The meaning of Shrove Tuesday is all about repentance and forgiveness.
This was the day my dad chose to leave this world.
“My dad,” what does that mean? Many things to many people.
Some have close positive relationships with their father and some never know who brought them into the world. Me, I’m somewhere in between. As an infant, my dad was around and then due to some negative choices he made, my mum decided to leave. Then I didn’t see him again until I was 21. I spent three years forming some kind of relationship with him, but then an incident led me to mirror my mum’s decision and leave.
This isn’t a space for me to be specific or pass judgement on the choices or behaviours of either parent. I’ve reflected on those aspects privately and in many self-development pursuits in life. What I want to explore here, 51 years on, is when someone is about to leave this world, does the past really matter? Does barely knowing a parent discount the grief felt in any way?
I spent my childhood looking at photos of my dad, idealising and desperately trying to find similarities in my personality and his. I sought comfort in photos of him in nature, travelling, playing sports, acting, playing music, doing gymnastics and wearing a cowboy hat, all things I felt links with. There was one photo of my mum and dad and me as a baby, where all I could see and sense from my dad was a look of pure love toward me, as he held me and looked into my eyes. That must’ve been a great starting point for me in my bond with him.
Then with the flip of a pancake, I no longer experienced that, as we had to go. Given how he was, if the pancake landed the other way, like the movie “Sliding Doors” the story would’ve been extremely different. On the balance of probabilities it would not have been a great outcome for a child—that child being me.
Reconnecting with my dad when I was in my 20s was always something I knew I would do. I am so happy I got to experience him as an adult, but sadly, he wasn’t mentally well. Nonetheless, he was a part of my identity. Because of how he was, I learnt to just experience him in the present, not think about the past or the future, just be where I was in that moment and enter his reality.
When I chose to step back from the relationship, it was an extremely sad decision for me but felt the right one. I never stopped thinking about him. I never stopped looking at the photos of the man he was, before things became different, and I always wondered how he was. I searched records intermittently to see if he had passed away. Then I made a decision that I did not want to miss the ending of his life. Wherever he was, however he was, I wanted an opportunity to reconnect before the end. This felt right to me. So I contacted family that knew how he was and a one-step-removed awareness began.
Then with the flip of a pancake, they told me he had dementia and had soon lost much of his awareness. Gone was my chance for a cognisant farewell. He was then admitted to hospital and it was thought to be his final days. I knew I had to see him. I had to say goodbye, a goodbye important for me even if he may not have known I was there.
I spent eight hours (one for every decade of his life) over his dying days simply being with him in hospital. Looking into his eyes, stroking his head. Telling him it would be okay. Telling him that I was okay. Telling him I forgave his absence in my life and listing the qualities I felt I had developed as a consequence of this.
I spoke of his granddaughters and he got to see me connect with his other family members. Could he focus? Could he even see at all? Could he hear? Did he know? Ultimately, none of that matters, as what was in that hospital ward was an energy of love, compassion, and acceptance. Something that began to get instilled in me in that captured photographic moment where my dad held me and looked at me with the deepest love. No past, no future, just a moment.
I like to believe that my dad waited for me to say goodbye. I also perceive he had a tear forming as I said the words I said to him, accompanied by my own tears. Tears of sadness but also privilege. Sadness that his life was less than he had hoped and that I missed out on the best of him. Privileged that I got to experience the raw energy of his essence. The true self, the part of us that has all the ego conditioning we get in life stripped back. The moments of his death being an experiential journey into a soul connection. Something so deeply moving to my whole being.
Nothing has changed in my life and yet nothing will ever be the same. I no longer have the man who played a part in my existence on this earth. I’ve tolerated his absence all my life and the paradox is he feels so much more present in his death. A presence I welcome with an open heart.
I was relieved when he got the choice to be the one to finally leave, his pain had ceased. As a psychologist, I formulate he feared others leaving so much and clung so tight and pushed boundaries so hard that they had little option.
So am I grieving? Grief is our response to loss, particularly to the loss of someone or some living thing to which a bond or affection has been formed. I had that bond and affection; for me, separation is merely an illusion. Heart-based connections never leave us; they just may not always be in our visual field.
I think I spent my life grieving the presence of a father, a grief for what I may have had. Yet in his death as an adult, I feel I’ve gained so much…so maybe not loss, but, yes, in my view, I am still grieving. My inner child, that part of me that had a father, however he behaved, and then did not, that part of me is grieving the eternal hope that the next day he may return in the shape or form I imagined a father would be. And with the flip of a pancake that hope is gone.
So for those supporting someone who has lost a parent they may never have known, I ask that you respect that grief in exactly the same way as any other loss. This scenario brings complexity. When you try to rationalise—never a good idea for any grief—realise you are more than likely responding to a child ego state of that person, that inner infant, toddler, young person who experienced that original loss.
Consider if the words you say would make sense to a young child. Simply be with that person; let them be. Allow your essence to connect with theirs. Step out of any ego need you have to take away their pain. Maybe it isn’t even pain; perhaps, it’s simply raw emotion and maybe that feels good and releasing—cathartic.
Lose any wish to get it right, that’s about you, not them; simply be there and show you care. Many things may be triggered for them even physical sensations that they can make no sense of, as associative neural pathways transport them back to those early times, especially if the original loss was at a preverbal stage of development. What does a baby need? Comfort, love, and safety, the simple knowledge that we are there.
In a final flip of the pancake, it seems that in death my dad reinforced to me how to live. Even more poignant as he died at the exact time I woke up that day. An awakening. Our stories, our mistakes, our achievements, our possessions, as interesting as they may be and as reassuring as they seem to our self-worth, they are not what makes us who we are. We have an energy, an essence, a being, a soul, and when all else is stripped back, wherever your pancake lands, be it right side, left side, ceiling or floor—every single one of us is more than enough and that is all we ever really need to know.
I wrote this poem for my dad on the evening of my last visit, as a memory of our time together:
The Dad That I Had
You’re here but not there
Eyes fixed but don’t stare
Connected but departed
Life memories are charted
Asleep and yet awake
So fragile you could break
Your head it can turn
My voice you discern
So cold to the touch
Life still in your clutch
An infant once more
Dependent as before
Words no longer flow
You trust I just know
Your breath maps heartbeat
In slowness they meet
You left I returned
The lessons we learned
I really believe
It’s time you must leave
I held you today
With nothing to say
Simply just there
To show how I care
We lost so much time
But that was no crime
This script told our roles
Awareness in souls
I grieve what we lost
You were there but not here
I balanced the cost
I worked through my fear
That’s how I know that all was not wrong
A father at birth
But not the whole song
At death I got to call you my Dad
So grateful that you, were the one that I had
Separation and silence are merely illusion
The underpinnings of human confusion
This journey in life has taught me just why
Departure from earth is never goodbye