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How To Write About Your Dad's Death

Updated: Sep 29, 2023

My father dies. My father dies, and part of me has been waiting for this moment for years. My whole life? The youngest parts of me remember waking from dreams of his death, tears cooling on their cheeks. The oldest parts of me have met Death so many times that the checklist lays out in front of me as a stabilizer. We are crashing (the metaphor is mixed), but the crash can be controlled. If I stay cool under pressure, all will be well. If I stay cool, this won’t hurt so bad. If I write about my dad and his death, I'll understand this better.


No one ever dies in the middle of the day. Every notification call I’ve gotten has been at seven in the morning. When my stepmother calls me, I’ve barely woken up. I pick up the phone, and it shoots out of my hand, clattering to the floor. Not a good sign. When I finally manage the speaker to my ear, she says, “Bailey, I’m sorry, your Dad is gone.”

Time has the strangest ability to crystallize. My vision focuses as I shake my husband awake. “It’s my dad; he’s dead.”


I’ve lost a lot of people. I’ve never lost a dad. It’s surreal, this feeling. My father has always been the bearer of bad news. The one to tell me that those we love are gone. But now? I realize that my first inheritance is the very idea of his passing. I will be the one who reaches out as “next of kin” (a horrible, impersonal phrase).


Moments later, I call my mother in Missouri, waking her to share the news. I don’t know how I tell her, just that I’m screaming in my closet. I will resent when other people tell me they are sorry over the next few weeks, but I will not resent my mother. She knew him in a way only a few people do. She knew he was a good person but could be a real bastard, too.


The last time my father saw her was at my wedding. Every time we spoke, he told me how happy she looked. He didn’t want me to tell her, but that made him happy, too. They were children when they met. A decade after, I am born. Thirty years after that, she sends me the money I need to be with his body. We do not discuss the devastation she must feel. She sends me pictures of my father holding me as an infant. At my father’s wake, my aunt gives me photos from their wedding I’ve never seen. They were so young.


I perch on the couch, watching my husband pack our bags for a flight we haven’t booked yet. Sometimes, a sob catches my breath, the way a hip knocks against a pointed countertop. It’s not quite pain. Something else that knocks the wind out of me.


So yes, there were many things that I was ready for when it came to my father’s life. His death? A cakewalk compared to being on the phone with my stepmother when she tells my sisters (just 11 and 13, you know) that their father is dead. The Irish call mourning wails “keening,” and it’s as close a term as any to the sounds they make. I want to throw up, to run from the sound, but know that my job is to be there. No matter what. Even when I’m not very good at it.


My stepmother tells the girls that I want to talk to them. I don’t, but mostly because I don’t know what to say. I remember saying, “I’ll be there soon.” And that’s the only true thing to say because we all know that nothing will be alright for a very long time.


The next several hours sprint. My sister-in-law books us a flight, and I sit outside on a picnic bench. A man from the hospital calls me. He doesn’t work there, though. No, this is a man who was trying to help my father crawl out from under the Sisyphean rock of addiction. I know it was too late for that, but thank him all the same. The man tells me he wants my dad’s body sent to a funeral home, not the morgue. I say yes to the help because I don’t want to decide. I feel too young for this. I am too young for this.


I am too young to speak kindly to my father’s girlfriend as she cries on the other side of the phone. “I failed him! I failed him! I’m sorry! I’m sorry.” They’ve been together for eight months.


I say, “You did all you could.”


Twelve hours after my father’s death, I am in Atlanta waiting for my stepmother to pick me and my husband up from the airport. I think about bumming a cigarette from the smoker’s section. I don’t smoke. Instead, I decide to do the next week as sober as possible. There’s no sidelining grief.


When we get in the car, it’s like nothing has happened. Though, to be totally honest, I don’t remember much of the ride, just that it ends with a plate of fajitas and queso dip.


The tears come the next morning at half past five when I am awake next to my husband and start writing my eulogy. “My father was a complicated man. To stand before you and pretend otherwise would be a lie. I will not dishonor him or my family by lying.” The memories start to flood: watching television, stoking bonfires, pretending to have Irish accents in Publix. My father, my father, my father. He loved me. He wasn’t very good at it, but he loved me.


A few hours later, I sit in bed with the oldest younger sister. I ask her how she feels. She shrugs. “I don’t know.” I put my forehead to hers, take her hands, and say, “He loved you. He loved you so much. He was really shitty at showing it.”


We cry. Because what else can you do when your father, the one who was bad at loving you, dies?

The last time my father went to rehab, I wound up in charge of his affairs. A few months before he wound up there, I wrote about his addiction and how it affected me. Someone commented that I should be ashamed of outing him. Well, friend, if you’re reading this, am I allowed to talk about it now? His death certificate lists the cause of death as a cardiac event caused by alcohol withdrawal. My father was an addict, and it killed him.


To tell you otherwise would be a lie.


My father and I had a complicated relationship. Months passed when I couldn’t talk to him because he was too self-absorbed or drunk to be around. I got to a point where I needed to prioritize my peace. I resented the hell out of him for treating me like a friend my whole life instead of his child. I refuse to feel guilty about that. I helped him as much as anyone could. One of the voicemails saved to my phone that I’m not yet ready to listen to again is him telling me that I saved his life more than once. The man knew nothing about me but was proud of me. And I’ll be damned if he didn’t love me. He just wasn’t good at it.


To tell you otherwise would be a lie.


bam


In the post-script of this blog, I'd like to ask for your assistance in paying for my father's funeral. I never thought I'd be in this position, yet here we are. Thank you for considering: https://www.gofundme.com/jim-merlins-funeral

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