Recently a scarlet tanager flew by the terrace, and I jumped up to phone my father. Only to stop short as I remembered, with abiding disbelief, that I can’t phone him. My father died almost six years ago.

There’s been a bit of an epidemic lately, of dying fathers. In the grand scheme of things, that’s fine. Our parents are supposed to die before us. But I’m still outraged.

We had only about a day’s notice that we were losing him, and I remember writing in my journal, “I don’t want to be a person with a dead father." I still don’t quite know how to be that person, because I still don’t quite know that he’s gone. My whole family lost him, and we are in this together, but grief is unique for each person.

All of us in the club of children-with-dead-fathers have our own ways of coping with this strange absence in our lives. Some of my peers didn’t especially like their fathers and must wrestle with whatever unresolved issues they are left with. Some are frankly glad to be rid of a cruel or distant or just aggravating parent. I liked my father tremendously and don’t have any regrets. My grief is vast, but not particularly complicated.

One fatherless friend tells me he still has a relationship with his father, and they have conversations in his mind. I don’t. A relationship involves two people, and in my unimaginative world they both need to be alive. I can talk to my father in my head all I want, but if he doesn’t talk back, that’s not much of a relationship. Rationality is so annoying sometimes. How nice it would be to believe in an afterlife where we could meet again (although there’s something decidedly creepy about the thought of my nears and dears watching me from The Beyond), but let’s get real. He’s dead. Dead, dead, dead. Bones in the earth, extinguished, khatam, dead. He’s not watching, he’s not talking. He’s not coming back as a beetroot or a panda or the chancellor of Germany. He’s gone. But grief stays and toys with you in unpredictable ways.

About a month after he died, I was back in New York, keeping it together, wandering around McNally Jackson, the planet’s best bookstore. I turned a corner, saw a shelf of books about nature, and WHAM—the undertow knocked me flat. Here is where we bought him so many books about crazy things like the mating rituals of beetles—I had to race out of the store, blinded by tears.

Afterwards I apologized to my friend at the bookstore for running out. “Are you kidding?" he said. “I was so jealous of you. I’ve never loved my dad enough to miss him that much."

Yes. We did have quite the father, my brother and I. He was worth missing. While some Buddhist detachment would have been great in those first six ragged months, how much worse it would be if we hadn’t had all those years of the world’s wackiest man at the centre of our lives. Maybe there is such a thing as good grief.

Good or not, grief is definitely another country. It makes no sense at all. You can smile through the funeral, crack a joke as you bury your loved one, and then, weeks later, catch sight of an Oreo cookie and start howling in public because you’ll never eat an Oreo with your father again. The Oreo cookie is more painful than the dead body. Marilyn French writes about this disconnect in The Women’s Room: “Rituals mark feelings, but feelings and events do not coincide. Feelings are large and spread over a lifetime."

Everything was an outrage, at first. For one thing, I never actually believed this could happen. My father was larger than life, so how could life go on without him? How dare the world just carry on, blowing its horns, sprouting its leaves, filling petrol, brewing coffee, playing HIS songs? The first orchid flower without him was a terrible injustice—six years later, it’s good that orchids are here even though he’s not. If we can’t have him, we can at least have that.

Another fatherless friend, also very close to her father, said she mourned terribly but doesn’t feel that she is a different person without him. I do. I was a person with a father, now I’m a person with a father-shaped hole in her heart. That’s okay, but it’s different.

Grief makes you a little nuts, too. For a long time I couldn’t bring myself to say that my father died. I either avoided it, or sort of pretended that he wasn’t (“Yes, my parents live in India.") I knew he was dead, I’m not that delusional, but I couldn’t bear to say the words. My brother and I share a dentist. The hygienist, Diane, and I always chatted about our fathers. A couple of months after mine died, I had a dentist’s appointment. I phoned my brother in a panic.

“Did you tell Diane about Ba?"

“No, why?"

“What if she asks how he is? I can’t deal with it!"

“Well, the solution is obvious," he said solemnly into my ear.


“You have to change dentists."

Now, I can say it without my insides turning to pudding: “My father died."

I have no cause to whine, and I’m not. We have fantastic memories.

Membership in the Dead Fathers’ Club is unavoidable unless you’ve never had one, or you die first. That’s life. It’s an outrage! But when the grief comes, I do wish you what I have: good grief.

Sohaila Abdulali is a New York-based writer. She writes a fortnightly column on women in the 21st century.

Read Sohaila’s previous Lounge columns here.