A Grieving Daughter’s Reflections on the 60th Anniversary of Her Dad’s Death
“The day your father died was the worst day of my life.”
“It wasn’t so good for me either,” I replied, a tinge of sarcasm coating my flat tone.
My friend was talking about an event that happened decades ago, and until she said those words, I never considered the effect my father’s death in 1961 had on anyone beyond my own family.
She continued, “After that day, I was scared my father would die.”
Without her saying more, I understood my father’s sudden death created a massive tear in our childhood reality. Until then, no one’s father or mother had died. I was the first. We lived in a time when TV didn’t talk about death. We lived before social media and books for children on life’s realities. We lived with innocence.
A year later, innocence began disappearing for us all. The Cuban missile crisis had us fearing nuclear war. People began hoarding canned goods, and kids talked about bomb shelters their parents planned to build in their backyards.
And then, exactly two years and two days after my dad died, on November 22, 1963, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, our President, was assassinated. Innocence also died that awful, tragic day. Dead, death, loss, and grief, already part of my life, became familiar to children everywhere. I felt a special affinity for our dead President’s young children, Caroline and John.
Since those days, I’ve had a lot of time to think about death and grief and the ways events beyond our control change us.
I’ve lived with the loss of my father for sixty years and I continue to be surprised by the multitude of ways his absence and my grief affect everything. For a man who hasn’t been here, he’s managed to be everywhere.
Today, as I commemorate sixty years since he died, I want to share some of my experiences and lessons.
This I know to be true: there are gifts in grief, although I detest the packaging. My life may not have turned out easier or better had my father lived, but one thing is for sure, his death altered my path.
I’d just finished getting dressed for school when my dad died in our backyard in the rain. I watched firemen attempt to resuscitate him. As soon as he was declared dead, my mother had my brother take me to school. We never talked about her reasoning. Maybe she didn’t want me to see his body put into and carried out in a black body bag. Perhaps she thought continuing my education, even on the day my dad died, was important. I’ll never find out because years later when I asked, she had no answer.
My older half-brother, Richard, one month shy of 19, drove me in his green 1960 Ford Falcon high school graduation present. I stepped out of the car into a bleak, dark, gray world brought into focus by the unwelcoming institutional main building of Louis Pasteur Junior High,
massive and ominous compared to my lone frame approaching in the deluge of rain. First stop, the Attendance Office, where I handed the doctor’s note to the lady behind the desk. She read it and wrote something on another piece of paper. As she gave it to me, she offered only these words of condolence “Give this to your first-period teacher.” She never looked at me, and somehow, that made me start to feel ashamed. Until then, teachers and administrators had always smiled at me. My new life had begun.
Music class had already started and with the door at the front facing the tiered room, my entrance caused a disruption. My teacher, a young, pretty, curly-haired blonde, read the note, barely glanced at me, and indicated I should go to my seat with a wave of her hand. I wanted to disappear and make myself smaller so no one would notice me, but at 5’4”, that was impossible. As soon as I sat down, my friend, Deanie, seated to my left, asked what was wrong.
I choked out the words, “My dad died this morning.” I didn’t want to say them. I didn’t want it to be true, and voicing them felt like part of me was killing my father.
Another friend, Pam, seated on my other side, asked if he was going to be okay. Already overwhelmed, her innocent comment triggered emotions held down, and I snapped, “NO! He’s dead!!” I immediately regretted yelling at her. More shame.
I was supposed to play Exodus for the class that morning. I’d been practicing the piano all weekend, and Dad had listened and cheered me on. I loved playing for my dad. He was my only audience, and even if he hadn’t been, he was the only audience whose opinion mattered to me. I always performed for Daddy, whether it was playing the piano or getting good grades. He was especially proud I was going to play for the class on Monday.
I didn’t play that Monday morning. I got to school too late for my performance. On Tuesday, I sat at the grand piano on the ground floor of the classroom and played Exodus for my father, determined not to let him down. To this day, it remains my only public performance.
