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The Gift of Empathy: Why I Am Still Learning From My Father 10 Years After His Death

Back in April, I wrote a personal piece about my father who passed away 10 years ago when I was 19 years old.. After I shared it, I was touched by the number of people who reached out to me to let me know they could relate to how I felt. As ASD’s Staff Writer and Public Relations Specialist, I am often reading stories and essays shared by others about lessons they have learned after losing loved ones. I have been deeply affected by many of these pieces and feel a strong connection with those who are willing to share so much about their own experiences. And so, in honor of Father’s Day, I wanted to share my essay on ASD’s blog in hopes that it might reach someone who is grieving this week and help them to know they are not alone.

The Gift of Empathy: Why I Am Still Learning From My Father 10 Years After His Death

Written by ASD Staff Writer, Jessica Fowler, in April 2016


This month marks the 10 year anniversary of the day I lost my father. In truth, I lost my father much earlier than that, but I always feel a familiar sting every time April rolls around. Anniversaries are like that—in your head, you know it’s just a date on a calendar, but emotions have a way of defying that logic. This year, I find myself missing my dad more intensely than ever, despite the fact that I have never felt more blessed in life. In May, I will be finally taking an adventure trip that I have been dreaming of for years. In June, my older sister is getting married. And in July, I will celebrate my 30th birthday. The fact that these events will occur after the 10th anniversary of losing my father feels a bit like a cruel joke. Somehow, his absence feels bigger in the midst of such joyful preparation, and I find myself once again longing for the one thing I never got to have with my father: an adult conversation

It’s been a long time since I’ve written about my father. In the past, I’ve tried my best to make his addictions and overdose make sense with words, but I’ve never written about who he was as a person and how he shaped me. Considering the fact that I make a living writing content that is centered around death, grief, and the funeral profession, I am often thinking about different ways to honor a person’s memory. What I think my dad would have wanted was for me to honor him through my writing, a talent that he shared with me and all of his children. So, I decided it was time to tackle something that I don’t think I could have written without the perspective of time.

When my dad died, writing was a form of coping for me when it came to managing feelings of guilt and regret. I could not allow the tainted recollections I had of our bitter fights dominate my memory of him. Without this form of self protection, I could not think of my dad without immediately letting my mind wander into dangerous territory. Those hateful, redfaced arguments. The furious words (and awfully written poems) that I could never take back. The kind of friction that only occurs when a middle aged man grappling with his addictions lives under the same roof as an irrationally angry teenage girl searching desperately for a place to point an accusatory finger.

To survive my grief, I had to forgive the father of my teenage years, and focus solely on the good moments we shared. I had to construct a different reality that blocked out the last few years he was alive. As a teenager I saw the world in black and white, good and bad. It’s taken a lot of life experience to recognize that most people are flawed contradictions, myself included. When my dad was alive, I cast him as the villain of my life. After his passing, I began to hold him up as a hero. Over time, I’ve come to realize that my father was neither a villain nor a hero, but a deeply conflicted and tormented man with a loving heart who was truly his own worst enemy. I feel as though it’s taken me 10 years to understand who my father was and more than anything I just wish I could sit down with him and tell him that. I see how much he struggled with living a normal life, how much he wanted to walk a straight path but always went off course when a new temptation presented itself.

I remember my father now in eras. When I was a child, he worked third shift as an ER nurse and because of his schedule and substance abuse, he exists only in the periphery of my earliest memories. That’s not to say I did not have a wonderful, beautiful childhood. But it was my mother who was always the constant in my life, who got me up in the morning, walked me to school, prepared all of my meals, took me to doctor appointments and tucked me at night. It was her face I started and ended every day with and my dad was just a supporting character who popped up every now and then.

I wonder now if my father was every stung by my lack of affection or closeness with him as a child. I imagine what it was like being the sole provider for the family and working that insane overnight schedule dealing with life and death situations on a constant basis. When I was younger, I never considered these obstacles my father faced. As a kid, you always want to think that your parents have it figured out and my mom was very good at shielding us from my father’s stress and addictions. But as an adult, I realize that I am only a little bit younger than my father was at this time and I don’t think I would be strong enough to handle that kind of pressure.

