When Daddy Is Gone

I just read a beautiful essay by Kevin Helliker about the cost of losing a parent on young children. Interesting stat: Four percent of children lose a parent before age 15, usually a dad. I was surprised that figure was so low. Here’s an excerpt.

Having known my own father for 48 years, I’ve gained perspective from a wife who knew hers for only eight. When I call my 76-year-old dad tomorrow to wish him a happy Father’s Day, he will compliment me on this essay. He reads everything I write.

But without any hope of hearing her father say he is proud, my wife still strives to please him. In her mind, the sound of his voice still echoes, calling her smart, calling her pretty, laughing at her jokes. Twenty-five years after his praise fell silent, being worthy of it still means everything to her. Despite having thrived in the field of journalism — and having received loud hurrahs from her supportive mother — she felt called to follow the path of her father. Last year, she finished law school, passed the bar and entered the practice of law.

The first time I heard her speak about her father I understood that she was in love with him, and at that instant I started falling in love with her. As she gushed about how he had played baseball for a farm club of the Chicago White Sox, how his prosecutorial skills had won him a prestigious award from the U.S. attorney general, how he had posthumously been named one of the outstanding lawyers in Colorado history, what I heard was elation over how much he had loved her. It occurred to me his greatest achievement had been as a father.

Little science exists about the lasting influence of dead fathers, but outcome data suggest that it is powerful. Such data show that children who lose a father fare significantly better than those whose father is alive but not present, and nearly as well as those who never lose theirs. About 4% of American children will lose a parent before the age of 15, and nearly 75% of those losses will involve a father, reflecting the greater vulnerability of men to accident and illness, say bereavement experts. They stress that the loss of a mother can be similarly overcome, especially if the child received professional counseling and sensitive care from the surviving parent.

After years of studying the role of mothers in early life, psychoanalysts are turning with fervor to the influence of fathers. Just last year, an international consortium of Freudian analysts convened a seminar at Columbia University called “The Dead Father,” based in part on the premise that the role of the father in early childhood has been underappreciated. “The father has tended to get left out of the theorizing,” says Stuart Taylor, a Columbia University psychiatrist who helped organize the seminar.

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