Losing a parent at a young age

"I know that then, at age nine, I made a pact with myself never to use the word 'dead' in relation to my father."

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Tara-Michelle with her late father. Photo: Tara-Michelle Ziniuk

I’ve been in Montreal for the past week, celebrating my maternal grandmother’s 90th birthday. My four-year-old daughter is the youngest of her five great-grandchildren. My grandmother denies it, but in my memory she’s been telling us “This might be the last time” my brothers and I see her every time we’ve visited her since childhood. As the years pass on, that line takes on new meaning. Suffice to say, there’s been a lot on my mind about aging, life cycles and death over the past few days.

It was while I was in Montreal that I heard news of Today’s Parent senior editor Tracy Chappell’s sudden passing at the age of 41. I’ve worked with Tracy before; we bonded over both having daughters named Anna, and she was a force of kindness and an editor who put such care and detail into her work. The news was shocking, horrifying—as many have written in their online tributes. It just seems so unfair.

Her passing also struck a chord with me for other reasons. I was the same age as Tracy’s nine-year-old daughter, Anna, when my own father died, also suddenly and very unexpectedly. My father was only one year older than Tracy. He died of a brain aneurysm, passing away before both of his parents. As is custom under Jewish law, the funeral and mourning period began immediately, without much time to process the news.

Coincidentally, I was in Montreal when I heard news of my father’s death as well. This has a different relevance in this case, though, because at the time my father lived in Montreal and my mother and I lived in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with my stepfather and baby brothers. We’d just happened to be in Montreal visiting family when he died. I was his only child—my brothers have a different father, and my dad and his second wife never had kids together.

What I remember most vividly from the announcement that my father had died was that there wasn’t one. My mother told me he’d had a bad headache, that his wife had taken him to the hospital and he’d been admitted. She told me it was a brain aneurysm (which I’d never heard of at the time), that he was on life support and that they didn’t think he was going to make it. The next thing I knew, funeral arrangements were being made and I was being shuttled from place to place, from grieving relative to grieving relative.

I understood what was happening, but I hadn’t heard the actual words because they hadn’t been spoken aloud. I’m not sure if my mother was so upset that she honestly believed she’d already updated me or if she thought her announcement about my father’s coma was a gentle way of letting me know, and that I would understand.

My home life had always been unstable, but my relationship with my father had always been a positive one. My parents separated when I was five. From the time I was made to live with my stepfather, I always believed I could leave. My goal was to get back to my father, and he symbolized the possibility of escape for me. With his death, I lost not only him but also this dream of another place to be and another life waiting for me.

I know that my father was older than my mother. That he’d been to Woodstock. I’m told that my father slept on the floor next to my crib when I was a baby. I know he painted a basement wall white for us to draw on together. I have a card he gave me when I was very young, with a poem he wrote for me inside.

I also know that he struggled with drugs, like my mother, but the truth is that I have no memory of it getting in the way of our relationship. My stepfather told me that my father asked him to take care of me—I remember not believing this as a child and continue to disbelieve it to this day, all the while knowing that I’ll never know the truth.

I know that then, at age nine, I made a pact with myself never to use the word “dead” in relation to my father. I’m not sure if it was a poetic holdout on my part or if it had to do with my mother planting the seed of possibility that he might survive and get better (despite having been at his burial and being a very realistic kid, for the most part). Or, perhaps the purpose of the pact was that he wasn’t dead to me. For years, I tiptoed around the language and how I introduced people to my father having passed, never speaking of this pact to anyone. In retrospect, I realize I was giving myself one last thing that was just between the two of us.

I recall that I became depressed and angry. I remember being given books on grieving and not wanting these generic rules to apply to my circumstance (in fact, I saw an Elisabeth Kubler-Ross title on my grandmother’s shelf last week and shuddered). I know that my experience of my father’s passing and my memory of never hearing the exact words spoken to me likely informed how intent I am now on children being told the truth.

For my daughter, knowing that my father died when I was a child makes it impossible for her not to know that such a thing could happen. It probably introduced some anxiety I could have avoided. But it’s part of my truth, and our story. Having had a parent die when I was young also makes me terrified for my daughter that something could happen to me. As a single parent, it’s hard not to think about what would happen to her if something happened to me. Living in an apartment, just me and my child, it often crosses my mind that, if something happened to me at home, it would just be her left alone in the moment.

On the bus ride home from Montreal to Toronto, I had six hours to think about these things: Tracy’s death, and what must be happening for her children; my father, and the realization that I hadn’t visited his gravestone while in Montreal; my own home situation, and knowing I should write a will just to be safe. I thought about how every child who loses a parent at a young age has his or her own unique experience in coming to terms with the news. My experience with losing a parent at a young age won’t be the same as what Tracy’s daughters are going through now. I didn’t have a day-to-day relationship with my father, like they had with their mother—his passing didn’t leave that kind of marked absence in my life.

I keep thinking about what I would say to Anna and Avery if I could, but it’s difficult—it’s hard to touch on something so huge and boil it down into something succinct. I would tell them that their mom’s death may never make sense to them. But I’d also tell them that it gradually becomes easier to go on, and that eventually it will take up less of their thoughts. I would say that, over time, they’ll stop thinking about her absence as much, although they’ll never stop wishing she was there with them. I’d tell Anna and Avery that, eventually, it becomes a matter of wondering what she would have thought or said about some of their decisions, and that they’ll think more about the unknown than the very difficult reality. I’d tell them to hold on to the memories they do have, and know that those will never leave.

Tara-Michelle Ziniuk is a Toronto-based queer mom to a four-year-old. She started off as a single mom by choice and now co-parents. You can read more of her posts here and follow her on Twitter @therealrealTMZ.

Read more:
Remembering Tracy Chappell, 1973–2015>
My preschooler is obsessed with death>
Confessions: Single mom with an unconventional family>

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