Dear Reader: Marleen lost her father at an early age. In the following article, which she has written for this blog, she sensitively and with deep insight discusses both what that loss meant to her and what such a loss might mean to anyone. She will be following the discussion of her article, so please feel free to offer her any observations you might have and ask her any questions that occur to you. – Paul Sunstone
My father died when I was twelve years old, after having had cancer for about a year.
At that time, when I was still young and my father’s illness seemed unfortunate but also “just a fact” (because it overcomes the child), this great loss seemed as something unreal. It felt unreal because it happened to me, and something like that could not really happen to me. Because the world is good and fair, isn’t it?
This sudden loss led to a shocking change in world-view, where the world felt no longer safe. Hence, we might say, that the sudden loss of a parent may lead to a loss of certainty in the world. A certainty that is not only a trust that life in general is good and to be trusted, but also the certainty that people who love you will accept you for who you are and that they will stay.
Is the father, and the presence of the father, not a symbol of safety and certainty for a young girl? Is her world-view not grounded in the relation she has with both of her parents, and does the loss of a parent not permanently damage the trust she has in the world in general?
As a child, one might think: “If my father can leave me or die, anything can happen. Anything! My mother can die, my sister and brother…even I can die.”
A confrontation with this reality, with mortality and finitude at an early age, must influence a child’s relation with its environment.
And what can be said about women whose fathers left them when they were young, through divorce or the inability or unwillingness to take care of them? In both cases, we might argue that the loss of a father (in the sense of a withdrawal of his presence permanently or for a long time), not only shakes her world, but can also be decisive for the men she will choose to date or marry in her adulthood.
Human beings often have the tendency to repeat childhood-patterns, however constructive or destructive they might be, because they are trusted and save. The ego prefers the well known, and hence a woman might choose to date or marry men who are either emotionally unavailable, or who would eventually leave them (or the women might sabotage relationships, so that the men will indeed leave them, as their fathers did).
But as I remember, at the time of my father’s death, the sadness and confusion did not primarily originate in the loss of my father as an individual (that came later), but more – as I said before- due to the shock that that could happen to us, to our family and to him, in the first place. Is it possible that children think that losses are their own fault, because they are or were not “good”? How responsible do children feel for the loss of a parent? These questions kept me occupied, and when I got older, and when I started to have more insight into my father’s terminal process, mourning really hit me: he knew he was dying, and that he would never see us grow up, graduate from high school and university, and that he had to let go. This insight caused me much grief, because it confronted me with my imperfections and weaknesses as a child and as a daughter. Even though I was only 12, I did nothing to help him; I just had to watch him suffer and die. This strong man was reduced to a weak individual that needed constant care. And I was totally powerless; there was nothing that I could do. Therefore, in a certain sense, the loss of a father at an early age might induce guilt in both male and female children, because they themselves are confronted with a deep sense of helplessness that cannot be overcome by means of any act.
I am curious to know how these kinds of cases can influence developing-women’s psychology. A woman whose father was absent and who had left her might always wonder why, and assume she was not worthy of his love, not worthy for him to stay. A young girl who loses her father through death, might -illogically- wonder why he left her also ( illogically because he did not willfully leave his family) , and will have to accept her helplessness in the whole situation. She cannot fight him, blame him, or ask him to come back. It seems that the loss of a father could cause a great shift in a woman’s world-view and self-esteem. Without the acknowledgment and warm acceptance of a father (or father-figure) in a woman’s youth, she will never learn that she is fundamentally good and acceptable as a woman, for who she is. A father loves his daughter because she is his daughter. She is accepted and loved for who she is, for the fact that she is. Most likely, the young girl will seek that approval, love and care with other father-figures, or in other “symbolic” father-figures and will project this need onto her future partners.
I myself was not aware of my behavioural patterns until recently. Not only did I seek men who were in some way emotionally unavailable, but I also sought men who could protect and rescue me (I dreamed of the one great love, who was strong and protective). Additionally, I sought to escape myself with the hope of finding a complete safety and certainty in a man’s arms. Not realistic perhaps, but this behaviour was caused, I am certain, by unconscious motives. Perhaps we might even say, that I tried to “fix” something that I was not able to do or complete with my father. I wanted to get the balance straight, to heal the imbalance of our relation at the time of his death.
It is a fact that children are often excluded from the terminal or death-and-dying process, in order to protect them. But, it is crucial for children to be close to their parents when they are dying, and to be able to give their parent their love and attention, only if it is by means of sheer presence (but I must agree this depends on the child’s age). This, for the healing of the child him/herself; sometimes children have difficulty accepting that they were helpless, and could not help mommy or daddy.
I wish that somebody had told me, that I was not to experience any great loss, or mourning, until my late 20’s. Children quite easily seem to be capable to move on with their lives, but this is also a consequence of their mirroring how adults cope with mourning and death. If everyone pretends that life “just moves on”, then life will “just move on” for the child…as if it is something that is expected.
Also, I wished someone would have told me that my father’s loss would influence and guide me for the rest of my life, that it would influence my choice of boyfriends, that it would influence how I felt about life and the fairness of life, how it would influence how I saw myself in relation to men, authority figures, and to ambition and a future career.
It is sometimes written that fatherless women have less self-confidence than women who did not lose a father at an early age, and in general, I cannot agree more. Sometimes these women might think that “it happened in the past”, and that it is therefore not relevant anymore for her choices today. But this is where we make a mistake: we are, in a way, what we were taught and what we experienced in childhood. Our attachment-structures were created then, and are very hard to alter in adulthood. Hence, awareness of our loss, and how it might influence us, can be fundamental for developing control over our lives, and for developing a healthier self-esteem and self-love.
But, something beautiful and fruitful can also develop from these early losses. We see in the history of humanity, that many individuals who lost a parent at an early age were instigated to seek their approval in the external world. They projected their need for approval onto society in general, and in the acceptance of men they respected. Many of the world renowned writers, poets and thinkers lost parents at an early age, and this could have been a reason why they sought to transcend themselves and their own intellectual and spiritual boundaries: they sought to overcome the longing for a deep approval and acceptance by means of a shift from a lost father to a “symbolic father”, found in society in general or in the authority of perceived superiors, such as mentors, teachers, great scholars or great poets, which not only led them to great achievements, but also to an enrichment of their own lives, and of the lives of others.