Facing up to the death of a parent


My father died when I was 12 years old, and eight years later I believed I had dealt with his death and had nothing else to learn. I had just turned 21 and had recently graduated from UCD when I was invited to participate in a Young Adult Beginning Experience (YABE) weekend, where people my age would be talking about bereavement - both as a result of the death of a parent and through parental separation. I went along a bit arrogantly, feeling that I didn't need this but maybe I could help others. The surprise for me was that I learned a lot about myself.

I had dealt with different things through the years since my father died, in different ways: some made sense and some were crazy. When Dad died (in his 40s) he had had heart surgery, but appeared to recover and came home. At home, he had a turn and went back into hospital where he went into a coma and then died.

The feelings I had at the beginning were of total shock and "this couldn't be happening so it must be a dream". It was the fact that he had come home and looked well, then a few days later we were sitting with him all night in the hospital watching him die. It was like a dream. I felt that one morning when I woke up Dad would be there.

That dream-like feeling lasted about a month; then I started to feel guilty: "If only I hadn't been a bad boy I would not have put my Dad through the stress and he would still be alive." I was very good at science subjects and I kept asking myself: "Why didn't I come up with ideas for treatment in the hospital?" Looking back on that, during the YABE weekend, all this unrealistic guilt looked crazy to me for the first time.

After my father died, I withdrew into myself. I remember feeling very angry. I'd get angry at God and sometimes I'd talk to Dad and get angry at him: "How could you leave us with seven kids in the family?"

My older brother took the role of taking my father's place, while I took the role of being my mother's listening ear. I really learned to listen and was aware that other people relied on me for emotional support. I said to myself: "Look, you've got to be supportive and face up to new responsibilities; you have to be mature and be the man in the house." It was only after doing the YABE weekend and participating in further workshops that I realised that I took so many things and wrapped them up and put them in a corner - especially the guilt and the anger.

My personality became that of someone who was very non-confrontational because I was afraid to get angry. The roots of that went right down to the bundle of anger which I didn't cope with at the time my father died. I've realised since that a lot of guys have this anger within their characters which can be traced back to emotions that were never expressed or even recognised. And anger in a guy can be very destructive. The fact that I had held on to that bundle of anger made sense, looking back. As a 12-year-old coming into puberty, you just want to get on with life. And there is a strong stigma that boys don't cry. I remember watching my mother and sisters go into a room and cry together and then come out feeling better. I just didn't understand it. On the YABE weekend, I cried for the first time in a long time. The experience of sharing my feelings made me more self-confident. Before, I was afraid to let people in. I had very few friends and family who knew me intimately. I'm not as afraid to be intimate anymore and I've got a reserve of strength which means that I'm not as afraid of getting hurt.

Without the workshop, I think I would have this feeling of "I've got to be in a relationship all the time, whether I'm happy in the relationship or not". I don't feel like that anymore and while people bring a lot of baggage into relationships, I hope I'll be bringing a little less than I would have before. I have learned that I can talk to my Dad anytime. I wrote a letter to him saying that "I hope you think I'm a good guy and that you'd be proud of me".

The next YABE weekend (November 6th-8th in Greystones, Co Wicklow) is aimed at men and women aged 18-35 experiencing bereavement as a result of parental separation or death. For information phone Olive: 01-451 9237 or Claire: 01-450 9619.

In conversation with Kathryn Holmquist