Dealing with the loss of a father

When does the pain of a father’s death ever end? Especially when that father dies at a especially cruel young age?
A St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist wrestled with that question the day after Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile was found dead at 33, leaving behind a wife and three kids. It’s a problem I’m all too familiar with.

Kile’s dad died of heart failure at 44. Kile didn’t make it that far. I’ll go ahead and say it. It’s unfair that an athlete who has to be in top physical condition in order to compete can die of heart failure while people who just let themselves go can outlive them by decades.

My dad made it to 51. He was a great doctor but a horrible patient, which no doubt contributed to his early demise. Decades of too much fatty food, too many cigarettes and pipes, too many cold ones and not enough physical activity caught up to him and didn’t do him any favors.

He was anything but perfect. But I miss him.

He was the smartest man I ever met. Everyone thinks that about their dad at some point in their lives, but in Dad’s case, it was true. I keep hearing about “the latest studies” that just repeat stuff Dad was saying 15 years ago. I’m sure that if I knew jack squat about biology, he’d be even smarter because I’d be able to remember and understand his observations.

Sometimes I’ll be reading a piece in an IT publication or book and I’ll just say, “Duh!” I know it from months or years of observing behavior and recognizing patterns. How I understand computers is nothing new. It’s the same way Dad (and my grandfather) understood medicine and the way my great-grandfather understood business deals. Science is still looking to prove things my dad and his dad knew from experience.

Dad didn’t have a dazzling IQ, but he did have a dazzling memory and a knack for processing the information he remembered. He also had a firm grip on reality.

But I know a lot of smart people who are complete and total jerks.

Dad gave a rip. He didn’t have a lot of close friends and he got burned a lot of times by people, but that never stopped him from doing the right thing. If someone came to him needing help, he offered it. I still remember coming to him one night with a question.

“Dad, tell me about LSD,” I said. (How many parents have a good enough relationship with their 18-year-olds that they’ll feel comfortable with that question?)

Dad gave me some superficial textbook answer like how it wasn’t something you should mess with but there are worse things you can do. I interrupted him.

“Dad, it’s–” and I said the name of one of my closest friends.

Dad dropped an f-bomb and asked what I wanted to do about it and how he should help. Within an hour, he and I were sitting with my friend’s dad, talking about the problem. I told what I knew, and Dad told what he knew from a medical standpoint why this wasn’t a good cure for boredom. And Dad knew when to shut up. As a doctor, he could tell you what the drug’s effects would be. But medicine didn’t have a good answer to the underlying problem and he knew it. Medicine was no substitute for psychology and accountability in this situation, and Dad was quick to say that.

I don’t know how many times Dad would notice someone needed something, and that something would just suddenly show up. Dad might or might not say something about it. Dad’s philosophy about money was that it was for helping people, and credit cards were for helping them immediately and giving yourself a little time to figure out how to pay for it (which he always did).

And yeah, sometimes Dad was impatient and harsh with me (especially when I was young) and there were lots of times he wasn’t there when I needed him or my sister needed him or Mom needed him. He was very human. But so is everyone else I know, and Dad did a better job with what he had to work with than the majority of those people.

Sometimes I still have dreams that it was all a big mistake, a misguided practical joke gone horribly wrong, or something else, and I hear his boots clomp into the room in their inimitable pattern and hear his inimitable roaring laugh.

Dad died of a heart attack eight years ago this November.

There’s not much I can do about it. What I can do is remember him, learn from him, and try to improve on him. I cringed this past week when I found myself dealing with unruly and destructive kids the way Dad would have. When a cooler head came in and handled the situation better, I thanked her later. When one of Dad’s cousins developed a heart condition at a similar age and had a triple bypass, I decided I’d better change my diet immediately. That was about two years ago.

I want to take Dad’s good qualities and with God’s help leave as many of his bad qualities as possible on the shelf. When I do get married, I want to outlive my wife by a few months so she won’t have to deal with the pain of burying me.

But I don’t want the pain of missing Dad to go away. To do that would require the loss of the capacity to love, which would mean that life couldn’t–and shouldn’t–go on.

10 October 2007

It’s been more than five years since I posted this, and it’s proven to be one of the most frequently read of the 1,800 or so posts on this blog. A lot has changed since 2002. I’ve gotten married. I’ve had two sons. I’ve bought a house and moved. I’ve changed jobs several times. But at least one thing hasn’t. I still think of Dad every day. He would have turned 67 this year.

Sometimes there are things I would like to ask him. But there’s enough of him in me, and he spent enough time with me, that I usually know what he would have said. Every once in a while something will happen and it will occur to me that Dad would have been proud of that.

And a few years ago, I found something that Dad and I liked to do together, and I developed that latent interest again. The specifics don’t matter. I found a torch I could carry for him. And sometimes, it’s almost like he’s there, even though he isn’t.

I gave up trying to find an easy cure a long time ago. There isn’t one. Just a few things that help. I remember him. I grieve when I need to, but I don’t let the grief consume me. And I try every day to be just a little bit better of a man than he was. Some days I succeed. And that’s really all that Dad ever would have wanted from me.

9 thoughts on “Dealing with the loss of a father

  • June 24, 2002 at 9:06 am
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    comment: Dave, it will never go away. And, it shouldn’t if you loved your dad. And, you do.
    My Grandfather who was born in 1891 and died in 1975 never got over the loss of his father. He last his when he was only 11 years of age, and to add to the problem his mother died 2 months later. But, he always talked about his ‘Dad’.
    Even at 11 years, the influnce this man made on his 5 boys, carried them through life, and made the world a better place. The brothers all worked together and created a rail, hiway, construction company that was very succesful. By the time my Grandfather was 55 they sold out and he retired from that life of building things.
    The example set, of hard work, honesty, and faith of being able to do what needed to be done in life’s crisis worked, and is still working today in this family.
    A note of irony, my Grandfathers father lost his father at age 17 due to the civil war problems in the state of MO. But that’s another story. Have a good day and good memories.

