Neither my partner nor I will have our fathers present at our wedding. We’ll have our mothers, our siblings, cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles and so many friends, but not a father between us. The reasons for this are very different, though: my partner’s father died nearly 20 years ago, while my father is very much alive, just no longer part of my life.
I don’t much want to go into the reasons for this, because it’s not really the point of this post. All I want to say is that he’s not a terrible person. He was around a lot when my siblings and I were young. He never hit us or abused us. He was often pretty great when we were kids. The problems came along much later, and they are an ongoing thing. Yes, big wrongs have been done in the past, but it’s not an inability to move beyond that which is preventing our relationship (and that of my siblings with him). It’s things in the present which make our relationship with him impossible.
In a lot of ways, I think it would have been so much easier for my siblings and I to cope if he had died instead. Please don’t mistake me. I’m not wishing him dead. I’d never wish anyone dead, least of all my own father. What I’m saying is that it would have been easier for us to cope, on a personal level, with his death. We would have cried a lot, remembered what a great dad he’d been, thought about him being with us in spirit, and probably have a grave or someplace to go to to remember him*.
When my partner and I get married, there will be space to remember his father during the ceremony – and some other loved ones who have died. But there will be no space to remember my father. You can’t commemorate someone who’s still living. There will just be an awkward space, a conscientious not-mentioning like Basil Fawlty’s war – “don’t mention the bride’s father!”
My siblings and I have had a long, slow disintegration of our relationship with our father. Disbelief that someone we love could behave in such an alien way. Blaming ourselves, trying to moderate our behaviour so he’d start being the father we remembered again. Being blamed by him. Being furious with him. Wondering if we were losing the plot. Trying to help him (so much time and energy I put into trying to help him – I genuinely believe I have parented him far more than he ever parented me). And then the realisation that he was no longer being any sort of parent to us, that our relationship with him was actually just hurting us… but still dearly clinging onto fragments of hope that things would change.
Although it’s been some years since I last spoke to him, it’s only been while wedding-planning that it’s really hit home to me that I have in fact lost my father – amidst the celebrants we spoke to asking if my father was going to give me away**, talking with my partner about his sadness that his father won’t be there to see us marry, and wrestling with the decision of whether to invite my father to the ceremony (truth be told, that was never an option. But it was nevertheless a hard conclusion to come to). And it slowly and painfully dawned on me that if I couldn’t even invite my father to my goddam wedding, then effectively I don’t actually have a father any more. The little bits of hope I’d clung onto evaporated.
We’re not really set up as a society to deal with these forms of grief. We have conventions for losing a parent through death. Losing a parent because that parent no longer wants to be part of your life… there are no conventions for that. People don’t understand it. They think, when it comes up that I no longer have contact with him, that either he was an absuive parent, and I’m always quick to point out that wasn’t the case, or that my siblings and I are harsh and unforgiving. We’re not. We forgave so much, and we’d still forgive, but it wouldn’t do us any good.
The last time I spoke to him, I knew it would be the last time, but it wasn’t sadness or anger that I was feeling. It was just a tired, frustrated, “Fuck it, I can’t do this any more.” And I got on with my life. The grief around it has very very slowly snuck up on me. I didn’t even identify it as such. I knew I was upset that my father wouldn’t be at our wedding, and that kind of surprised me in itself. But then, during an epic conversation about our fathers and our wedding, my partner asked, “Have you ever grieved for him?” And, boy, did the tears flow then. It’s continued to hit me hard these past couple of weeks, and I’ve been letting it. I want to be excited and ecstatic about getting married. But first I need to sit with all this grief – and anger and doubt and even some faint ghosts of hope – so that it doesn’t overwhelm me.
This isn’t really a post with answers. This is a post to externalise some thoughts I’d been having, and because grief is so rarely talked about outside those accepted ideas of loss. That grief was a wholly expected and even healthy thing for me to be feeling was quite a revelation for me. Maybe there’s something you need to grieve for too.
* I know I have grossly oversimplified. I know losing a parent is gut-wrenchingly awful. I’m just comparing my experience with my father to my partner’s experience with his, and, truth be brutally told, I envy him. I wish I could have my father’s picture on the mantelpiece and smile sadly as I think of him watching over me, instead of living with the knowledge that he is far away not really thinking too much about me.
** Even if my father was the bestest dad evarrr, I’d never have been “given away”. But in an alternate universe, I would have liked to gently explained that to him and perhaps asked him instead to give a speech.