Late night, car wreck, alcohol….children have lost a 27 & 28 year old father. A shiver crosses my heart and a sick feeling enters my gut. My father was 28, my father was out late, my father had been drinking, my father left three kids at home and my father was not driving. It stops me in my tracks and I fight back tears. I don’t know the individuals and am far from an expert on the subject. I only know that it is not 1963 and this time, I will not be the kid growing up fatherless. Deeply saddened, I also know that it is the beginning of a long and difficult journey every time any mother must explain to a child why daddy won’t be coming home.
What was he thinking? How could he not be home? Why did he get in THAT car at THAT time? I have spent nearly 40 years trying to answer those questions and more. There is no answer that will fill the emptiness of what has happened. The community needs to stop any debate between right & wrong or could have & should have. The driver needs to know it was not his fault. The tragedy is done. Healing needs to begin.
It is simply time to find a shoulder to lean on, a quiet moment to reach inside to find that inner strength that is now needed and also a time to focus so very hard on the future. The good lord has simply chosen a more difficult path for the survivors that will come to light in its own time. Now is not the time for arguments and second guessing. Now is the time for grieving, remembering and forgiving in order to lay the ever so small stepping stones that will take everyone into this unwanted and difficult future.
Because I have slept in their tears and walked about in their confusion, the kids are what matter the most to me. I only write this in a small attempt to help those kids and maybe if I’m lucky the mothers, families and community members as everyone goes down this path alone yet together. Believe me. This tragedy did not happen to just one person or family. It happened to everyone and all will need to work together from this day on to slowly deal with it. I can’t say you will ever move past it as it will always be with those touched by it. Good days will eventually come and during those times, it will be tucked away in your pocket. Bad days will roll in over the years. On those days, it will clearly be on your sleeve. When it’s in your pocket, watch for it on the sleeves around you and be there however you can to get them through it.
I have tried to write on this subject a number of times over the years but never got to completion and am not sure I have this time. Loss is hard no matter your age and no matter how many years have gone by. So, I will try to break it down into sections and write from the viewpoint of the kids based on how it went for me:
Time Heals – It’s a cliché but it slowly will. What time will not do is make the kids forget. Up until 4-5 years ago, I thought about my dad EVERY day. You can’t stop it.
The mystery of the unknown is too great and the craving for a father too natural. When the children are gazing off into the distance and seemingly not listening, be patient. They are trying to remember a word or touch. They are dreaming of what it would be like for just one 5 minute conversation or game of catch. They are fighting back the pain so mom doesn’t know and get sad all over again. Time heals but the scab is always there. It will get torn open over and over again at different times. Be someone to lean on and someone they can talk to if you can.
Emotions – This section is strictly for the kids and written to the kids if or whenever they can read it.
Obviously, there will be tears. They will stop in time but they will return for literally decades. Whatever the age, you need to know it’s alright to cry. You can hold back for so long and then the dam will burst. That’s okay, let it go. At times, it will tear you up inside to see your best friend with his dad. Anger, sadness and despair will make it hard to sleep that night. That’s okay, let it go. Parents’ night at the local gym will not be pleasant whether you are 15, 25 or 40. As time goes, you will get better at biting your tongue, looking away and fighting back the tears until you are away from strangers who would not understand. That’s okay, let it go. There will be times when you get mad as hell at the world and the son-of-a-bitch who left you alone. That’s okay, let it go. Shortly thereafter, you will realize once again that he didn’t love you any less and that life is really out of our hands. You will run into a problem in college or in your work life and want so desperately to call him for advice it will leave you saddened and depressed. That’s okay, let it go. Much of the time, you will try and be strong in front of your mother because you feel your job is now to shoulder her burden as well. You will only be able to do this for so long and the dam will break again. That’s okay, let it go. My point is that you should not fight back the emotions. Simply recognize them for what they are: normal. Talk through them with whoever you chose to let in that tight ball of a world you are squeezing so hard to control. No matter what you think, there is room in there for more than yourself.
