When I was 25, my father died in an accident. I was a young adult who still needed her dad. However, I was married with a toddler and with on the way. I was a college graduate and military officer and had been on my own since I was 18. I had that primary male in my life by then, and it wasn’t my dad anymore – it was my husband. And as years wore on, I had some older fatherly surrogates who treated me like a daughter and stood in that gap left by the loss of my father as a young adult.
When my husband died, our girls were college-aged young adults, 22 and 19. During their dad’s terminal illness, he lamented his many future losses and dreams that would never be realized. One that stood out the most to me is that the girls would not have their father at “one of the most crucial times in their lives”…as they are just starting out into the world. He wrote about it in his journal, and I recall him telling me that he always imagined being a better father for them during this time period because he knew how he could help them as they went forward into these scary but exciting years. (Implied here is that he knew that raising girls, and especially tween and teenaged girls was more challenging for him).
Instead, he would be the one to offer the sound financial advice and help them get their first IRA established. He would be the one to visit at the far away school one weekend and buy all their friends dinner. He would be the one to help them figure out first professional jobs or give solid direction about their futures – whether they’d take his advice – but he knew that they would at least listen. He would be the one to help them buy their own cars. Actually, he did help our oldest daughter do that about a year before his diagnosis. But our youngest never got to have this sweet father-daughter bonding experience with her dad. There was no dad cosigning her first car loan or helping her figure out what is practical and what she could afford.
He would be the one to share the guy’s point of view during the myriad of guy issues during these years. He would have encouraged them to have a fun-loving, robust, long youth because neither of their parents did. Married and then with children relatively young, he knew that there was no youth in that, and he wanted them to relish their twenties and all the opportunities and freedom that provided, instead of changing diapers while they were still figuring out who they were.
He would have been there during a financial May-Day, when the college jobs of waiting tables wasn’t going to pay the grocery or gas bills…because they bought concert tickets instead (dads are forgiving with their little girls on that stuff). He figured he would be good at providing advice if one of them decided to get married. He knew he’d be there for any of the broken hearts – to give the logical and reasoned speeches as to why it was best that the young man was out of her life now, rather than after five years.
He would be there to teach them to continue the deep-fried turkey Thanksgiving tradition, and even the Vegetarian would consider it just because it was his tradition for our family. He figured he would finally be patient enough to teach them how to play golf and enjoy a round with Dad when they could squeeze in time for a visit with their parents. He would have liked to buy them a nice dress from time to time. He would have continued to invite (and probably pay for) them to come on a family trip. He certainly would have come to their college graduations and given them a too expensive gift and held his breath and hoped for the best…like parents do at that time.
The point is, that even if they were spreading their own wings and becoming independent young adult women…with their own minds and goals and opinions and dreams…he would have simply been there for them. He would have been checking in on them, asking them how they were doing, offering fatherly advice – its own wealth of wisdom and love. He was the most important man in their lives up until that point….like dads are for so many other young women. He would have been a presence that loomed loving and yet very large in only the way a father does.
No matter how much I have tried to stand in the gap for my husband in this way…in all these ways…I cannot be fatherly for them. And while no one can replace him, none of the other men in their lives – men who know what it is like to lose a father as a young adult – have not offered much of anything in this regard, not even a check-in text to genuinely ask them how they are doing, if they need anything, or just to talk and listen like their dad would have. It’s almost as if because they had at least graduated high school with a father in tow, they didn’t exist apart from him or need him anymore…didn’t need someone to stand in that gap.
Unfortunately, such devastating loss will lay bare who truly cares and where you were in that hierarchy, if anywhere. There have been several kind people who have checked in on us, especially during that first year. And I still get random check-in texts from a couple of
my husband’s college classmates. But that is for me, and I appreciate those classmates more than I can ever articulate here. But for my girls? There has been no equivalent village presence to speak of – no surrogate dads of young adult daughters. Maybe people just think they didn’t need him anymore.
Well, let me say this: Just because they were older when they lost their dad, did not mean that they still didn’t need him…still do need him. My girls have learned, sadly through the loss of their father, that sometimes you have to be your own village…or go off and find your own surrogate fathers.
My girls were lucky enough to have their father for the years they did…and they had him for longer than lots of kids who lost their dads at a young age…but they probably needed him in these key years as much as they ever needed him in their young lives.
My youngest daughter told me that the resources available to her in grief recovery programs were either for children, teens, or adults. At 19, she fit into none of those categories, really, at that time. She wants to write a book to help young adults navigate this challenging time without a parent. This seems to be a lost group of grieving young people with unique needs not addressed enough.
I don’t blame her for wanting to change that for others. She’s been mostly on her own on the dad front.