adoption death-of-a-parent grief memoir trauma

Losing a Father | Trauma | Adoption

Losing a Father | Trauma | Adoption

The Empty Chair

Suddenly Losing a Father: The Trauma and Emotional Consequences

Empty chair with open book on table
Licensed by 123rf, copyright Katarzyna Białasiewicz


I hadn’t planned on traveling home at Christmas during my first year away from home since college. My Father and I had argued about my going to graduate school. He didn’t want me to go. I went anyway. He insisted I come home for Christmas. Furthermore, I’d have to pay for the trip myself. After checking the price of a plane ticket, I got a round-trip Trailways bus ticket. I stood in an unruly mob, everyone trying to board the bus at once. No orderly line. I was apprehensive. Next stop Indianapolis where I held my seat mate’s baby all night. Then Kansas City where I stayed in the lounge of the women’s restroom waiting for the loudspeaker to announce “now boarding for Denver.” Too many single men wandering around on the main floor made me uncomfortable.

The bus was late. I called my parents from a bus stop off the highway somewhere in the middle of Kansas. My Father was cross that I didn’t know my exact location. I have no memories of that Christmas after my parents picked me up at the bus station in Denver.

I assume we put up a Christmas tree, that my parents argued about whether to put tinsel on the tree. Surely we went to church on Christmas Eve after opening our presents. My Father probably ushered. We must have gone to my cousins’ on Christmas morning to look at their presents and pretend once more to be amazed at my uncle’s tropical fish. Surely somebody in the family had Christmas dinner at their house. Maybe it was our turn? Maybe I set the table? That’s what we’d always done.

After Christmas, I took the bus back to Ohio, my attic apartment, and graduate school.

That Christmas would be the last time I saw my Father. Unlike my Mother, he enjoyed Christmas: the tree, singing “O Come All Ye Faithful” at church, eating too much chocolate, getting a new necktie and a book or two.

Christmas tree
Photo by Walter Lee Olivares de la Cruz on Unsplash


Six months later, out of a sound sleep, I heard loud knocking on the door at the bottom of the stairs up to my little attic apartment. Mrs. Parks, my landlady, called out “MaryJo, wake up, wake up. Come downstairs right away. Your Mother is on the phone.”

I was a poor graduate student at Ohio State University, renting from a lovely woman whose house was too big for just one person. She rented the ground floor to another graduate student, his wife, and a new baby. Mrs. Parks lived on the second floor. I lived in the attic and shared the bathroom and telephone with her. We were good friends. I paid $50 a month for my cozy two rooms, a stove and sink under one gable and my bedroom under the other gable, so short I had to bend over to get in bed.

I ran down the stairs, barefoot in my nightgown, into Mrs. Parks’ bedroom to answer the phone. “Hi, I’m here.” One of my uncles, the doctor in the family, answered, “Your Father had a heart attack. He expired a few hours ago. I’ll let you talk to Mary.” My Mother got on the phone, no tears, just her firm, stoic voice. “You must come home immediately. Frances (my aunt) and I will meet you in Chicago so you don’t have to wait alone for the flight to Denver. Frances bought your ticket. You can pick it up at the airport. Take a cab if Mrs. Parks’ nephew can’t take you.”

“Expired?” I’d never heard that word for “died.” And I’ve never heard it since. But I knew what it meant. I told Mrs. Parks that my Father had died. He was 61. In good health. Didn’t smoke. Didn’t drink. Wasn’t overweight. When he had lawyer business to take care of, he walked from his office in the Equitable Building on 17th St. to the Denver Court House. He had walked to the Court House that afternoon.

Photo by Mike Meyers on Unsplash

Going Home

Back upstairs, before the shock and grief hit me, I was sure I couldn’t go home right away. A stack of blue books sat on my desk. I had my students’ final exams to grade. In the morning, I called my advisor, explaining what had happened. He told me to bring the blue books to his office. My graduate student colleagues would grade them. He agreed with my Mother that I was to fly home as soon as possible.

The morning after I got home, I walked down stairs from my bedroom, looked into the sun room, and saw my Father’s favorite chair. It was empty.

