Kathleen Murphy column: Living through the death of a father

Happy Father’s Day. Give your dad a hug today.

KathleenMurphy web.jpg
Kathleen Murphy

I am nearing 50 now, and I'm very fortunate to still have my father in my life. I also have a stepfather. He came into my life more recently, when I was in my 40s, so we chuckle together about the whole “dad” thing. I would never call him Dad, and he would never ask me to, but he has been a supportive and kind father figure to me.

There have been several other father figures in my life, such as various family friends who gave needed parental guidance at times in my life. The most prominent was such a poignant father figure to me growing up during my formative years that to this day I cannot call him nor his wife by their first names, even though they ask me to. They see me as an equal, as far as my status as an adult goes. I’m not quite there yet. Probably never will be.

I'm very lucky in that I’m not lacking in father figures. I know not everyone is equally blessed.

What I am lacking, however, is a husband. I was widowed this past winter, my five young adult children left without a father. There is no stepfather, and since my husband’s job moved us around the country during their younger years, there is no single person whom they reliably looked towards as an “extra” father figure. My children had many benefits growing up, but stability of location was not one of them.

During my husband’s illness, he and I discussed how we thought the kids would take his death. He shared with me his own experience, as his own father died when he was a young adult, not much older than our kids are now. “I missed my dad, of course, but I was a young adult living my own life, and I was surprised at how my life went on as normal. I grieved for him, and celebrations like Christmas were hard, but overall, my day-to-day life didn’t change. That’s what I want for the kids. I know they love me, and I’m comfortable with the relationships we have. I hope they feel this way, too. I don’t want my death to be a burden on them.”


I admire him so much for this.

It is too early to tell if the kids feel similarly. It’s all too new, too raw. We collectively seem to be agreeing to pretend he is on a business trip, just to get by for now. To avoid the sting of his absence. Every single one of us still files away little things that happen to us during our day, in order to tell him about it later. He traveled a lot for work, so the kids have a lot of experience in that regard. Might as well let that carry us through the hard times.

Besides, I truly see him everywhere.

I see him in one son’s desire to learn how to cook. He now “tinkers” in the kitchen, showing me tricks his dad taught him, reminiscing about meals shared as a family. I hadn’t been aware he’d been paying attention.

I see him in his only daughter’s appreciation for a good dad joke. Sometimes, I even see it in her eyes, when she is clearly thinking about answering someone with a well-placed dad joke, but she doesn’t want to admit it out loud.

One child shares his dad’s affinity for “granny cars,” another the love of the outdoors and useless movie trivia. Even the negative attributes are not immune. One of the kids has carried on his father’s propensity to see the world in black-and-white terms. It was a struggle my husband worked through his entire life, openly talking through his changing views, reaching to understand.

He passed his life lessons on to his children, too. I see them in how his young son processes this struggle now.

So tonight, we will have dinner, make a toast to their dad, and remember. I will let them know that I see their father in their lives, their world views, even their mannerisms. Just as I can look back and pinpoint the significance of my own father and father figures in my own life.


Happy Father’s Day. Give your dad a hug today. If he’s no longer with you, simply take a moment, and remember.

Kathleen Murphy is a freelance writer who lives and works in Duluth. Write to her at

What To Read Next
Get Local