Jun 23 · 4 min read
I have two daughters. Holly lived life on full throttle for 28 years and then stopped. Two years after this photograph on a hot summer morning, she sent her last text to me, “Love you, daddy”, and took her own life. Like everything she did, Holly thoroughly researched and planned this final act, and it was sure to be successful.
She won’t send me a card, text, or Whatsapp message for my third Father’s Day. So I sit here sifting through memories and wondering what it means to be a dad, father, daddy.
She trained me well. I had strict instructions to prepare my wedding speech and write notes. She didn’t want any of that improvised waffly nonsense I was famous for. It worked, and I delivered a humdinger. I was the father of the day.
Now I am a bereaved father, and no one has written a manual for that, and I haven’t got Holly to tell me how to do it. So I can’t ring her up and ask her to talk me through the steps like she did when she organised that cheap phone for me through her insurance.
An anecdote in the wedding speech recalled a time when four girls were in the bath. Holly was the youngest, but her strength of personality was such that the three other girls started chanting and splashing the water.
“Holly is the boss! Holly is the boss!”
At times of indecision, all of us still have the thought, “What would Holly do?
I have lost my centre. I have lost the guidebook. I am a tourist that does not want to be on holiday. Not here. Not now.
Father’s Day arrived with a card from my eldest daughter and was soon followed by a phone call. But it all feels messy. How can I love one daughter without the other? So I spend the day with sadness dragging around my feet and love and joy carrying me forward in a lurching fashion.
I walk to the cliffs and watch the local youth surfing some beautiful waves. I want to be out there with them, but I know my balance and bones won’t allow that. So I sit in the Cornish mizzle, a spectator on life.
Holly’s death has been a catalyst that has transformed my life. The week after she died, I signed up for a Counselling course. Tomorrow I hand in my last bit of written work. Yesterday I attended an induction course for a new job I will soon begin as a counsellor for young people.
Before Holly died, I was directionless, downsized, living in a beautiful place, a retired teacher who never wanted to teach again.
The trauma of Holly taking her own life was like a lightning strike that energised me and reconnected me with my passion.
I am a father. Of course, I doubt whether I did a good enough job.
I have days of obsessing around the details of a conversation. Would it have made a difference if I had said …? Could I have changed the course of her life?
That question feels rich when it is so tricky to affect any change to the course of my own life. How could I possibly manufacture a perfect upbringing for my children? My own childhood was pretty idyllic and privileged, but something was missing, meaning I have never felt fulfilled or entirely content.
If it has taken me over 50 years and many hours of therapy to get to that realisation and still not pin it down exactly to specific causes, what hope was there of single-handedly creating the perfect environment for my children?
I have learnt a powerful lesson from my counselling training about being congruent. This is one of the core conditions of Person-centred counselling. As a teacher, I was not congruent. My authentic self sat on the sidelines while I trundled out government-approved garbage.
As a counsellor, I can be congruent. I can be my authentic self. I can notice how I am thinking and feeling when I am with a client. Then, rather than deflecting or dismissing those thoughts and feelings, I can make decisions in the moment on whether it is helpful to share them.
I wish I had developed that skill while Holly was still alive. I have so many memories of conversations with her that started well and then seemed to hit a brick wall. So often with a cheery smile and “I’m fine.” Maybe my counselling skills could have created a chink in that wall that we could have worked on over the years.
I am under no illusions, though. Just because someone is labelled father doesn’t mean they necessarily have any control or rights over their progeny. Congruent or not, every child is an independent living being with their own path to follow.
Father’s day passes, and I know I love being a father, whatever form it takes. But, I also know there is more to it than those traditional roles of breadwinner and protector. Sometimes I was so focused on breadwinning that I failed to protect. Sometimes everything was out of kilter, but I was there. I stayed present.
Holly — I wouldn’t have missed your wedding for the world. I still treasure the 60th birthday lunch you organised at Ronnie Scotts. I even treasure memories of you moaning all the way on a walk around the Lizard. I love the videos of you singing with your choir and the memories of family harmonies in the car.
I wish I could have spoken to you on Father’s day but hey! Thank you for all those beautiful memories over 28 years.