    Carl

  • June 25, 2002 at 12:32 am
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    I remember Darryl Kile pitching a no-hitter for the Astros not long after I moved back to Houston. His untimely demise was certainly a shock.

    The right habits help a lot, but a person’s genetic makeup can be a killer even with good habits. My ex-boss has always kept himself fairly trim, and had decent exercise habits. He is perhaps early to mid 50s. About a year ago he had some discomfort while golfing, went to his GP, and was told to go see a specialist NOW. He wound up having an angioplasty that night. Again, this is a guy with little body fat, and he needs to stay on drugs to combat cholesterol for the rest of his life.

    I never knew my dad, as he died at age 49 before I was born, with some kind of heart problem related to damage from rheumatic fever that he had as a child. This was long enough ago that medical care for that disease was not effective. I think that my dad was pretty young when his own dad died, also. My nuclear family is very spread out, agewise, over several decades. I lost my older brother to a heart attack several years ago. In his case, he was once a dedicated runner, but had been quite overweight for a long time.

    In part spurred by this tragedy, I’ve gotten my own weight close to where it was in high school, and intend on keeping lean permanently. I know both the terrible deprivation of not having a father and the sadness of missing someone that you were once close to. I’d like to be here for my two sons for a long time.

  • January 15, 2003 at 9:12 am
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    Wonderful tribute to your dad. Thanks for sharing it.

  • April 13, 2003 at 9:10 pm
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    I’m so glad i found this website. My Dad passes away a number of years ago and I’m still mourning him. People think I’m crazy when I say I miss my Dad, i think they’re the ones that are crazy. I couldn’t be at his funeral because I was sick and couldn’t leave my bed. I live with that guilt every day of my life. On the other hand I’m relieved that I didn’t see him suffer. My Uncle told me that my Dad wouldn’t die until I came home and I couldn’t. Imagine that.. gosh I hate it.

    Anyway, thank you for the writings on you and your Dad, it helped me to read all of it..
    Sandi

  • August 1, 2003 at 11:29 pm
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    thanks for sharing your story. i’m 17 and my dad died 4 months ago, he was only 49. He died very suddenly and unexpectedly of an aortic anneurism. He was alone when he died, and every day i wonder if he thought of me as he was dying and i wonder if he know that i loved him. Anyways, i feel like i was robbed of having a father for the rest of my life. it kills me because i know what a wonderful grandfather he would have been, and he was the most amazing father. i always felt so appreciated and loved by him and that he just loved spending time with me. i feel now that he is gone, that i dont really have that from anyone anymore. maybe its the grieving process, i’ve never lost anyone before so i dont really know what is normal to feel. I also went through a period of time where i felt like it was impossible to love me because i was so sad all the time, is that normal?
    anyways, thanks for sharing your story…your dad sounded a lot like mine. i’m sorry you lost him
    becky

  • November 12, 2003 at 9:18 pm
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    Reading your thoughts on your father and his life and the follow up comments by others has helped me. My dad passed away two and a half years ago and I still expect to pick up the phone and hear Hi Gal. Dad was my sounding board and supreme validator. In his eyes everything I did was ok. Every decision I made was the right one (even when it wasn’t). I can’t remember ever saying no to him. If dad asked for a favor (it wasn’t often) my automatic response was of course. To him I was special, and I guess I miss that most of all. Dad grew up in depression with 5 brothers and sisters and didn’t have it easy. But, I can’t recall him complaining or speaking ill of anyone. He had a grade 8 education, but was able to create a very solid life for his family. Most of all I remember his eyes and how they always seemed to sparkle.

  • November 13, 2003 at 11:34 am
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    You’ll probably expect to see him again for a long time. I lost my dad 9 years ago this month, and I had a dream last week. I’d gone to a class reunion, and Dad showed up too. When I told my sister about the things he did in the dream, she recognized his behavior as realistic for him.

    Part of your dad will always be with you, and you’ll pass that on. It helps me when I remember that.

  • November 15, 2003 at 3:50 pm
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    comment

    Its one of the worst things we have to go through, I lost my dad 14 years ago and still miss his so much,I think its sometimes the why they died,he died in a hospice and wanted me to take him out home to my house, I did not let him have his last wish,my kids were small and my wife did not want to be involved so he died alone.

    Mum died 10 years later in hospital out of my control I miss them both very much.

    It touched me to read your story,god bless.

    David

  • December 5, 2003 at 10:28 pm
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    I apologize in advance for the length and the lack of structure of my message. I need to vent. I’ve just lost my dad 2 weeks ago. I’ve just lost my role model, my guide, my best friend. I’m here in the US for my studies. I left home on August and at that time my dad was already very sick. I hate cancer. At the very last moment, I was considering droping my MBA to stay with my dad and take care of him. He refused. He ordered me to go for my studies. He told me: “I’m part of your past, your studies are your future”. I miss him so much. I didn’t see him since then, I couldn’t make it even for the funerals. It’s tough when you leave your father alive and then visit him in the cimetery. I came back 2 days ago to the US. I have to finish the semester and take the finals within 10 days. It may sound foolish, brave or extremely challenging. But this is how I want to pay tribute to Dad: looking for my future. Getting back to study is MY way to go through the grief.

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