‘The grief I expected to feel for the loss of my father did not materialise’

After the tragic death of my mother and brother, my father’s remarriage pushed me away

The end of January marked the third anniversary of my father’s death and the 45th anniversary of the deaths of my mother and brother. His death marks an end, symbolically at least, to the family we were before tragedy brought it to an abrupt and shocking end on the morning of January 27th, 1977, when my mother and brother were killed in a car crash leaving just my father and I.

Forty-two years later, in January 2019, as the end approached for my father (following a short illness), I braced myself for a renewed avalanche of grief for what would be, for me, the loss of my longest and most deeply rooted attachment.

It took my father's actual death for me to fully comprehend how much I had already grieved for him

But when the time came, the intense grief I expected did not materialise, because the truth was, I had already grieved his loss a long time ago, in the years and decades following the accident when the painful realisation slowly dawned that the loss of my mother ultimately spelled the loss of my father. Not immediately, of course, in those early days my attachment focus switched four-square to him and I clung to him literally and metaphorically when he was the only thing I had left in the world, the only light in the darkness.

It took his actual death for me to fully comprehend how much I had already grieved for him, my feelings in the end reduced to a familiar dull ache of suppressed yearning which never fully went away while he was alive, but found a closure with his death.

I had always equated the primal shock of the loss of my mother (and only sibling) very young as the reason for my continued pain and acute grief in adulthood. It never occurred to me how much the early remarriage of my father was a factor in delaying and indeed compounding my grief and the negative implications this had for our relationship.

It was through wider reading, around Brexit of all things, where I stumbled across Gamal Abdel Nasser, the second president of Egypt whose role in the Suez crisis – a possible contributing factor to the Brexit vote you see – sparked my interest, but whom I also discovered lost his mother when he was aged just eight. She died giving birth to his third brother while he was away at school in Cairo. His family kept the news from him until he came home from school for the holidays. He stated later that "losing her this way was a shock so deep that time failed to remedy".

I could only concur.

He added that his father’s remarriage later that year (she died in April) further deepened the injury causing a barrier to go up between them which never really came down.

This gave me much pause for thought.

After my mother died, I needed my father to keep me at the centre of his world, but his remarriage pushed me firmly to the periphery. It always felt (to me) as if he was done with being my father and he felt (I think) that I expected too much from him.

Maybe I did.

His remarriage meant the terms of our contract had changed and could never be the same again

Either way, the mismatch of our expectations caused a barrier of sorts to ensue.

For years I pined for him just as much as I did my dead mother and brother. It took decades for me to realise that what I wanted was impossible. His remarriage meant the terms of our contract had changed and could never be the same again.

Further reading revealed that there is evidence to suggest that early remarriage by widowers does complicate grief resolution for daughters because of the difficulties that arise in the “conversational remembering” of the deceased mother within the new family set up (Riches and Dawson, Journal of Family Therapy, 2000). In other words a wider remembering, and therefore grieving, of the deceased mother is difficult for fear of being construed as disrespectful towards the new wife.

There are less opportunities for remembering through conversation, rituals or even displaying of photographs which greatly complicates the grief resolution for offspring of the first marriage.

There has been much research into men’s grief to support a distinction between how men and women cope with bereavement, confirming that men are more inclined to adopt concrete strategies (Stroebe and Schut, 1998) focusing on “repair” or “restoration” of disrupted routines – a “life must go on” approach – whereas females tend more towards reflection and rumination. Men tend to view “remembering” in a negative light as pointless “harking back” to something that cannot be changed, which is at odds with a daughter’s need to remember. Daughters are resentful at the perceived speed with which their fathers appear to “get over” their grief when they haven’t even begun to explore their own. His remarriage represents the successful resolution of his grief whereas a daughter’s ongoing distress shows the failure of hers.

Daughters may also have to contend with ambiguity regarding their own role in the new family, particularly if she had previously formed a kind of “survivors alliance” with her father in the aftermath of her mother’s death, perhaps taking on the traditionally female tasks in the household. This bond immediately becomes defunct upon the arrival of a new female, further heightening a daughter’s sense of betrayal and perhaps souring a previously good relationship she had with her father.

Interestingly, historically it was not uncommon for widowed fathers, of limited means with a young family to rear, to marry the sister of his deceased wife. This arrangement (although frowned upon by the church) was seen as being the best outcome for all parties involved. Indeed, in American states, such a marriage was deemed not only lawful but a selfless act deserving of praise. For the bereaved children, the attractions were clear, their aunt was not a stranger and her presence would not eclipse the memory of their deceased mother as she would likely employ similar household routines and may even physically resemble her deceased sister. There would be no social barriers in the wider family and community to “conversationally” remembering the deceased mother as it could not be construed as disrespectful, thus greatly aiding grief resolution for the bereaved children.

My own mother, rather neglectfully, failed to have any sisters, just three brothers all of whom were already married when she died, just in case anyone thought that would be a good idea, which in fairness in 1979 probably would have caused more problems than it solved.

Since my father has died I have experienced an unexpected release from the old pain, a closing of a circle.

I loved him, once upon a time, more than any other human being on earth but I had to let him go.

With his death I could reclaim him again and the family that we were in a way that I could not do before because he rejected looking to the past to which I, in some ways, still belonged. As a result, I experienced my losses as a grief that dare not speak; those early years consigned to the shadows, out of bounds, taboo, or as Sylvia Plath most perfectly captured it: "sealed off like a ship in a bottle – beautiful, inaccessible, obsolete, a fine, white flying myth". But they weren't a myth, we did exist, once upon a time, on a sandy shore under a purple and yellow hill; a mother, a father, a son and a daughter. A family with hopes and aspirations just like any other.

My father’s death has at last allowed me to say goodbye.