Image Magazine interviews Liz for a Father’s Day feature on Fatherless daughters
Fatherless daughters on Father’s Day – how growing up without a dad leaves an indelible mark on the psyche of a woman
Whether it arises from bereavement, or physical or emotional absence, the grief felt from the loss of a father-daughter relationship leaves an indelible mark. Ahead of the 10th anniversary of her own father’s death, Sarah Gill, talks to women about being a member of a club that no one wants to be part of.
Each and every year, when the third Sunday of June rolls around, tributes to fathers fill our timelines, wholesome advertisements saturate our screens and an abundance of cards proclaiming ‘World’s Best Dad’ fill the stands of the corner shop.
An international holiday dedicated to celebrating the paternal figures in our lives, Father’s Day aords us the opportunity to take a step back and examine the multitude of ways our dads have impacted our lives and informed our identities.
But what about those without a father on Father’s Day?
When we think of what it means to be a fatherless daughter, many of us are unwilling to see ourselves categorised under this definition — I know I certainly was. Fatherlessness implies the nonexistence of a paternal figure in our lives, that we’ve been deprived of something and should therefore be seen as ‘other’.
Initially, the phrase jarred with me. I am not fatherless, thank you very much. I had a dad, and like the innumerable daughters across the globe, I bought the ‘#1 Dad’ mug, smug in the knowledge that mine was the actual best numero uno.
Coming up to the tenth anniversary of his death, I’ve realised that a fatherless daughter is exactly what I am. It’s a catch-all phrase that is devoid of a distinct definition, manifesting itself in a number of dierent ways.
Whether it arises from bereavement, or physical or emotional absence for a myriad of reasons — divorce, addiction, detachment, depression — the grief felt from the loss of a father-daughter relationship leaves an indelible mark on the psyche of a woman.
Being a fatherless daughter is like being a member of a club that no one wants to be part of. We were unwillingly enrolled and can never bow out, but our subscription gives us a unique ability to scope out similarly bereft souls, empathising and eulogising, listening and learning.
‘A mutual fascination — a girl and her dad’
Gráinne from Galway lost her father when she was just 22. His sudden passing upended her life. “The last time I kissed my father’s cheek, I didn’t know it would be the last,” she tells me. “A split-second, thoughtless brush of lips against stubbled flesh, and three hours later he lay dead in his bed, his gentle heart slowing and slowing, then stopping. It was instant, they later said.”
A true constant throughout her life, by her side for all the milestones of childhood and adolescence, Gráinne’s father was taken from her as she was entering the rocky terrain of adult life.
“I’d looked at that face my entire life. It had been the crinkled eyes of pride at sports day, the lopsided smile first thing in the morning, the dimples even when cross,” she says. “Now he was trapped in a box, dirt shovelled on top and I was sure his quiet strength was the only thing that could cure that ache in my throat.”
Her poignant words will resonate with anyone who has lost a loved one as she describes her boundless feelings of loss. “My grief was a sharp, unforgettable fury, a piercing sadness that still rises up even now. That relationship, that safety net, is one of the most special bonds. A mutual fascination – a girl and her dad.
“We shared the same taste in music. He taught me to drive and I taught him French. He gave me integrity, honesty, the ability to judge a character well, the way to make a proper Irish coee, to change a plug and hang a shelf and do accounts and gut a fish and self respect.”
Like many of us who live our lives with one foot firmly rooted in the past, our minds occupied by the injustice of this great, enduring grief, Gráinne is learning to find joy in the traces of her father that linger on in the world around her.
“I recently met one of his old friends who I hadn’t seen in a very long time. ‘Your son has your dad’s smile’, he said. The same smile as mine. And even now, 18 years after his death, it struck me that I’d been so focused on what I’d lost. On loss alone. That I’d overlooked all the beautiful things he gave, and that survive still.”
‘My dad felt like my safety net – someone who would always be there to help’
It seems to be an almost universal feeling among those lucky enough to have a loving relationship with their father to regard them as a source of great comfort. They provide a sturdy shoulder for us to cry on, a strong hand to hold, and a perspective on life comparable to no other.