When I was 9, I began to reexamine my relationship with my dad when my mom told he was sick and needed to go away for awhile. I didn’t know then that my dad was in a rehab or that he was fired from his job for stealing medications from the hospital or that my mom was considering divorce. All that I knew was that my dad was sick and I had taken him for granted all of my life. That summer, we were sent to Cape May to live with my grandparents while my mom worked full time and my dad got clean. He sent me a pair of earrings from rehab, which I still have to this day, and a letter that promised he would be a better father. And he made good on that promise.

For 7 years, I had the best dad that anyone could ask for. My father got his nursing license back and started working on a first shift schedule for the Red Cross. He became a model American father, and even received a mini van from his new job to complete the picture. I don’t know if I ever really examined all of the ways my father turned his life around for that period of time and how much strength that must have taken. But I do remember it being a night and day difference. For years, I felt like I didn’t really have a father, and suddenly he was there, every single day.

I can’t put into words the amount of affection I feel when I remember the father I had during that era. He would do the butterfly to get a laugh out of us. One of his favorite possessions at the time was a Bill Clinton doll that said about 8 different catchphrases, including, I’ll bomb Baghdad, I’ll bomb France, if you remove my underpants. My dad was a foodie before the word ‘foodie’ existed and he would often close his eyes when he ate something he really liked. This became a running joke in my family and we all used to throw our napkins at him when we caught him doing it. He loved horror moves and got a particular joy out of yelling ‘Boo!” during the most suspenseful parts.

There was one family trip in particular that sticks out as memory as a time when my father truly showed character as a man. We were visiting my grandparent’s cabin near Raystown Lake, about a four-hour drive from our house. A week or so before the trip, I had gotten the Shania Twain CD and knew every song by heart. Although listening to any song on this album would probably make me cringe now, at the time it was one of those rare CDs that comes out that unites everyone. Everyone that is but my dad and probably every straight male adult. In spite of the fact that it drove him crazy, my dad must have let us listen to that album 10 times before he finally snapped and put on Diana Ross. I think now about the patience that must have taken…how much his head must have wanted to explode when he heard that opening chord for Man I Feel Like A Woman for the 7th time, but he kept it on because it made us all happy.

On that same vacation, we visited Gettysburg so my dad could visit the battle sites of the Civil War. As children, we didn’t understand what the big deal was about standing in the middle of a field and were just excited about swimming at the pool in the Holiday Inn. But I remember noticing how my dad would stop and pick up a rock or a leaf at every site we visited. It’s only now that I understand why he felt moved to do that. He felt such a strong connection to those soldiers who fought a war that literally shaped our country. I think about this often now when I am hiking, noticing how the terrain has been sculpted by humans over time. I appreciate the people who devoted so much time to carving out those trails and making these beautiful places accessible.

I owe a great deal to my father, not only for my life and for the things he provided, but also the lessons he gave me during that time, many of which I did not fully appreciate until I was older. He taught how to play poker, cast a fishing line and throw a softball. He instilled in me a fierce loyalty for all Philadelphia sports teams (and a deep animosity towards the Dallas Cowboys). He took me on my first roller coaster ride. He helped me learn how to understand cats and earn their affection. He is the reason that I love and appreciate nature and am happiest outdoors. He showed me my first shooting star.

Looking up at the stars is when I feel closest to my father now. I might not be able to see his face appear all Mufasa-like, but I can remember his voice most clearly when I am staring up at a clear night sky. On one of our last family vacations, before my father began to spiral downwards and I began to sink into my adolescent angst, we rented a houseboat on Lake Raystown. Late at night, we would all climb up to the roof of the boat and watch the stars and the satellites blinking back at us. My dad would point out all the constellations he knew. Years later, when he went to rehab for the last time before his overdose, he wrote me a letter about those starry nights. He begged me to remember those years and to forgive him.

When I received that letter, I lacked something that I did not develop until after his death—empathy. I could not imagine what he might have been feeling when he wrote those words, could not consider his point of view. I saw his actions as an attack on me and the people I loved, never realizing that he was hurting himself just as much. I lacked the perspective I needed to feel real empathy. And even though I know that my silence is not what drove him to continue using and that neither myself nor anyone else could control his behavior, I often wonder what it might have meant to him if I had just once stopped to consider what life was like for him.

