The Lifelong Grief of Losing a Parent
I lost my dad when I was 10. It was sudden. In the middle of the night, he was rushed to the hospital for acute appendicitis. A few days after, he died. I was young, but I understood the concept of death from TV shows. Death means you don’t get to see the person anymore; you don’t share memories anymore. The dead are removed from any future moment of your life. But I didn’t feel sad, not immediately. When he was alive, we didn’t spend much time together. He was largely absent in my childhood. I had a few outings with him, going to the flea market once, going to Shek O beach several times, going to his office for the first time a few days before his death — and that was all I could remember. I didn’t know him as a person, but more of a fictional character from the descriptions my mum gave me. I know he loved to drink beer and Hong Kong style milk tea. I know he loved hanging out with his friends more than coming home. I know he loved Kowloon more than Hong Kong Island. I know many facts about him.
My mum took me to a counsellor not long after. It was a standard session for helping children with the loss of a parent or a relative. I can’t recall what I said to the counsellor. I probably just talked through my outlook on life and assured her that I understood the impact on my life and that I was neither depressed nor suicidal. Life went on, with my mum struggling financially to provide for my then 2-year-old brother and me. It was not easy for her, but she managed to shield us from the instabilities in the system as much as possible. Several months later, I carved the sentence “I miss you, dad” on my wardrobe. I thought I missed him. I probably did, but in the sense of missing something you are used to having in your life, like the dining table you placed your dinner on every day. It was a sense of loss. It was mild but persistent.
Back in the counselling session, the counsellor gave me a leaflet that described the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. As a student whose job was to learn from teachers and textbooks, naturally I tried to understand the grief model. I tried to make sense of my feelings, which was not much. Wasn’t it normal to feel really sad? I needed to feel really sad. I needed to identify when I felt these emotions. By the time I got into secondary school, I had convinced myself to be sad about losing my dad, and I felt worse than I should have. I was sad because I couldn’t have a dad like other children. I wanted to have a normal family.
Eventually, I moved on from that sadness. I started not to feel any impact of not having another parent because he was not there most of the time in my childhood anyway. I accepted that my family would never be the same as most. It was what it was. Life was as good as it could have been, and I no longer missed my dad. He barely came to my mind once I’ve outgrown the puberty emotional rollercoaster around 18.
That was until I reached 28. One day, my Facebook feed became populated by wedding and baby photos of colleagues and schoolmates. I had been in a stable relationship for some time. I started thinking about children and what memories I would share with them. A few years prior, I had moved away from my mum’s on Hong Kong Island to Kowloon because it was an affordable area with a reasonable commute time to my workplace, and many 60-year-old buildings were still standing. I started walking around often to acquaint myself with many parts of Kowloon. I enjoyed the remaining bits of old Hong Kong I could see. It’s only past my 28th when I started thinking of my future children did I start wondering about these on my walks: sometimes I wondered what my dad would think of the Kowloon now. I wondered what he would say about the quality of the snack shops in Mong Kok. I wondered what conversations we could have. The realisation of the impossibility of knowing these subtle details about my dad dawned on me. I finally felt grief 18 years after his passing.
I don’t think there should be a model to generalise people’s experience of grief. In the pursuit of science, we love to make sense of the world by applying a single universal mental model to one topic. The reality is that everyone experiences grief in their own unique way. Everyone’s grieving is a little bit different, just like everyone’s life experience is unique. In my case, I would like to think that my grief needed time to grow. It was too premature to be understood when it happened, but 18 years later, it had grown into an adult to express itself fully. It taught me that I had felt sad for losing my dad genuinely, and it taught me that the grief of losing a parent, albeit distant, will never go away.
I have lived without my dad much longer than with him, yet it still deeply affects me emotionally. I would never have the worldview I might have had if my dad were alive, but it is alright. Grief is a cluster of emotions. We live with the effect of our emotions all the time. Our emotions get out of control sometimes, but it is okay. All we need to do is to acknowledge it and let it out occasionally. Acceptance doesn’t mean that you’ll stop feeling sad. It means you have decided to be strong most of the time but would still take care of yourself by allowing downtime without self-punishment.
My grief continues to live in me, and I have accepted it.