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The other side of Father's Day

OPINION

(Brian Cassella/Chicago…)
June 13, 2013|By Ernest Wilkins, @ernestwilkins | For RedEye

Last year, I wrote a Father's Day column about my dad passing away when I was young. It remains the most responded-to piece I've ever written. I certainly understand why—losing a parent at a young age is something you have to experience to fully understand, unfortunately. This year, I opened up my Father's Day column to readers who also experienced losing their dads at a young age. I asked them questions that I find myself thinking about this time of year. Here are their stories.

How do you think losing your father at an early age affected your adolescence?

My father was sick for much of my childhood, so that as well as his death affected me a lot. I envied my friends who had healthy, fun, active and involved dads. I also looked to date guys who were strong men. I craved attention from men—and I think that was definitely because a male role was absent in my life.

—Kate Masiak (lost her father at 15)

It was such a shock that it somewhat froze me emotionally. It made me more uncertain about the world and how my story would play out, the reality of the likelihood of more unhappy changes to come in life. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to recover from that blow and re-emerge emotionally without further tragedy.

—Chris Madden (lost his father at age 13)

The years after my father's death were an emotional mess. I woke up with mild anxiety attacks on a nearly daily basis for almost five years. He had always acted as my safety net, ready to ride up and rescue me when I could not handle being in my house. My mother and I had a very tense and emotionally abusive relationship for over two decades, until repairing it very recently, and throughout my teen years I felt completely alone, completely uncared for. I was angry.

—Lauren Gill (lost her father at age 12)

What do you do on Father's Day now?

Ever since my father has passed, when I haven't worked in a 9-5 office I have offered to work on Father's Day. No reason for me to have it off. I also told others who had a dad to take the day off and spend it when them and that I would work.

—Kate

I try not to think about it too much. I've incorporated elements of my father's life into my daily routine—I have only owned a bicycle as my main transportation means, I immerse myself in soul music, I make foods I knew he loved, I try to treat people in the way he did. People loved him; he owned the room when he was in it. Lately, I just go on long rides alone on that day. I don't have a spiritual bone in my body, but it soothes me.

—Lauren

Do you find that you gained the skills needed to "be a man" without a father in your life?

My father was a very positive influence in my life in our short time together, but losing him at 13 I had to learn "being a man" by doing as well as some trial and error. I feel that I fossilized and over-applied the key points of advice I did remember receiving from him, sometimes to the point of damage. A random thing he said to me gained such importance that I had some religion about it, when he may not have meant it to have such power over me, and 21 years later it is far out of context.

—Chris

Do you have any lasting lessons or advice for people who have recently lost a father?

Talk about it, give yourself time to grieve, and when you feel your worst, give yourself some time to wallow, but then get up and go help another person. Being helpful to another has been my best "trick" around improving my mood and emotions.

—Chris

The greatest lesson I ever learned was that grief is like weather. ... Sometimes it's sunny and sometimes it rains. That's OK. Grief never ends or goes away. It will be there for the rest of your life.

—Kate

When it comes to giving advice to others on handling the loss of a father, it is sort of challenging. Loss and mourning isn't one size fits all. For me, the best thing has been sharing and talking—telling people when I feel upset and why and never assigning a time frame to myself of when I shouldn't actively be sad anymore. I think it's important that, when you lose someone, rather than taking all of the love you had for them and letting it float up into the atmosphere, that you take that love and channel it into your other relationships, maybe even overfill. Building up closeness with other people has allowed me to honor my father's memory more than the anger, sadness and guilt did that I felt when he first passed.

—Lauren

Ernest Wilkins is Chicago's wingman. erwilkins@tribune.com

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