Communication – Death is not a subject many people wish to talk about. Kids need to discuss it. Find a pastor or counselor and get it out there. In the past couple years, I have helped at a grief camp for kids. While it was not something done for me, I have witnessed first hand how these kids have had their burden lightened by the realization that they are not alone. The more they can communicate their feelings, the lighter the burden will get.
The kids will want to hear stories about their fathers at certain times. They will want to know that dad is not forgotten by his friends and family. Now, on the anniversary of the accident, don’t go over to the house to remind them what happened. The date will be etched in their mind once they are old enough to remember. They want to know how he made you laugh, adventures shared and good deeds done. When old enough, they will ask you about the bad things as well. Be honest. A young kid wants a hero to look up to and the young adult knows that not everyone is a saint. When mature enough, they will want to judge for themselves.
Mothers, grandmas and aunts are great about telling the stories. It is seemingly second nature for them to know when, what, where and for how long. It has been my experience that men typically suck at it. I rode in my grandfather’s pickup truck for hours on end and loved every minute of it but not once did we talk about his son and my father. Occasionally, I would get a rare nugget of a story from an uncle. None of dad’s male friends ever shared a story that I can remember. I believe it is mostly because it simply hurt them too much. Don’t make that mistake. Guys, if you want to do one thing right, speak up a little. It doesn’t have to be an Oprah type Kleenex box “coming to Jesus”. A simple story about a time and place is sufficient. You are more likely to make the kids happy and proud of who they are than sad.
I escaped the daily thoughts only after finally talking about my father and learning more about who he was. I waited decades too long after his accident. Gentlemen, I challenge you to step up and speak out. If you can’t talk, write it down and slip it under the door. Simple stories and anecdotes about their father will be like manna from heaven.
Grandparents, Aunts and Uncles – Never let the kids forget who their last name belongs to. It doesn’t matter that their father is gone. They should always be a part of the remaining family. My father’s family excelled at this. When a father dies, it is easy for some to hide their hurt and let the connection drift away. The kids can become a painful reminder better left out of sight. You absolutely can’t let this happen. They have lost a father. You can’t let them lose the whole family no matter how much it hurts. They need you as much as you need them even if neither of you realize it yet.
Holidays – Nothing in the years to follow will be as hard as the holidays. Christmas will rip your insides out like nothing else. Santa can bring many fine things but he will never bring the one thing those kids will be yearning for. You can only hang on one year at a time as gradually they will get better. Family will help and friends can ease the pain but every year there is always that quiet time when the kids will be alone with their thoughts. Talk, give a hug, a quick rub on the head or a knowing pat on the back. Each one is a strong band-aid that will help hold them together another year.
Faces In the Crowd – In the years to come, there will be birthdays, school plays, sporting events, graduations and weddings. Fill those seats. Be the friendly face in the crowd. At each event, those kids will be searching for their dad’s face. Let them see yours.
We had a May Day event when I was in Kindergarten. We wound our way around a may pole with streamers. Mom had to work that day but there smiling in the crowd was Aunt Rosanna. Absolutely unforgettable, it was probably only 30 minutes out of her day that made me feel good for the rest of my life. All the other kids had parents there. This is always uncomfortable for a single parent child but on that day I had SOMEBODY. It was enough.
Don’t make a scene because they know they are different and certainly don’t want the other kids to know more than they already whisper. When they get older, the kids may tell you that it doesn’t matter if you come to the play or the basketball game. Bullshit, fill the seat. Kids will work hard to make the lives of the adults around them much easier. They may develop a “me against the world” attitude and put on a good front about taking care of themselves. Crap, crap and more crap. Fill the damn seat. Give a wink, a wave, a compliment or high five, it may go unreturned but will be forever etched in their heart.
Teach & Mentor – The kids have no father and now absolutely everything falls on mom. She will need your help this week, next month and every year forward. All the simple things that a dad teaches over the years without even thinking now land in the lap of her, friends, family and the community. Baiting a hook, pitching a tent, riding a horse, catching a baseball, changing a tire, shooting a gun…..the list is endless. Yes, they can learn some on their own but it is so much harder. The kids will likely not ask for help and try to figure some things out by listening closely or watching others while pretending not to care. Again, they will try and take the world on by themselves so that others don’t worry about them nor do they want to be singled out as different.
