Istill remember the day, the moment, when we were told by the doctor that my father had cancer. I remember the following week when we were told it was terminal. I remember my exact feelings. I remember the moment he passed away vividly. The process of losing a father is not something for which you can be prepared for and it leaves an unimaginable void.
I still remember the day, the moment, that it was confirmed that my wife was pregnant for the first time. I remember going to each ultrasound scan. I remember the feelings at each stage. I remember the moment my daughter was born, vividly. The process of becoming a father is not something for which you can be prepared for. It somehow fills a void you didn’t know was there.
Both losing a father and becoming a father are deeply impactful moments in life; they change the way you think, they change the decisions you make and they change how you live. Life is a cycle and so is grief.
I got married two years after my father died. I found myself wishing he were at the wedding, wanting him to see me take the next steps in my life. One particular day, my wife looked at me in the eyes and said, “When we’ll have kids, you will see your abbu in them.”
When my daughter was born, I didn’t recall what my wife had said - likewise when my son was born three years later. I didn’t have the headspace to. I was too busy taking in the moment, holding the babies and not fully comprehending that these little things are mine forever. And then, thinking about my family life. But deep down, I wished my dad could have been there for these moments.
I have a recurring dream which goes like this: I am alone in a local park. I see my father there and I go talk to him; I wonder why he isn’t dead (as he is in reality) but I keep talking to him. I then tell him I am going to get the kids but by the time I am back with them, he is gone. A dream with so much emotion - elation at seeing my dad again, excitement at being able to show the kids to him and then the overwhelming sadness that it was not to be.
At times, it felt like being trapped in the cycle of grief. But there was a way out which I hadn’t appreciated. The key was talking to my kids as a dad about my dad. And I do, plenty. Lu’Lu, now five, is always asking to go and see ‘Dada-abbu’s grave’. She goes there; she cleans the headstone and recites the kalma. She talks about it so often that her little brother, Raffi, two, is now also keen on doing the same. Each night at bedtime, Lu’Lu asks for a Dada-abbu story - she picks an age for me and I tell her a true story about something which he and I did together at that age. It’s my way of passing down knowledge of what he was like.
This all goes to show me how lucky I was that my dad had a profound impact on my life. Not every child is so fortunate. For some, a father is a patriarch who rules the house and leaves the work of raising kids to others. It was not like that for me growing up. Abbu was active in our upbringing, I often saw him cooking and cleaning, and the sacrifices he made for us in both the work he did and things he did not do. Without me actively realising it, he shaped the kind of father I was to become.
In today’s society, the role of a father has evolved and is more than being a symbolic family head who gets on with his own life. The role has become one of teaching by example - if you want well-rounded kids, it has to start off with them seeing equity in the home between parents. There needs to be demonstrable kindness, there needs to be evident love and respect between parents and the relationship with children needs to have the fundamentals of friendship. There needs to be an understanding of their world and the society they will grow up in rather than thinking the rules of the last millennium are still appropriate. You don’t demand them to achieve, you facilitate an environment from where achievement is possible.
My father really was a bridge from the old psyche to the new; he wanted us relaxed for exams, his focus was on effort rather than outcome and ultimately he just wanted to see us happy even if that meant that things did not happen as he envisaged them. That is the greatest legacy he could have left for me - the sense that you empower your kids rather than using them to exercise your own power.
Any commemorative day, like Father’s Day, can mean whatever the person marking the day wants it to mean. When my dad was around, it was about us showing him how appreciated he was. After he died, it became a day of regret, wishing he were here. As a father now myself, it is about positively remembering him, making sure the lessons he taught us are not wasted and celebrating his life. My kids, like I used to, make it about me. And that is the cycle of grief becoming the cycle of life.
Last year, Lu’Lu was running up the stairs towards me one day with a smile on her face and I saw it. It hit me. I saw my father’s smile. I looked at her and I saw my dad in her. My wife’s words came true. The cycle of grief felt complete. Being able to love and move on as he would have wanted felt from that very moment a very real prospect.
Naveed Khan is based in London and works as a legal professional. He writes regularly on sports and social issues.