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Fathers: The Missing, the Lost, and the Loved

A Personal Perspective: Father may be gone, but memories of him live on.

Key points

  • There are surrogate fathers who we love immeasurably, and love us in kind.
  • There are the lost fathers, those who died in service for others, or suicide, or sudden death.
  • The many kinds of fathers are memorialized in music, art, and literature.

Is a father defined by what he does or who he is? Some fathers protect people in the community. They’re firefighters and police officers, or they serve our country’s Armed Forces as soldiers, airmen, or marines. These are the fathers who protect people outside their family, often becoming heroes in the community or in the nation. But at home, there are also fathers who are heroes, the private heroes to their daughters and sons. The ones who steadfastly and lovingly are there for their children, coaching them in sports, chess, or math.

Michelangelo Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
Creation of Adam
Source: Michelangelo Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

There are the fathers in literature: King Lear, whose advancing madness wreaked havoc on the daughter who rebelled against him, and Hamlet, whose dead father charged him to redress his murder. Fathers are lionized in the splendor of art. There is the magnificence of Michelangelo’s Adam, created by God’s pointed forefinger, making nothing into something, a fresco in the Sistine Chapel. There are fathers in music, dedicated to and remembered in song. There are fathers memorialized through someone’s representation of them in poems. The poet, Sylvia Plath, who wrote The Bell Jar, wrote “Daddy,” the poem about her struggle to evict her father from her psyche.

What about the missing fathers? The ones who left the family, or whose families had to leave them. My mother left my father after my infant sister died when I was a toddler. The owner of the moving company was so shaken by his mistake of coming to the house during my sister's wake that he didn’t charge my mother when we moved two days after her burial.

My mother told me stories about the father I never knew: she said when I was a 9-month-old roly-poly, my father—I never used the word “Daddy”—would toss me up in the air and I’d shout with gurgling glee. The meager times in later years when my mother and I saw him, he never addressed me by name. When I tried to contact him once when I was a teenager and once as an adult, he refused to talk to me.

But there are other kinds of fathers, the stand-in ones, the surrogate fathers who are loved immeasurably and love in kind: grandfathers and uncles—related by blood or marriage—mentors, friends, and sometimes spouses fill the role.

My Uncle Dominic was the stand-in for my father. He was married to my mother’s oldest sister; after my mother buried my sister and left my father, we moved into their house with their three children.

From that long-ago time, I vividly remember the furniture arrangement in the bedroom that my mother and I shared, where my crib was in relation to the rest of the pieces. But most of all, I remember my uncle and the tune he sang while feeding me as I sat on the potty chair: “Choo, choo, open your mouth and down the hatch.” He’d move the spoonful of food around until I opened my mouth, like a father bird feeding his fledgling. He loved me as his own in that toddler time of my life, and I loved him forever.

There are the lost fathers, the ones who died in service for others, or in suicide, leaving their families in anguish, and the ones who died suddenly without warning: a stroke sitting at the kitchen table drinking hot chocolate after coming home from a January concert; a murder from a robbery gone wrong; a heart attack playing ball, like Uncle Dominic.

What happens to the children, the sons and the daughters of fathers who were felled by death? A friend described the odyssey of her grief after her father committed suicide. The immediate shock and aftermath of her father’s death left her filled with anger and confusion. But those emotions changed as years turned into decades. Her grief changed into a deep sadness for her and for him that he had missed out on so many milestones that the family celebrated—Christmas, New Year’s, Labor Days, birthdays, and weddings. She grieved that she never got to know him as an adult. She never got “to thank him for all those life lessons he taught me.” Her sadness pulls in the regret that he couldn’t know the children that would have been his grandchildren, that are her nieces and nephews. And those children won’t be able to experience the wonderful, fun beloved father.

That symbolic figure, imbued with power and authority, the father who loved, taught, and cheered us on, but also the father who wasn’t there: we never really let go of him. Helen Macdonald, who wrote H is for Hawk, described how she came apart after her father’s death, that losing him after his sudden heart attack broke her. Is that feeling of being broken a universal one? Yet, as grief changes over time, the way my friend’s description of her grief did, the son or the daughter also changes. That change is not only part of the putting back together, but also part of the nature of grief that it can change and allow joy in again. The bittersweetness of joy and grief residing together. The living father is gone. But the memories of him, the chuckles, the droll retorts, the exasperated gasps, the hugs, and so much more live on.

And for the fathers who are here, the private heroes who are loved and living. It’s with them that we can celebrate the day devoted to the man who held us as babies and watched with pride as we grew. As the friend who lost her father couldn’t say to him, we can say to our fathers: thank you for all those life lessons you taught me—without my knowing—because what you are doing is helping me become the person I am.

We remember the fathers who died and say thank you to the surrogate fathers, the heroes who stepped in and filled that role. Happy Father’s Day.


Adapted from the book, The Anatomy of Grief: How the Brain, Heart, and Body Can Heal After Grief (Yale University Press, 2022) by Dorothy Holinger, Ph.D.

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