I moved through the rest of Monday in a trance, unable to understand or believe what had happened. One class to the next. Everything so different. Mysteriously, all my teachers knew about my father’s death, yet only one took the time to say she was sorry. Her name was Miss Keene, a beautiful woman, skin like milk chocolate, and tall with fabulous long lean legs. She came over to me as soon as I got to my desk, knelt so we were eye level, and told me how sorry she was. She wasn’t just kind to me that day—she remained solicitous throughout the rest of the semester, even bringing assignments to my home when I was sick so that I wouldn’t fall too far behind. If there are angels who walk this earth, Miss Keene is one of them.
I know this to be true: Kindness can make a massive difference to the survival of a grieving child. Miss Keene is one of the reasons I survived.
My clothing teacher, also notable, stands out for a different reason. From the day of my father’s death, I went from being one of her favorite students to someone she treated like a pariah. She even gave me my very first “D” at the end of the semester. Always an excellent student, I was crushed and too young to realize that she was the one who failed. I don’t remember her name or the names of any unkind teachers.
Poor Walter. His locker was next to mine. When he noticed my red nose and watery eyes, he said, “Cheer up. It’s just a cold. It’s not like somebody died.” Lucky for him, I didn’t hear him because I probably would have roared something in response. Years later someone told me how humiliated and embarrassed Walter was when he heard about my dad. Not knowing any of this, I didn’t understand why Walter always turned away and never spoke to me after that morning. I assumed it was because he, like so many others, believed something was wrong with me because my daddy died—thought death had marked me and was contagious.
The school day was finally over. I walked outside to find my brother and his friend, Bob, waiting for me. As soon as I got into the backseat of his car, I sensed something strange. It was Richard’s body, but there was something different I couldn’t comprehend or put into words. This person looked like Richard, but I knew it wasn’t him. It was as though his body had been snatched and taken over by someone or something else, his cells rearranged. At 19, he had lost his second father—his first having died when he was 3-1/2. The morning dad died, he ran up and down our driveway, hands covering both ears like in Edvard Munch’s famous painting The Scream.
Richard was irrevocably changed, and not for the better. My brother, although never a saint, had been replaced by a monster.
My home was stuffed with people, packed tightly together, drinking and talking like they were at a cocktail party. I overheard someone say, “Only the good die young.” I could barely move past the front door. I was invisible to them as I struggled to reach the kitchen and on to my bedroom. Ahead, I caught sight of my mother’s tiny figure dressed in black. When the crowd parted like the Red Sea as she approached the kitchen, I thought, What about me? Why don’t you move for me? It’s not like I was too small to see. At 12 years old, I was already taller than my mom.
Mom’s friends surrounded me when I entered the kitchen. I’d known them my whole life but instead of talking to me, they talked at me. “You’d better get those wet shoes off. You’ll catch a cold.” I listened, saying nothing while inside I was screaming, “What do I care if I catch a cold. My daddy’s dead!” Instead, my good-girl-be-obedient-to-adults training kicked in. I went quietly to my room and removed my wet shoes.
My room. I’m safe! A place where no one would look at me or look away from me. No one would talk at me or remain silent, a silence which felt like an accusation, a stab. I was safe, except I no longer had a daddy.
The week before, we celebrated Dad’s 48th birthday, and now, eight days and a new lifetime later, we began making plans for his funeral. Thanksgiving, our favorite holiday only three days away, and I couldn’t think of anything to be thankful for that Monday.
At 5:00, I waited for my daddy to come home. I waited for the nightmare to end. I kept this vigil every day for the next two years. Every night at 5:00, magical thinking kicked in, and I hoped all that had happened would turn out to be a mistake and Daddy would come home. I never told anyone.
“You’re too depressed,” Sandi said, and then she, Ilene, Idele, and Rhonda, girls I thought were my friends, in unison turned their backs and walked away. I was left alone standing in the school courtyard surrounded by hundreds of kids I was positive were watching. It was two weeks after my dad died. The morning break started out as usual, and I was completely blindsided when Sandi said, “We don’t want to be friends with you anymore.” It wasn’t the last time these girls bullied and humiliated me. Rather than hate them or think them mean, I agreed with them. I didn’t want to be with me either. I was certain something wrong with me had caused my father to die.
