How a Parent’s Death Affects Your Love Life
My dad's sudden passing didn't stop me from wanting to eat, go out, get drunk, or go boxing. It didn't stop me from wanting to fuck, either.
For such an all-consuming emotion, grief—specifically bereavement—has to be the least discussed human ordeal in the Western world. We, as a species, are bad at dying. We clam up when asked to talk about it, assuring everyone that we're fine when our insides are screaming. Stiff upper lip and all that.
I didn't know what to say when a police officer called last summer to tell me my dad had passed away three days earlier. And in that peculiarly English way, I actually felt apologetic as I went about reorganizing my work and social life in order to plan the funeral with my family.
And then there was the guy I was dating. A guy who, to further complicate matters, lived in the US. So I rang him up and found myself coming over in a Miliband stutter as I explained that my father was now out of the picture, and that I had no clue what the picture might look like anymore.
Nothing I could have seen, read, or heard could have prepared me for my own experience of bereavement. Firstly, I wouldn't have believed, had someone told me, that I would run for my life after hearing the news about my dad, which I promptly did around the local park. On the other hand, I would have believed that I would drink a bottle of sparkling rosé to myself in less than an hour, which I did right after the run. The initial shock lasted around four days. The other curious feeling was being flooded with love for my dad, a full lifetime's worth of love that percolated through my cells and made me emphatically glad to have been born his daughter.
At my birthday about a week later, I wanted to party—not in an escapist way, but in a celebratory, glad-to-be-breathing-and-emoting one.
When the guy and I were reunited another two weeks later I wanted to talk about my dad, and did. But while he encouraged me with genuine grace, it seemed remiss to do so when the pair of them had never met. I clung on to the fact that I'd mentioned him to my dad, only cautiously describing him as "shaved-headed, but not a secret neo-fascist." I found myself additionally nervous. I had no idea what to expect from grief, but I felt sure that no matter how I tried to guard against it, it would cloak, suffocate, and addle any burgeoning relationship. And I'll be honest, even if it highlights the selfish bitch in me, just minutes after finding out my dad had passed away, I consciously said out loud to no one but my sobbing shadow, "Great bloody timing, dad, I was genuinely keen on this one."
As the brief trip with my guy passed, my grief deepened. This didn't mean I became unhappier. Grief doesn't necessarily make you glum in the traditional sense, or at least it didn't me. Rather, it consumes your conscious thoughts with memories of the person you've lost, and how life will now be without them. It is ever-present, yet it seems to settle on a separate track to your daily conscious thoughts and deeds. I could still feel joy, envy, or ennui within it. I just happened to be grieving and eating, grieving and celebrating a birthday, grieving and paying the gas bill. Grief didn't stop me from wanting to have a good time, to see shows, to plunder cocktail bars, nor to exert my body in aerobic yoga classes and my boxing gym (in actual fact, the endorphin rush from exercise sent me on a fitness bender). And it didn't stop me wanting to fuck.
Perhaps he had the odd guilty pang, wondering if I'd still be up for it when we were reunited, but he got his due—over and over—and I wasn't merely going through the motions. It was, admittedly, a little disconcerting when I thought of my dad watching over me, even when receiving oral, but it didn't last, and once the guy and I had swapped over and I was concentrated on making him climax the apparition left me.
Grief, it appeared, afforded me the time and emotional space I could never usually afford myself.
This is apparently far more common than you'd think, according to psychotherapist Tania Glyde, whom I consulted after the event. Instead of worrying about the scene, says Tania, what matters is giving yourself sufficient permission to call a halt to proceedings if you find yourself too waylaid mentally to allow yourself to be, well, way laid.
Even though we were still in the high excitement stage, the boost my time with the guy gave me did concern me a little. Tania described to me how we can sometimes use new lovers as "potential transitional objects" when we are first grieving. I was adamant my feelings for him weren't transient, but I worried about it all the same. I actually ended up self-imposing sporadic exile with friends during our love-in, just on the off chance that I might have been, to quote Dorothy Parker, "Putting all my eggs in one bastard."
Emotionally-speaking, I also discovered another peculiar benefit to grieving. I am one of those people who appears to be the ultimate relaxed date, but in reality invests too much in the other person too early on. I find myself secretly considering whether the guy in question is marriage material, even though I don't really agree with it politically; father material, even though I don't really want kids; and fellow retiree material, even though I'll be writing until I'm 92.
I also have a rare talent for hunting out guys who present themselves as sensitive and switched on human beings to begin with, only to reveal they are intimacy-avoidant in the extreme once we hit the not-counting-the-dates mark. Being warned by the experts that grief could see me making a bad or out of character decision, at least out of character could only translate to going slower this time. And so it turned out. Grief, it appeared, afforded me the time and emotional space I could never usually afford myself. Macabre, yes, but undeniably helpful.
What should I have expected to come out of bereavement anyway? Have the reactions I've had even been "healthy"? I asked Susan Quilliam, relationship coach, for her opinion. "It's a cliché, but it entirely depends on the person," she said. "We always advise against rushing into a new relationship, mainly because loss of any kind will affect your decision-making process. But you could also bond deeply with someone who supported you through your bereavement."
I'm not sure if this applies to me. More often than not, I chose to hide my wobbles from the guy because I didn't want to scare him off. And he respected that. The idea that we might lurch from sharing moments of giddy infatuation to moments of emotional torpor terrified me. But if it's in a longer-term relationship, that kind of support becomes vital. "If a committed partner or spouse doesn't offer support, it can feel like a huge betrayal," said Quilliam. Not pretty. As if betrayal didn't come in enough disguises already.
I can't replace my dad and I haven't attempted to. But the desire to be taken care of definitely deepened, and foisted itself upon potential mates who could fulfill that role. My dad was my only next of kin in the UK, where I spend most of my time, and that is alarming, particularly when I consider that the rest of my family is a long-haul flight away. But I'm pleased to report that I haven't made any unsavory bonds with father figures, imagined or real; that I didn't date the guy on that basis; and that one of my preferred games—playing "teens"—pre-dates my father's death. My point? It's not inevitable that you'll look for the parent you just lost.
Instead, bereavement "tends to magnify what's already in the relationship," says Quilliam. So if you have abandonment issues or jealousy issues, or hate your partner's limited cooking skills, or wish they would spend less time on macramé and more time massaging your feet, those grievances might just blow up.
There is one thing though that really bothered me about losing my dad.
When I finally, covertly, admitted on Facebook that he had passed away several weeks after the event—one of the only things, as a confessional writer, that I have been mainly private about—the vultures swooped and settled, cawing with mock sympathy and very open arms. Well, perhaps it wasn't mock, but it certainly felt as though they were making a mockery of my unwarranted vulnerability. Guys, old and new, came to offer "support," and while I'm sure it was subconscious, and perhaps some might even read it as sweet that it triggered some kind of protector in them, I think they just saw a prime opportunity to offer a "shoulder" for me to cry and lie upon—and the rest.
As for the burgeoning relationship, the good news is that grief didn't cut it down before it could flourish. Now that the rawness is passed, I'd like to be able to tell my dad, "I met someone... and we still see each other, despite your disappearing act." He'd just say, "Aw. Right," of course. And that would be it. But it's proof to me, at least, that grief needn't scupper life after it.