Minus One at the Dinner Table

As we each worked to create environments filled with joy even in the worst of circumstances, we tried to protect our children. Unfortunately, death and grief and loss have a way of affecting every aspect of a child’s life. Conversations around the dinner table are minus one. There are soccer practices, ballgames and recitals, parent-teacher conferences, graduations, and marriages where what’s missing is felt by all involved. Children carry around fears that they often hold inside and don’t share. We, as mothers, carry around guilt that we haven’t done enough to help them through the dark times.

When we began meeting around the kitchen table, all our children were quite young. Today, most of them are adults. We are so very happy to tell you that the kids are all right! Since each of them has traveled with us on this journey, we thought that the “wisdom coming from the mouth of our babes” might be helpful to others as well. So we asked them several questions about their experiences. What follows are reflections and advice from some (not all) of them.

If It’s Worth Doing, It’s Worth Overdoing

Jan’s daughter Jenna was ten when her dad died. She is now thirty-three. Jenna worked in New York for ten years producing shows for the Food Network. She is married, lives in Los Angeles, and has her own production company. She also writes The Pickle , a website about food—what and when to eat, where to buy, and how to enjoy and share. Please do subscribe; it’s free!

Jenna thinks the biggest challenge she experienced when her dad died was learning how to understand his death. She tells how a well-meaning therapist told her she wouldn’t understand it until she got older. “Adults, do not say things like this to children,” says Jenna. “It comes across as patronizing and only made me want to prove the therapist wrong. At ten, of course, I didn’t understand the full scope of how losing my dad would affect me. But then, do any of us at any age fully understand it when a tragedy rocks our world?

“Wanting to prove the therapist wrong resulted in me avoiding talking about my father’s death, and my feelings surrounding it. I put on a brave face and acted strong, as if I had my grief under control and didn’t need any help or special treatment. But grieving, I learned over the years, cannot be controlled, cannot be suppressed, and cannot be rushed. We all deal with tragedy in our own way, and that usually does evolve over time. But grieve we must. It has helped me immensely to lean on family, friends, and trained professionals. I learned that, while painful and clumsy at first, opening up and sharing my feelings was the only way I could heal.

“It was difficult for me, my siblings, and our mom to face the future without Daddy. Who would dance with me at the sixth-grade father-daughter Cotillion? I’d looked forward to that dance for two years, ever since he took my older sister. What would Father’s Day look like? What would we do on Thanksgiving without my dad entertaining friends and family with his famous annual feast?

“A father’s role in his daughter’s wedding is traditionally significant, even to a young girl. Within the year after my dad died, I remember my mom saying to me that her brother, my Uncle Derick, could walk me down the aisle when the day came. I can’t remember why it came up—if I asked, or if my mom offered—but I’ve never forgotten that conversation. I’ve always been close to my Uncle Derick, but when my husband, John, proposed, there was no question in my mind: My mom would be the one to walk me down the aisle. When I married the man of my dreams, that is exactly what happened.”

The wedding was everything Jenna could have wanted—great food, great music, dancing, and, of course, her nearest and dearest in attendance. John and his family processed in, followed by her siblings. Then she entered, arm-in-arm with Jan. “We walked to Here Comes the Sun, from the Beatles’ vinyl album that I inherited from my dad’s record collection. We were ten steps down the aisle when I looked over and saw my mom’s eyes welling up with tears. I held her a little bit tighter, feeling her joy and pride. I didn’t sense sadness in her and, as I think about it now, I didn’t feel sadness either.

“You might expect that I would have felt great sadness that my dad wasn’t with me on this special day. But I had made sure that he would be there. When I arrived at the altar, there he was, dressed in a sweet Eighties tux, beaming at me from a crisp white picture frame positioned on a front-row seat. It was important to me to have a photo of my dad there for two reasons,” Jenna recalls fondly, “to honor him before our wedding guests (many of whom had known and loved him), and to make sure that I saw his bright smile as I looked out on all the other guests’ faces. I’ll never forget the sense of joy and support radiating from our loved ones during the ceremony, and I’m so glad I got to bring my dad into that memory.”

Jenna called on him again during what is traditionally the father-daughter dance, boogying with her mom to Tina Turner’s Simply the Best, which a colleague of her father’s had emotionally—and brilliantly—performed at his memorial service. “I was 98 percent positive that song would bring my mom to tears (I had kept it as a surprise). To my own surprise, however, her eyes stayed dry. I think both of us were just happy—happy I had found a wonderful partner, happy to be celebrating love, and happy to be surrounded by our friends and family, including my dad.

“They say time heals all wounds,” Jenna reflects. “I wouldn’t say time has made me whole again—I still miss my dad. I wish he had gotten to know my husband and our future children. I wish I could have heard what he would have told me moments before walking me down the aisle—but time has given me perspective. If I could talk to my Dad today, I, of course, would tell him that I love him. I would also thank him for teaching me how to live.”

As Jenna matures into her thirties, she tells us, she still benefits from life advice from her mom—sometimes solicited, sometimes not. It’s perhaps a universal impulse for parents to want to download a lifetime of lessons to their children. “I’m willing to bet,” Jenna claims, “that at forty-six, my father departed this world feeling as if he hadn’t had enough time to teach my siblings and me all the lessons he’d learned over his too-short, but richly lived lifetime.” While she admits missing the opportunity to ask her father for advice, she nonetheless carries with her his overall approach to life—one that guides her every day.

“My dad’s life motto, which we put on his gravestone, was: If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing! He didn’t just go fishing; he planned epic deep-sea fishing journeys. He didn’t just go hiking; he took multi-week treks through jungles stalking giant gorillas, photographing them, and returning to display his images like trophies in huge frames throughout our home. He didn’t just take his five- and seven-year-old daughters camping; he took them on a white-water rafting trip with his adult friends.