I had no friends at school, my mom had disappeared into herself and a bottle of Scotch, and Richard was now unpredictably volatile. He could be my wonderful brother or a violent bastard. Although he had tortured and hit me my whole life, it wasn’t until he left a red handprint on my thigh, which lasted a week, that I understood his violence had escalated, and he was willing to hurt me in new and more excruciating ways.
I wasn’t safe anywhere except for some uninterrupted moments alone in my room listening to music. I’m fascinated that despite those teen years being so terrible, I continue to enjoy the music from that era. Somehow, music had its own home for my heart and never connected to my outside life.
I became what today is known as a latchkey kid. My happiest times were coming home to an empty house because it meant Richard wasn’t there to terrorize me. I never told Mom what he did because I once saw him threaten her, looming large over her tiny frame, and I wanted her safe.
During those turbulent teen years, three people made a difference and have earned a special place in my heart: Miss Keene, my cousin Harvey, and my mom’s best friend, Claire. I survived only because of them. Unlike everyone else, they treated me as someone valuable and answered my questions with honest answers. Claire even brought me to stay at her house, times which unknown to her, offered me the one island of safety and comfort. Harvey and Claire are dead now, and I have no idea about Miss Keene, but I often say thank you for all they did.
As the years went on, I sank further into depression and developed what I came to understand was a phobic fear of death. I didn’t know how to process grief and was left to figure it out with a young person’s reasoning. I only understood that death existed and one day I would die. I hated myself for being afraid, reasoning that my dad had done it, and by being afraid, I was somehow abandoning him. Wanting to understand more, when I was 21, I went to the downtown Los Angeles Library looking for a book that might help me. The one book I located that discussed childhood grief said that a person who loses a parent in their childhood “is more likely to commit suicide* as an adult.” I slammed the book shut, and with the thought, Well, that wasn’t helpful, tossed it onto the table, and left.
Not understanding the empty place in my heart, I fell in love without learning to love and entered into relationships destined to fail. When the relationships ended, the devastation left me wailing and feeling worthless. One night, while in my bedroom crying nonstop after months of crying, suddenly, I was stunned to realize that I had never cried this much for my father—all these tears over the years had been about him and not the loss of these men. Every tear was for my forever gone dad, the one I could never win back.
I was around 30 years old and tired of living with this terror of death when I decided to turn towards what I feared most. I made a conscious decision to learn everything I could. I never stopped wanting to understand and began a lifetime quest by searching within myself and in books. In the early years, book stores had no more than one or two books on death, and these were always in the section next to Sex. I guess this makes sense in the context that death and sex were the last taboos.
I went to college, majoring in psychology with a self-created minor in death and dying, and eventually earned a Ph.D. in psychology. Then, in 1995, I founded a nonprofit to help grieving children and their families. Working with these children, I was surprised to find how little had been learned about grief in all the years since my dad died. I began my quest to educate my community and enlighten educators who too often labeled grieving kids as ADHD and bad.
Today marks sixty years since my dad suddenly died, and it’s taken all those years to understand all that was lost that day and all the days since. The one thing I now know is that since that time, and until I die, I will continue to deepen my understanding of how this loss has touched every aspect of my life.
I no longer think we work through the grieving process: we work with it. We live with it. It infuses our cells, forever altering who we are. It’s what we do that determines whether this alteration ruins our lives or whether it enhances who we become, and we live with more gratitude and joy.
You never get over something that inalterably changes you.
And so, on the sixtieth anniversary of my father’s death, I’d like you to know that my dad wasn’t just my dad. He was also a successful salesman, business owner, fisherman, husband, and a great friend with an adventurous spirit who was the life of the party, bringing fun and excitement to the lives of his many friends.
He died sixty years ago today, on November 20, 1961. Although I barely knew him and can’t remember much of what he said to me, I will love him the rest of my life. He was my first love.
His name was Bud, and he was my dad.
 NOTE: For decades I and other professionals have worked to educate people to use “died of suicide” or “died by suicide,” instead of the hurtful, judgmental phrases “committed suicide.” or “commit suicide.”