In the most literal way, I lost my dad when I was in 7th grade. So, no, I don’t mean that he died or passed away. I lost him in a way almost reminiscent of the way one loses their car keys, misplaces a pair of headphones, or drops the remote between couch cushions.
One moment there, then in the next, the thing you so desperately need has vanished. My father went a similar way. One cloudy Monday morning at 6:50 am, he dropped me off at school.
By 6:50 pm of the same cloudy day, I was informed I’d never see him again. But, in my mind, he’d never abandon me, no matter what. We had always been together, having each others backs. Never seeing him again was out of the question, especially in my young, naive mind. In my attempts to find him, I learned all sorts of things about the kind of man he really was.
My best friend hinted that he was an addict, spending more time with Crystal Meth than with me. My stepfather scolded my efforts, saying that my father had been in a 12-year court battle with my mom over custody of me, and had lost after not passing a drug test. My mother… well, she didn’t want to talk about it. She said she’d had enough of him breathing down her neck. Years later I learned that my father had been threatening her through my whole childhood with debt and physical violence, even though they divorced shortly after my birth.
I called relatives, curious to hear if he’d contacted them, and began learning in more detail the things he’d never told me. Within a year, I stopped looking, stopped asking, and started hoping he’d stay lost forever.
Sometimes parents walk away from their children. Sometimes, it’s because that parent simply isn’t interested in bringing up a child. Sometimes, it’s because the separation of the parents was acrimonious and they felt it was too difficult to stay involved. Sometimes, it’s because of reasons such as alcohol or drug misuse. Sometimes, it’s simply because a parent has no model of engaged parenting. But, no matter what the reason, there’s always a strain placed on the child involved. As said by Jennifer Wolf, a PCI Certified Parent Coach and a strong advocate for single moms and dads, “Growing up with an absent parent can leave kids with a deep sense of shame and loss. And when the absence appears voluntary, the impact can be even more intense. From a child’s perspective, it’s hard to imagine a parent choosing not to be involved without there being a good reason.” In this phase, kids are incredibly vulnerable, and for good reason. They go through phases of grief, very similar to those who have had a parent pass away. From developing poor self esteem, difficulty expressing emotions, to wishing the parent who left had actually died, children suffer in different and unique ways, and thus there’s a variety of ways parents can help their children through this kind of loss.
Now, my parents went through all the wrong ways, and I know it was on accident, but it still ended up putting a lasting strain on my relationship with both my mom and stepfather. As a child, I only saw my father as the perfect man, someone I adored and believed in resolutely. But, once he left, I was finally told about some of the genuinely horrible things he’d done. I sometimes think it would’ve been much easier had my father just died. I would have mourned him without feeling guilty, like every moment I missed the father I had known was a moment my mother had to continue living with his torment. My parents didn’t help, with most of their focus on my new baby brother, and when it did swing back to me, it came in the form of a scolding for my failing grades or a lie I told them. Death is a natural, normal part of life. People have prescribed rituals for dealing with it, including a ‘script’ of acceptable things to say to show concern. A parent leaving their child goes against everything we’re taught, and if we have loving parents, we often don’t realize how important that support system is. It’s hard to see how deep the feelings of abandonment go in someone else, and it’s harder to know how to react to it. It still stings to know that my dad is out there, possibly married to someone who could have been my stepmom, maybe with children I’ll never get to meet. So how do I deal with it? How does one cope with the loss of a parent by parental abandonment instead of death?
When children lose a parent, it is particularly painful for them, so one of the most important things to do with a child who’s gone through the loss of a parent is have empathy. Even if their parent was the most abhorrent human being on earth, many times the child still saw them as a role model (I know I did). Understanding that they lost someone they loved is important and helping them through that should be on the top priority. As said by “The feeling can be very similar to that of bereavement.” If children are going to deal with the loss, they must know the truth and be allowed to grieve, in as much the same way as if there had been a death. Through this, they can begin to process and accept their loss. In telling the child, you must consider their age. What you tell a three year old will have to be different then what you tell a teenager. For younger children, use concepts that they will be able to understand and ensure that your tone when speaking is gentle and soothing. It’s important to offer children as much reassurance as you can. Younger children may fear that you may disappear too, so keep telling them that you love them and will always be there for them. Be prepared for anxieties when you drop younger children at school or nursery – again offer plenty of reassurance. As for older children,
In conclusion, losing a parent- to death or through abandonment- is difficult for everyone involved, especially the newly single parent.