The book on the table next to it was open so he could quickly pick up where he’d left off. I could see the latest issue of The Saturday Evening Post sticking up from the magazine rack on the other side of his chair. This was the chair he sat in every night since I could remember. The same chair we sat in together when I was so little I could sit in his lap while he read The Chosen Baby to me.

There was no television in the room. Next to his chair, just books to read, magazines to skim, and a Reader’s Digest open to the “Word Power Quiz.” He was proud that he always got 100% on the quiz. My Father liked words.

The grief of losing him was overwhelming, but I knew my Mother would scold me if I started crying.

Dr. Babbs, the minister from Park Hill Methodist Church, came. I sat quietly as he and my Mother discussed the funeral arrangements. My mother wanted it in the Little Ivy Chapel at Fairmount Cemetery, the same cemetery where my Father’s parents and grandparents were buried. The cemetery where my Father’s ashes would be put in the ground. But

Dr. Babbs insisted the funeral be held in the church sanctuary. “Mary, that little chapel isn’t big enough. Everyone loved Raymond. This is a terrible shock, and lots of people will be at the funeral.”

My Mother and I discussed the music the organist would play. I insisted on Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and Schubert’s “Serenade.” “Well dear,” the organist instructed me, “you know we don’t play the Schubert “Serenade” at church. It’s not religious music and not for organ. Furthermore, I don’t have the music.”

I insisted and for once my Mother didn’t contradict. She knew the Schubert “Serenade” was my father’s favorite. He had played it on the piano by ear. I told the organist I’d give her the piano music and was sure it wouldn’t be hard to play on the organ.

Pipe organ
Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash

The Funeral: More Trauma
On the day of the funeral the family gathered at our house. The black limousine arrived, and I panicked. I couldn’t ride in it. My Mother and my Aunt fussed at me. Admonished me not to be so emotional. Finally an understanding uncle intervened, “It’s ok, Mary. MaryJo can come with me in our car.”

I sat in the front row with my Mother on one side and my Aunt on the other side. During Dr. Babbs eulogy, even though I tried not to cry, tears started flowing quietly. My Aunt handed me her handkerchief with roses embroidered in the corner.

After the service, my Mother and I stood in the receiving line while friends, lawyers my Father knew, businessmen who met every day for lunch in the Denver Dry Goods Tea Room, people from church, neighbors, and several people we didn’t know told us what my Father meant to them, about his kindness and generosity.

Later my Mother wanted to know about that older woman wearing the gray hat with the black ribbon. Who was she? I didn’t know. She asked me about a couple other people neither of us knew. Dr. Babbs was right. People loved my Father.

Back at our house, my Aunt and my Mother chastised me for crying at the funeral and embarrassing the family. Didn’t I know better? Fifty years later and not long before my cousin Peggy died, she asked me if I remembered how I’d “ruined” my Father’s funeral by crying. Did I remember how upset everyone was at me? How could I forget?

Now, I’m mature enough to realize I had done nothing wrong. That my family’s response was cruel and crazy. Why on earth would someone think it was naughty and embarrassing for a daughter to cry at her father’s funeral?

My Best Friend and The Gazelle

Everyone had been at the funeral except my best friend and her mother. She and her family had gone to visit her grandmother in Kansas. As soon as they came home, I ran out the back door, opened the gate, and dashed down the alley to my friend’s. Her back door was open. I ran up the stairs and into the kitchen.

“MaryJo, whatever is wrong?” asked her Mother. “The Gazelle died,” I relied. They hadn’t seen the obituary in The Denver Post. Sharra’s Mother hugged me. Sharra had tears in her eyes.

My Father loved Sharra. She was his favorite of my friends. He played croquet with us, took us for Dairy Queens, and to City Park in the summer for band concerts. Took us to Elitch’s, a favorite amusement park (before it was torn down, rebuilt in a different location, and torn down again). She went with us on rare weekends to the elegant Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs.

One day Sharra asked me if I thought we should have a nickname for my Father. Calling him Mr. Wagner” seemed too serious and formal for such a good and fun friend. I agreed. So we took this nickname idea to my Father. He liked the idea. We suggested various animals and told him he could choose. He didn’t care for “aardvark.” And finally decided on “Gazelle,” a graceful animal, both gentle and swift.

