Early Loss of a Parent

By Danielle Richardson

Last winter, I made my way through the chilly night air to my first BFO “Tree of Light” ceremony at Toronto City Hall.  I felt a little nervous because I was going on my own, but I knew it was something I wanted to do – a way to start traditions of honoring my dad. 

While I was waiting for the evening’s events to begin, I decided to look at some books that were on display.  As I stood there, I overheard the woman beside me sharing her situation with one of the volunteers behind the display table.  I’m not sure what sparked the conversation, but it caught my ear.  The woman was speaking about a child, her own child or grandchild perhaps, who had lost her father.  She was explaining how she couldn’t get past the word “daddy” without breaking down in tears and instead used the parent’s name when mentioning him in front of the child. When I heard this, part of me wanted to approach her and offer encouragement: “I couldn’t help but overhearing you.  I just wanted to say that I know it’s hard to use the word “Dad” but try to do it if you can, and talk about him, even if it is difficult.  Your memories will keep his memory alive.”

Her situation moved me because it reminded me of my own.  Many years ago my father died suddenly in an airplane accident just before I was born.  My parents had just begun their lives together on an air force base in Alberta where my dad was starting a career as a pilot. Early one February morning, my mom’s life and mine changed forever. On a high-speed, low-altitude test flight, my dad and his co-pilot perished when their plane wingtip caught the icy surface of a frozen lake, sending the plane cartwheeling.  Death was instant.  My dad’s best friend and a priest soon arrived at my parents’ house to tell my mom what had happened, the news too shocking to absorb.  Because she was expecting shortly, her doctor determined that she should be with her family as soon as possible, and so on the same day as the accident, she was flown back to her parents’ home in Ontario. 

Ten days later, still shocked and overwhelmed, she welcomed me into the world - the circumstances of my birth and our future as a family very different from anything she had imagined. She was 23 years old.

As I got older, we had limited contact with my dad’s family and my dad was rarely mentioned in front of me, perhaps because my family was afraid that it would upset me or perhaps because they were moving on.  His history was falling away.

While I was still very young, a new chapter of our lives had also begun.  My mom met someone new, remarried and they soon had two more children.   My new dad legally adopted me and to outward appearances, our family might have seemed like any other.  At the same time, I knew there was something different about me.  I noticed that people rarely pointed out similarities between me and my mom or my dad.  My red hair and freckles stood out from the rest of my family, as did my quiet nature. 

Years and milestones passed – high school and college graduations, my first job, my first relationship, and still my dad remained a mystery.  Although I knew generally what had happened to him, and vaguely recalled seeing a couple of photos, I didn’t know where he came from or what his personality was like.  It was difficult to make sense of what he meant to me.  Yet as I grew older, I felt a strong pull when I thought of him.  When I spoke about his death, I felt a lump welling up in my throat and tears in my eyes and I found myself apologizing for getting emotional.  It seemed silly:  how could I get upset over someone I never knew?

It was finally in my late 20s that I began to learn about my dad for the first time, encouraged by a therapist who was moved by the emotion that came up for me when I spoke about my dad.  He was the first person to encourage me to talk to my mom and any of my dad’s friends and relatives about their memories of my dad.

At first I was hesitant.  I was afraid of stirring up memories that might upset my family but instinctively I felt it was important for me to do.  Once I started asking questions, a picture of my dad quickly began to emerge. While my mom had said little about him in the past, she began to tell me what an open, loving, and down to earth person he was.  She told me that he liked listening to music, going camping, spending time with his friends, and that he loved to fly. Throughout his life, my dad seemed to draw a close circle of warm, genuine people. My mom had many insights, but she also suggested that I contact my dad’s family to fill in some of the missing information.

My uncle was very willing to talk about my dad.  The first thing he said was what a great guy my dad was.  He told me how easy-going and kind Danny was, and how much fun they’d had growing up together.  Just a year apart, as kids they’d played hockey and built forts and swam.  He said my dad was fearless when it came to climbing and exploring, and he loved to figure out how things worked, often helping his dad at the welding shop.  As a teenager, my uncle remembered, my dad studied hard and looked forward to enrolling in the air force.

The last time he saw my dad was a brief visit when Dan stopped by to see him in university.  My uncle regretted how brief that last visit had been, but he said, “I thought we’d have the rest of our lives to catch up.”  One thing my uncle made clear to me was how much my dad would have loved me.  He would have been a natural father, my uncle said, and there would have been a special place in his heart for me. 

Much of what I had learned about my dad was familiar to me: his low-key nature, the accessible way he had about him, his love of the simple things in life.  One day I made a comment on the phone to an old friend of my dad’s and she responded, “That’s just what Danny would have said”.  It was the first time someone had made a concrete connection between me and him. And when I went through pictures with my mom, I was struck by the strong resemblance in our eyes, smile, compact frame, and even our expressions.  The photos and conversations were quickly coming together: while for a long time I had wondered where I came from, now I could see that I did come from somewhere.  I was just like my dad. 

I began to understand the emotion that had always come up when I spoke about him –a connection I must have intuitively missed.  For so many years he had been a blank slate.  Now here he was suddenly real:  a friend, a confidant, someone who I could look up to and identify with.  With a clear picture of him I longed to know my dad, and the thought of never having the chance made me feel so helpless.  Every time I thought of him, the loss took me by surprise all over again and filled me with grief.  How could it be possible not to have even met my dad, to have completely missed out on someone so special?  I longed for just ten minutes with him - to hear his voice and see how he smiled and laughed and moved, to experience the joy of simply being with him. 

There were so many things I wanted to tell him, and experiences I would have wanted to share with him.  I constantly imagined that he would suddenly walk through the door and say, “Hey, honey,” as if he’d been there all along.  I’d finally get to know him for the first time, and it would be so natural that it would be like we’d known each other forever. One afternoon, sitting on a park bench, I felt his presence beside me so strongly that for a moment I believed if I looked up I’d actually see him sitting there.  The fact that he was so close and yet so far filled me with love and heartache.

Two years later, I still think of my dad often.  The elusive nature of his death and who he was continue to be difficult to come to terms with.  Yet I am glad that I have gone on this journey.  Learning about my dad has allowed me to finally acknowledge my loss, and ultimately, who I am. I’ve grown closer to my mom and to my uncle through our conversations about my dad, and I have met some wonderful people on this journey, many of them members of my dad’s extended family.

I have also gained compassion for myself. Because I never knew my dad, I came to believe that my loss was less significant and it shouldn’t affect me.  Now I realize that what’s most important is the value of the person you have lost, regardless of how much time you’ve spent with them or how long it has been since they’ve passed away.   My dad was invaluable to me, and I can allow myself to have the emotions that come with thinking of him.  I can be patient with myself if I’m having a hard day and give myself credit for the courage it has taken to go on this journey.  In my dad I have discovered a kindred spirit and a special man and I am very proud to be his daughter.  My connection to him helps me celebrate myself.

And this brings me back to the beginning of my story, and the woman who mentioned the surge of grief she felt when she mentioned a lost father to his young child.  I could hear the pain and fear in her voice, perhaps wondering how she would get through the grief and worrying about the unknown future of the child who was left behind.  As I think of that part of myself and my life that was a mystery for so long and the fear and self-doubt that fostered - I hope that this woman will be as open as she can.  From my experience, learning about the father that they can only get to know through you, will bring great strength.