Dead parents and the kids they leave behind

Here’s the thing about the People With Dead Parents club: If you’re not part of it, you don’t get it and you don’t get to speculate on it.

OpenFileTo ran an op-ed this weekend about Ryan Russell, the Toronto police officer tragically killed 2 weeks ago called No More Heroes.  It was similar to John Lorinc’s piece on Spacing from a few days before — a piece to counter the overwhelming mainstream media reaction to the death. But I have to admit I didn’t really read the entirety of the Heroes piece.  I got stuck on this line:

It’s true, those pictures of Russell’s two-year-old son, Nolan, are arresting. But how is anyone helped by focusing in pornographic detail on the tragedy of a boy so young he’ll soon forget knowing the father he lost?

What really struck me was the last part: “a boy so young he’ll soon forget knowing the father he lost.” I lost all interest in the argument at hand and only thought of that line.

I have no doubt that the line was written with the best intentions, maybe even compassion.  From the outside, it seems like it may even be a blessing for that child to be so young.  He won’t have a father, but at least he doesn’t really understand what’s going on right now.

But it’s so much worse than that.  On top of  losing a father,  his tragedy is that he won’t remember his father and people will remind him of that for his entire life.

I can’t tell you how I reacted when my mum died just after my third birthday.  I don’t remember feeling traumatized. I have no idea if I even knew what was going on.  But I can tell you that I’ve felt a void my entire life.  People have always said to me “It’s so sad you were so young. You probably don’t even remember your mother.” And all I can say is “you’re right”.  Because I don’t remember my mother.

All I know of her has been told through other people.  I’ve never been sure if what I know of myself has anything to do with her.  Am I like her? Would I have turned out differently is she were alive? Would I like that person?

I’ve always felt like I missed something, but I’ve never been able to put my finger on it.  How could I?  I don’t remember.

I have a teddy bear that my mother arranged for me to have the Christmas after she died.  I hold on to it.  I protect it.

The memories I do have – all three of them – are only snapshots.  Two are of her death, and the other may really just be a memory of a photograph.  When I was visiting my dad in the fall, he, my brother and I went to visit her grave. At some point I shared my memories and for a second my dad didn’t know what I was talking about. In that moment my heart raced, I felt sick. If this memory isn’t real, then I have nothing.

We sorted it out.  It probably was real.  And so I will continue to hold on to those 3 thoughts, and my old, matted brown bear because that’s what I’ve got.

As for Nolan Russell, Mike Smith is right.  Let’s not take on his tragedy as if it were our own. But let’s not dismiss it either.  He’s two years old, but his life is forever changed.  Now he is part of the club.


10 thoughts on “Dead parents and the kids they leave behind

  1. Hi Lizz Your article makes so much sense to me. I think Adults don’t know what to do with a young child and so we minimize where the loss really comes. My loss is sometimes much more about all the years that we missed together as sisters.

    1. Thanks, Betty. It’s funny you should mention that because I still only think of my perspective and forget others were affected in different ways.

  2. Hi Lizz –

    “But it’s so much worse than that. On top of losing a father, his tragedy is that he won’t remember his father and people will remind him of that for his entire life.”

    That’s exactly what I was hinting at when I wrote the line that tripped you up.

    I don’t think the tragedy couldn’t possibly affect Nolan his whole life (though I’m not sure that’s inevitable); I think it’s the height of poor taste for the press (and the rest of us, unavoidably, by extension) to claim some sort of ownership – even partial and fleeting – of that tragedy, but be unconcerned with any understanding of or responsibility for it once the news cycle has lurched on. I also wonder (and it is just wondering) whether a mass disingenuous reaction to something like this even makes it worse than it has to be for longer than it should be. Losing a parent is awful – spending years of your life hearing “Oh, your father was killed by the famous crazy man” from strangers t seems like it could only be worse.

    Never meant to dismiss the tragedy – only to point out that it’s not at all singular in its tragic nature, and to suggest that on balance the public reaction was more self-serving than truly empathetic.

    Thanks for the thoughtful response. I hope you can maybe still read the whole piece – it really was just a bit of thinking out loud, and I’d like to hear what you think.

    1. Thanks, Mike. I didn’t get all that originally so I’m glad you expanded on it.

      I obviously got stuck for personal reasons more than anything, but it was a good jumping off point for a perspective that doesn’t get put out there much.

  3. Powerful post, Lizz.

    You give a different view to Nolan Russell and, for that matter, all children who lose a parent too young. I am not a member of that club. But reading your post has made me realize two things. One: I shouldn’t wish I was a member of the club; and two: I will never ask someone if they remember the parent they lost again.


    1. Thanks, Sarah. To point number 2 – it’s not so much the asking as it understanding the impact the words have. One of the best things anyone has said to me on the subject was “You were really young when your mum died. That’s really unfair.” It was simple, but it’s not often people actually acknowledge grief in such a blunt way.

  4. I’ve just re-read your post on your limited memories of Mum, today on the 23rd anniversary of her death. It made tears well up up in my eyes.

    As for the one memory you had that I couldn’t immediately recall, I’m going to look for a photo that would confirm it. Even without the evidence, I am confident you remember correctly.

    Love, Dad

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