When Your Estranged Parent Dies, Grief is Complicated
I didn’t speak to my father the last twenty years of his life. I never stopped loving him. I just chose to love myself more.
My father’s 76th birthday would have been June 29, 2021, but we didn’t celebrate it.
He passed away of esophageal cancer in 2010, more than 10 years ago. And if that’s all you knew, you’d be right to assume that the day might have been one filled with wistful remembrances for the father I no longer have. Oh, but there’s so much more to our story.
Like many, I grew up in a family whose dynamics were complicated and often messy — as did my father. Like many, I grew up with an alcoholic parent — as did my father. Like many, I witnessed and suffered from a parent’s emotional and physical abuse — as did my father. And as such, I hoped for my father to be a different person than he was, someone who wasn’t filled with rage and self loathing and a propensity toward destruction — but he just couldn’t.
In my early twenties, after years of being hurt and confused and bewildered by my father’s behavior, I found myself sitting on the floor of my mother’s home, sketching out the seating chart for my upcoming wedding. The phone rang, and it was my dad’s best friend.
Your dad’s been arrested. Another DUI. Can you help him out? He’s really hurting.
At the time, I was a recent college grad with a brand new job at big Chicago advertising agency. With my sparkly view of the future — one that didn’t include drama or dads who disappoint — I sat frozen on the floor, staring at the seating chart, imagining all the guests who might witness what I’d seen for more than two decades — my father’s slurred speech, his stumbling steps, his inappropriately loud responses to life’s most solemn moments, and (worst of all) potshots launched at the innocent and unknowing.
“Hello?” my dad’s friend asked. “You still there?”
As doubts and worries filled my mind, I clutched the cordless phone in my hand, welcoming — then embracing — the stillness and safety of this awkward silence. I knew I had a decision to make.