It’s been quite a month for news that shapes the world. You know, the real important stuff.
“Selena Gomez Drops F-Bomb” (What the bleep?)
“Miley Cyrus Twerks with Santa” (Millennial generation twist on warm milk and cookies?)
“Miley Cyrus wears sheer white top, black bra to Z100’s Jingle Ball” (She’s back! She’s busy! Black breasts on white girl!)
Paris Hilton’s brother assaulted at party in Miami. Jessica Simpson goes makeup free for date night. Kim gets her body back.
There’s enough noise in this culture, particularly directed at young women, to make your head spin. One of life’s biggest stories, meanwhile, resides like an iceberg under the waterline. The story of a father within his daughter—Miley, Kim, everywoman—is a psychological drama that plays out in plain sight every day but without much recognition.
Whether she’s famous, rich and spoiled or anonymous, broke and struggling every daughter carries the emotional imprint of her father’s presence or absence. I get to hear a lot of those stories from women who share them with me in person or by email. This month, I’m sharing a few, and some thoughts for those who sent them and daughters or fathers like them.
From Lina: “I would be interested to hear more about what you find with girls who suffer the death of a father. My husband died when my daughter was ten, and now she is 15. Her memories and love for her father are strong, but that isn’t a substitute for an ongoing father-relationship. As she matures, I am looking for ways to help her create healthy relationships, and I suppose to help her make the most of what she had with her father, as she is unlikely to ever have the same kind of bond again.”
You are right. Your daughter will never have that bond again. There’s nothing to compare to a young child losing a father or mother. We are changed by it forever.
We don’t “get over” the early-life loss of a parent any more than we might get over losing a lung. We learn to cope—maybe. We adjust—maybe. At best, perhaps, we make peace with the loss. With that said, here are a few suggestions, based upon my experience and the stories shared with me.
Don’t stifle your daughter’s grief or desire to talk about her father. (If it sounds odd that I would even suggest that, some parents try to help their children by suppressing their grief and not talking or allowing conversation about the other parent’s death.) Let her wear his shirts and sweaters. Let her fill her life with symbols of him if she wants. Tell her stories about her dad if she wants to hear them. If he has brothers or sisters, bring them into your daughter’s life as much as you can.
I’m a big fan of counseling and therapy, not just for someone who’s suffered such a loss, but also for the entire family left behind. Going through this without professional help is like going through an amputation without physical therapy to recover. The Dougy Center in Portland has a wealth of resources online for dealing with grief.
Your daughter may find it helpful to meet adults or other teens who have lost parents early in life. If she wants to, try to help her with those connections. Bring surrogate fathers into her life, as long as they are men you can trust deeply, because she is likely to have a deep hunger for male approval and affection. Such young women are vulnerable to being exploited. Cousins, uncles, coaches, friends—try to make natural and easy-to-accept connections to as many of them as you can, as long as you know them well enough to trust them.
And here is a final thought. Help your daughter find someone safe who she can cry with.
From Norma: I have shared your columns with most of my friends and especially my daughters. My youngest daughters response was, “I hope you’re not thinking of dating, because you have never known how to interact with men, and still don’t.”
In the late 40′s and early 50′s, my father was sometimes verbally and a couple times, physically abusive. He left when I was eight and my brother was four. We only saw him twice (once a couple months after he had left to introduce us to his new wife and then again when I was 13, when he introduced us to his third wife). After the age of about 36 he came and visited on 2 occasions.
You have really touched my heart and I am starting to understand a lot more about the psychological problems I had / have relating to men and why I grew up so insecure. I have been in and out of counseling a good part of my life. But one thing that never came up, in all my counseling, was my relationship with my dad, or for that matter anything about my dad. So again thank you very much for your words.
Your father is the tap root from which your life grew. Your story of abuse is unfortunately so common. Abuse breaks the trust between fathers and their daughters, and can too easily poison a woman’s ability to sustain intimate relationships with men.
At a minimum it takes a great deal of hard work to process a father’s abuse, abandonment, or ambivalence, to get to a point where one can stay present in an intimate relationship. You are anything but alone, and your struggle is shared by people you might not imagine.
A minister in her 70s wrote to me recently and shared the story of her strained relationship with her father, and her struggle to find intimacy in a partnership, something that eluded her for decades until she married recently. I met a clinical psychologist at a writer’s conference a few years ago. She was also in her 70s. During a break in the conference she began telling me the story of her neglectful, uncaring father. Soon it was clear that she was being consumed with sadness as the memories came back. So I just listened, she spoke, and then she began to cry.
You’re also not alone in having your father story never come up during counseling. A close friend shared with me that in ten years of therapy, she and her therapist had never explored the relationship she had with her father. She told me it had never occurred to her until she read my book.
Every woman is a daughter. And her father, by either his presence or absence, had an enormous influence on her life. As the psychologist and author Kate Kavanagh wrote to me, “Reading (your) memoir of fatherhood prompts me to say to women, regardless of age, culture, or background: ‘Tell me if and how your father loved you as a child, and I’ll tell you whether or not you have found love as a woman.’”