The older I become, the more often I find myself longing to have a conversation with him. I wish I could talk with him now about how much I now appreciate the classic rock he used to play or about how I feel closer to God when I’m outside than I do inside a church. I imagine us obsessing together over conspiracy theories, ancient civilizations and how the pyramids were built. I find myself wondering at random times, what would my dad think about smart phones? Would he have a Facebook profile? How much would my dad have enjoyed Game of Thrones? How much would he like today’s music? (His favorites included Mozart’s symphonies, Diana Ross, and Led Zeppelin, so that’s anybody’s guess). I can envision myself picking his brain about all of the history knowledge he possessed and us having impassioned conversations. I see us enjoying coffee and a cigarette together while I share my hiking stories. Whenever something reminds me of him, my brain instantly begins to play a camera reel in my mind’s eye of the adult relationship we never got to have.

I know now that I am more like my father than I ever realized while he was alive. Like me, he was a writer who felt it easier to explain his feelings with the written word. He loved and appreciated being in nature. He possessed an introverted, sometimes antisocial personality but had a rich inner imagination. He was fascinated bythe past and loved learning about different time periods. He felt more comfortable having a deep discussion with someone than faking his way through small talk. He had ADD tendencies and had difficulties staying focused on a single task. I used to get so defensive when my mom would tell me the reason I fought with my dad was because I was just like him. The irony of that is that like my dad, acting defensively and refusing to admit I was wrong about something was my default mode.


The memories I have of how my father lost his resolve and how our relationship deteriorated are not ones I like to relive. We were the worst versions of ourselves then. In the story of our lives, I am no more a sympathetic character than my father was. I had a sharp tongue that could cut someone to the core. I clung to my anger and bitterness like a favorite blanket. The petty grudges I held onto completely consumed me and I spent nearly all of my time as a teenager seething while writing scathing condemnations that I called poetry. My father lost his character and moral compass, and I still had not found mine. Its possible I might never have if I wasn’t forced to take a hard look at myself after he died.

Those last few years he was alive, as angry as I had sworn to be at my dad, through everything, I held on to his letter and those earrings. I never stopped longing for him to be in my life, but I let my resentment overpower all of that. When he was at his worst, I used to say I didn’t have a father or that he was already dead to me. The ignorance of those statements haunt me now. I don’t think I could have imagined back then how it would feel to lose him. I couldn’t grasp how his permanent absence would affect me. There is no way to prepare for a loss like that. I know it is a mistake I will never again repeat in my life.

There are times when it feels like I am losing him all over again. When Father’s Day rolls around, when I see a dad being sweet to his daughter, when I have to come up with a response when someone asks me how he died. That last one is always a challenge for me because to tell the truth is to reduce my dad to a single mental image in the other person’s mind. Yes, he struggled all his life with addiction, but there were so many other layers and dimensions that made up who he was as a person. I feel I owe it to him to tell people that because I couldn’t see the full picture of who he was when I was younger. Even today, I still can’t.

I imagine my own children one day asking me about their grandfather, and having to paint a picture of a person who was impossible to fully understand. 10 years after his death, I still have questions that I will never know the answers to. He carried memories of traumatic events from his own childhood around with him all of his life, secrets that none of us ever knew about until after he passed. My brother and sister carry around the same question marks in their head. They, too, remember my father in eras, but not in the same context as me. We were at different stages of our lives when events occurred. So, in some ways, it often feels like we grew up with three different dads.

Even if I can’t answer every unanswered question about my dad, the knowledge that he did impart helped me grow exponentially as a person. My dad never got to see me become an empathetic or compassionate person because his death changed me in every conceivable way. Losing him taught me that no one is all good or all bad, that everyone struggles with inner turmoil and you shouldn’t hold anyone to a higher standard than yourself. I believe that the last gift he ever gave me was the ability to treat people better, to forgive more, to love openly. I feel that to honor him, the best thing I can do is to always strive to be empathetic to the people around me. I’ll always be grateful to my dad for teaching me this and I think that is a legacy that would make him proud.


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