For writer and podcaster Sasha Hamrogue, her father was her oldest friend. Introducing her to music and art, providing an immersion into the realm of culture
for the first time in her life, Sasha’s dad made it his mission for his children to experience life right alongside him.
“As a teenager, we often spent time together going for long drives with easy conversation. When I remember that now, it brings me a sense of peace,” Sasha says. “As I grew into adulthood, I appreciated that he shared with me his fears and questions around life’s meaning, spirituality and his never-ending and exhausting quest for self-betterment.
“He didn’t pretend to know it all and I see now how important that is. Even in his death he didn’t pass on words of wisdom to me but often asked for my opinion and looked for my advice about what might be on the other side of this life.”
Passing away when Sasha was 31, her father’s death had a profound impact on her life. “Losing a parent can really shake your foundations, mainly because they were responsible for laying those foundations,” Sasha tells me. “The grief was deep and made me re-examine my entire life. It was a sense of free fall for me, as my dad felt like my safety net.
“I didn’t know how to navigate my life after he died. But I think he’d be very proud of how self-reliant I have become since his passing. It sounds harsh, but no one is coming to save you and after my dad died, I learned that.”
Speaking on the deep-seated trauma that arises from the death of a parent, and the latent eects of this grief, Sasha says: “I think that when a person is caring for a sick parent, watching them die stalls whatever developmental stage they might be at. For me, that forced me to live in survival mode for the years around my dad’s illness and his passing, and meant it took a few more years to work on the person I was becoming.”
‘Our parents regulate us. It’s almost like they’re our charge’
Sasha’s observations on being thrown into a state of flux following the passing of a father figure are confirmed by psychotherapist, grief counsellor and educator Liz Gleeson.
“Our parents regulate us. It’s almost like they’re our charge. They’re our emotional charge, our mental charge, our physical charge,” Liz tells me over the phone, as our interview gradually took the shape of a well-needed therapy session.
“We’re not aware of it, but when we come down stairs and there’s mum sitting at her desk or there’s dad in the kitchen, all these things are familiar and repetitive patterns that regulate us in the world. You take one of those away, and we become
really dysregulated, and dysregulation is usually a massive stress on our nervous system.”
Citing the chemical reactions responsible for this, Liz elaborates that when we experience severe loss, it’s as if someone has taken a sledgehammer to our nervous system. “We actually go into fight or flight mode in a state of chronic stress, where the hormones adrenaline and cortisol are fuelling us,” she says. “We’re primed to run and fight, not sit down and learn to read, or study algebra, because that part of our brain really suers from lower levels of blood and oxygen. Our learning ability can be stalled at a biological level.”
According to Liz, when a young child experiences the death of a parent and their bereavement is not revisited at multiple stages throughout their development, a number of complexes culminate in later life. “We develop patterns that colour us, and which colour who we’re drawn to and why we’re drawn to them in a valiant attempt at fixing what went wrong when we were younger.”
While the complex that instantly springs to mind when we think of fatherless daughters is that egregiously overused term ‘daddy issues’, the neverending quest for male validation, and an inability to cultivate healthy relationships, there can also be knock-on eects on familial bonds, spirituality and an infinite capacity for empathy.
There’s no such thing as the ‘seven stages of grief’
As anyone who has experienced feelings of grief will know, people often expect us to follow a very specific path towards eventually ‘getting over it’ and returning to the version of ourselves that we once were.
“The stages of grief suggest that there’s a linear path – a beginning, a middle and an end – that it’s something we work through and then go back to normal. That does not happen. The experience of loss changes the trajectory of your entire life, both the physical and practical aspects, and your emotional interior.”
“One thing can be sure,” Liz tells me. “The shape of your family has changed. Not only has one person died, but your family as you knew it has also died. This person will forever be missed, you don’t get over grief.”
