I was 20 and notoriously single when my dad passed away.
It’s an odd age. Half my Facebook friends were married, divorced, and/or had a few kids. A few had started Etsy stores to sell their hipster bicycle paintings. Some were graduating college, some were dropping out, some were still doing whatever they did in high school but usually with more booze.
And at age 20, I joined the elite club known as the Dead Parents Society (I’ve never seen the movie, so please insert your own witty comparison here).
By and large, most people still have at least two parents at the age of 20. Many of us have more, with the stepparents and unofficial parental figures we acquire as we get older.
When you’re dating in your 20’s, you aren’t prepared to talk about dead parents.
How do you handle that conversation, then, when it comes?
My first date post-losing-Dad was a week later. It was the third date with a guy I really liked, but who was also as emotionally available as your average houseplant. I warned him about my loss in advance just in case I burst into tears at the sight of a cute dog or rogue Father’s Day ad.
He never even mentioned it on the date. I wasn’t expecting flowers and a card and a speech about his undying concern for me, but I didn’t even get a “How are you doing?”
At the time I was pretty taken aback. How could you just not say anything?
But I get it now. I’d like to think I’d do something different, but I’m not sure I would. He was, what, 25? And I was 20. How many times had he looked a date in the eyes and listened as they worked through the loss of a parent? Probably zero. Hell, I haven’t done it. I’ve only been on the receiving end.
A month later, I went on a first date. He asked about my family.
“My mom lives up north and my sister isn’t far away,” I said.
“Not close to your dad?”
I held my breath. Not for me, for him.
“I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable,” I cautioned. “But he passed away a month ago. But it’s fine that you asked, really. It’s fine.”
His hand flew up to his mouth and I could see it in his eyes:
I really wish I hadn’t said anything.
Somehow I was the one with the dead dad yet here I was, reassuring him. It was my job to carry my dad’s death on my shoulders, and my job to make sure everyone else was emotionally okay with me doing so.
I don’t blame this guy. He didn’t do anything wrong.
But god, is that pressure oppressive.
A date a few months later responded to my comment about my deceased father with:
“Oh, my mom passed away too!”
Like a breath released. Neither of us had to hold anything for each other. We’d both walked the terrain of grief. We both knew the path. And we both could agree to carry our own hurt, leaving space for the other to do the same.
But in a way, that meant I never had to reckon with it. The story of how it shaped me became much less consequential because it seemed so normal all of a sudden. Like, of course. We both have dead parents, just like everyone else.
Even though he got it, I don’t think he got it, nor do I think I got him. I think we both laid each other’s stories over our own. I never dug into how his grief was different from mine because I thought I knew.
And in thinking that, I never really found out.
It’s been a year since Dad passed away.
On a date the other night, we talked about our worst memories.
“I guess you can’t beat a dead parent,” I laughed. Of course I laughed. Because I didn’t know how to say “this was the worst day of my life, but I’m worried I’ll scare you off if I’m that honest.”
I didn’t want to carry his emotions, his discomfort. I hoped he’d laugh with me, maybe assuming that I hated my dad or I didn’t really know him and that my life had been so easy that the death of an estranged relative was the worst thing I could come up with.
I didn’t want to hear him awkwardly try to change the subject. Or offer the clichéd “I’m sorry for your loss” sentiments just to keep the conversation moving.
I didn’t want anything from him. Or, y’know, maybe I wanted everything. Maybe I wanted to connect, maybe I wanted to hear whatever magic words I imagined were out there that would make me feel heard, or maybe I just wanted to answer his damn question and move on before I ever had to reckon with it.
When he said nothing to my laughter, I felt the silence.
Then I kept talking. About how you don’t really know what to do when someone dies. How when my mom told me, my first words were, “Well, shit.” How I cleaned my whole kitchen and napped on the floor and tried to eat a whole cheesecake by myself. How it felt so surreal, how you never really come to terms with it because the whole thing feels ridiculous.
All the way through, I found ways to make it a joke. For his comfort. Not for mine.
And when I ran out of steam, he still said nothing.
Then he took my hand in a way that felt beautifully anachronistic yet somehow poignant, he kissed it. And he sat there. And we sat there.
And for the first time, I didn’t need to tell him anything. I didn’t owe him my reassurance or explanation or my laughter to keep him calm.
We just… sat.
And somehow, in that silence, I never felt more heard.