My Father died in 1965. Sharra is still my best friend. We still talk about The Gazelle. “Remember when we tricked The Gazelle into eating the coconut clusters in the box of Russell Stover’s because neither of us liked coconut clusters?” We remember and laugh.

a gazelle
Photo by Vincent van Zalinge on Unsplash

Back to Graduate School

I stayed home for the summer and somehow managed to keep the peace with my Mother. We drove back Columbus to pack up the things in my attic apartment for storage. Mrs. Parks needed to rent the apartment, and I’d decided to share a “real” apartment in the fall with a friend. A few days later, we drove back to Denver.

At the end of the summer, I took the bus back to Columbus, leaving my beloved Colorado mountains behind. I would enroll in classes toward a master’s degree in musicology and greet another batch of undergraduate students. I taught “Introduction to Music History” to non-music majors who needed to fulfill a humanities requirement. I lectured. We listened to Renaissance music, to Bach and Mozart, Beethoven and Mendelssohn. I loved it.

And I grieved for my Father.

Photo by Juan Encalada on Unsplash

My Fault?

Years passed: marriage, a baby, a divorce, a PhD, and ironically returning to Ohio State to teach. Eventually I remarried and moved back to Denver. Deeply depressed, I began therapy where I discovered that on some deep level, I felt responsible for my Father’s death. Would he have lived longer if I hadn’t angered him by leaving home and going to graduate school?

The emotional fall-out of a death is often stronger for an adopted woman than for a non-adopted woman. Many of us can feel that if don’t do what’s expected of us, we’ll be rejected as we were by our birth mothers. That we are somehow responsible for our parents’ happiness and well-being, even though it’s not true. We are not responsible for our parents as children or young people.

I had taken it one step further: believing that I had caused my Father’s death. It didn’t make any difference when my therapist suggested that such a belief was narcissistic. That my Father certainly did not die from a broken-heart because I’d left home and even worse gone off to graduate school where girls didn’t belong. My therapist rarely talked about adoption.

But wait. My Father had rescued me, a very sick baby, from the orphanage. I owed him my life. He had loved me. I was his only child. I had disappointed him. I knew that underneath his anger, he wanted me to stay in Denver. To be close to him. To do things together. Marry a man who lived in Denver. Teach his grandchildren to play Parcheesi and take them for a Dairy Queen dipped in chocolate just as he had done with Sharra and me. Maybe he did die of a broken heart?

Ice cream cone covered in chocolate
Photo by Dylan Ferreira on Unsplash

Logically, I know this isn’t true. He and my Mother were happily married, enjoying their life together. Except for whether or not to drape the Christmas with silver tinsel, they rarely disagreed, much less argued. The family blamed his heart attack on a heart murmur he’d had since childhood. We’ll never know for certain what caused the heart attack. But I do know that my Father’s death wasn’t my fault. He died of a medical condition.

Well . . . most days I know it wasn’t my fault.

This is the fifth story of the acronym: ADOPT. A is for Abandoned, D for Discouraged, O for the Overwhelm of ADHD, P for Procrastinate, and T for trauma. These five are common feelings and life issues that many adopted women experience. For a more comprehensive list, you’ll want to grab my free Adoption Checklist for Women: 25 Life Issues.

A is for abandoned shows up in my Memorial Day story about my birth-father who died on D-Day. Many years later an actor would play him in Steven Spielberg’s Band of Brothers. D for discouraged tells the story of “Shooting Myself in the Foot.

You might also like my musings on Staying at Home because of COVID 19: The Good, The Bad, and the Not So Ugly. Or perhaps my story about Losing the Letters of Willa Cather: An Adoption Story about Unworthiness.

You’ll find me at I also write about ADHD and random topics that strike my fancy. Thanks to raging ADHD, I’m writing two books at the same time: “Finding My Hero: An Adoption Memoir from World War Two” and “Growing Up Adopted: Love Wounded.”

In between writing, I coach adopted women, giving them tools that make healing faster than just talking.

Losing a Father | Trauma | Adoption was originally published in ILLUMINATION on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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