While our brains may be programmes to take the path of least resistance, the cold hard truth of the matter is that you can never go back to the person you were before you experienced this profound loss.
“We have to change. We have to grow – emotionally and psychologically – to be able to fit this grief inside us, to carry it, understand it, and learn ways of
integrating it into our lives. It has to become part of us, without letting it take over. We can suer profound loss and we can learn to live with that and accommodate that with the right support.”
The concept of ambiguous loss
The loss of a father, and its resulting grief, exists on a spectrum – death is not a prerequisite to be considered a fatherless daughter. Here, Liz introduces us to a term coined by Dr Pauline Boss.
“Ambiguous loss occurs when something has been lost, but nobody has died. It results where a father hasn’t played a role,” she says. “Maybe he’s physically present but emotionally absent, maybe he’s not dead, but physically absent – there’s a myriad of ways that grief can manifest itself and I think that these ambiguous losses can cause a lot of harm because they’re not recognised.”
We can feel grief for what we once had and what could have been in the same ways that we feel the grief for something that we never had, that we can only imagine. Whether this occurs where a father who is an alcoholic, addict, or workaholic, or has simply and inexplicably emotionally checked out from their paternal role, this loss can feel akin to a bereavement.
However, in Deirdre from Dublin’s experience, the chasm left by the absence of any real father figure was suused by the love she was surrounded by growing up. Her parents divorced when she was six years old, and her father moved far away. She saw him little and often at first, and then not again until she was 16, at a family celebration.
“That was the last time I physically saw him. All those years we briefly spoke over the phone maybe once a year, so he wasn’t in my life at all,” Deirdre tells me. “He passed away when I was in my late twenties. I spoke to him before he died to say goodbye.
“I never had a ‘dad’ so to speak,” she tells me. “To be honest, I never really felt I was at a real loss – my dad was absent but I was so young that I didn’t feel that sense of him being taken away from me. I had so much growing up and so much love from my mother, that I don’t think I missed out all that much. I consider myself extremely lucky and privileged.”
Through great loss, comes great strength
There was a common thread running through the stories of each fatherless daughter I spoke to, and that was the prevalence of self-preservation and self-love.
For Sasha, it’s in her ability to save herself, and care for her family while allowing herself to be led by her emotions and practice self-compassion.
For Deirdre, it’s in the life she’s built for herself, by herself. Through becoming resilient at an early age, she followed her own path, and has found everything she ever wanted in the father of her children. “I think I was subconsciously very careful when it came to who I chose to spend my own life with”, she says. “My husband, I’m fortunate to say, is a wonderful father. I think I very much sought the opposite of the male figures I had had growing up.”
For me, it’s in something Liz Gleeson calls a ‘continuing bond’. I still speak to him, an internal monologue that often takes the same shape as praying to a higher power. I still feel his hand on my back, steering me in the right direction. I still think it’s him giving me a wink when I hear his favourite song on the radio.
According to Liz, the death of a parent allows us to project exactly what we need onto them. “You’re relocating them, because if they’re not here, where can I find him? Deceased loved ones can be relocated in a way that inspires marathons, charities, excursions to the top of Kilimanjaro.
“We want and need to move forward, but we can bring them with us in the form of a continuing bond.”
Healing wounds, old or new
Whether it’s daughters who have seen their fathers fall from grace, or daughters whose fathers remain on their pedestal through an early passing, our fathers are our first introduction to the opposite sex, and inform so much of our future selves.
“Grief is a whole body response; it’s physical, it’s spiritual, it’s biological, it’s chemical, it’s intellectual,” explains Liz. “If you can take care of all those dierent parts of yourself, you build a resilient person. It’s not about avoiding the things that come our way, but about developing flexibility to be able to manage it so that it doesn’t flatten us.
“Love is the antidote to grief, it’s the only antidote to grief. To be loved by someone else, to be held by someone else, to soothe our nervous system and to tell us we’re safe and secure. Research tells us that one good person is all we need to thrive, just one good person.”