Be proactive. Take them on an outing or hire them for a day which coincidentally means learning some of these basic skills. Don’t saddle the horse for them. Don’t change their flat tire. Show them how. It lasts so much longer. When the scar is fresh, many of us don’t know what we can do or say. That’s fine because years later you can step up in a small way and score big in the eyes of the kids.
You lose a piece of your heart when you lose a parent. I liken it to losing your eye sight and your other senses then becoming more acute. When a piece of your heart is lost, the rest seems to remember every small act of encouragement and teaching. Simple acts of kindness that take only minutes will be remembered absolutely forever.
Boyfriends & Re-marriage – News flash: Moms are human. At some point, with luck and god’s will, mom will find another companion. It is only natural. Don’t judge whether or not enough time has past or whether or not she is trading up or down. She’s a grownup and she will know. Mom will need your support and communication. The family needs to understand that it is natures’ way of moving on and living today. It is not an attempt to forget her children’s father. She sees him every day in their eyes and actions. She needs a friend to touch, hold and laugh with as the pieces come back together.
It never happened for my mother while I was growing up. There was one time though that I got a crisp, new $10 bill from a boyfriend while in grade school. I still have the electronic football game that I purchased with that gift. Vividly, I can remember the smile on her face. Everything was good if even for a short time. Don’t judge her next chance to smile again. Mom should not be afraid to live again just because life can hurt. Be close enough to catch her and far enough away to let her reach for another chance at happiness in her own time and in her own way.
Separation – For me, the scariest time that I can remember was when mom would go out at night or be away on work. Waiting for her to come home when I was young was painful. I had lost one parent. What was I going to do if she didn’t make it home?
While she was out, I would crush and toss away her cigarettes because in school, I was told how bad they were for her health. I took some serious beatings (especially severe coming from a social worker!) over that but finally won out.
If mom’s away and the kids are not their normal selves, it is likely they are worried about her never returning. Watch for this and discuss it openly if it happens.
Support not Pity – This is a fine line everyone must walk. A terrible, unexplainable thing has happened. Initially, there is no way to stop from making the kids feel different because they simply are. However, as time goes by, they will want to slip back into a normal life. Constant reminders and displays of remorse for them in front of their friends will make them feel more different than they already do. They crave everything about their father but they also care about what their friends think. We all know how brutal a playground can be. Don’t make it worse. Be discreet, be rational. In short, be normal while in public. Try not to single them out. Play catch with the neighborhood, high five the whole team, take friends fishing.
There will be times for the tears and one-on-one with the kids when their friends are out of sight. Simply ask yourself, “If it was my child, what would I want someone to do?”
End-Life Crisis – When I reached that age at which my father had died, I was in a panic. I felt like I was sailing into uncharted territory all by myself. I was now older than my father and felt like I had not done anything with my life. Now, I realize I probably should have smelled the roses more instead of being so preoccupied with pushing them up. It is the biggest mystery of the whole experience for me and one for which I have no clear answer. I simply got through it with my wife, kids and work. Gradually as I eased into my thirties it went away. I still get the occasional feeling that time is short and I better not wait until tomorrow. I guess that isn’t all bad. Watch these kids and be there when they grow older than their fathers. They need to know that there is life beyond their father’s death.
Two common threads have come out of my journey, communication and being there. At times, these have gone well and times they have not. I am to blame for some and those around me are to blame for others. Nothing in life is perfect. We can only deal with it as best we know how. It is my hope that one person will read this and help these kids or another kid at a different time.
I thank god for the family that I had and the community I lived in when I started down this road. While I have a sick, empty feeling in my stomach for the journey these kids are beginning, I rest a bit easier knowing they will be taken care of by a loving family and a caring community. Western South Dakota may be short on rain but it will be always full of the character, commitment and courage it takes to handle such a tragedy. God bless and good luck.