship. In the end, neither of them were at fault, it is just life.

My concern is not that Dave didn’t spend time trying to create a relationship with a man he hardly knew. My concern is that Dave will forever regret not trying to form some kind of bond with the only father he will ever truly have. Perhaps, its not that he is mourning the loss of a father. He is mourning the loss of NOT having a dad. He is grieving for a stranger but the pressure of expectation is messing with his heart and soul.

Writer of relationships / early childhood and mental health . Poetry and fiction dabbler

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