Maybe there really is a Jungian super consciousness that our minds all float upon, like ice atop a still liquid lake. Maybe it’s just that some ideas are so obvious that everybody has them. Whatever the reason, I keep running into other people, other women specifically, who speak of their membership to the Dead Dad Club.
The idea first occurred to me very shortly after my dad died. I was eighteen, living in the freshman dorms at Ohio State University. He died suddenly of unchecked diabetes after a two-year period of mutual estrangement.
The whole thing came as a shock, but an easily buried one. I kept it a secret from everyone around me, except for my then-boyfriend, who was on a Valentine’s Day date with me the moment I got the news. I went upstate for the funeral. I invited a handful of childhood friends, none of whom came. I got drunk and crawled into bed with my little sister. I went back to the dorms. I didn’t miss a day of class; I didn’t miss a day of work. I said nothing.
My dad was a big crier. He cried while watching Ice Age 2 in the theater. Big, violent sobs shook his whole body, his face turned red, and globules of snot ran from his nose for dozens of minutes without stopping. Later, we joked he needed a towel to mop it all up.
Anything could set him off. He cried in a customer’s backyard while he was working at his landscaping job, and he made me come over and hug him. He cried in the garage when my mom found my cigarettes. He cried in the car, driving all kinds of places. He cried during reruns of Lassie on Nick at Nite, during the end credits when Lassie put her paw up and the music played.
A few weeks after my dad died, a girl down the hall lost her father. Heart attack. I had met the guy; he had a pleasant, square face with handsome features and rich bronzed skin. Their relationship was good. A widespread email told everyone in the dorm of her troubles. We were all encouraged to go to the funeral, to give the girl our regards. People rose to the occasion. She took a few weeks off.
I resented the massive embrace that she received and I had not, even though it was my fault for not telling anybody. I resented that people were warm and sympathetic to her. I resented that my boyfriend forgot about my father’s death in no time flat. I even resented that her relationship with her father was healthy. But I could not hold it against her for long. After all, she was a member of the Dead Dad Club. Even though her process of grief was different, the nature of our losses made us the same.
One of my sister’s friends lost her dad relatively young, shortly after our dad died. She had a strained relationship with the guy, but lionized him after his death. This hypocrisy irritated my sister immensely, but she didn’t raise the issue. Her friend was a member of the Club. I didn’t learn that my sister thought in terms of the “Dead Dad Club” until years afterward. I had never uttered the words to her. She just came up with it on her own.
When we were very little, my dad packed my sister and me in the cramped cab of his pickup truck and drove an hour to a nature reserve on the south side of Cleveland. My sister was about three years old; I was seven or eight. We pulled into the lot and walked across the dried leaves. As soon as we set foot on the property, we realized the ground was teeming and shifting with thousands of brown and grey moths.
My insect-phobic sister immediately broke into horrified, blood-curdling shrieks and tears. She refused to move. She would not go near the bugs, would not enter the forest. Fear and crying turned her face red and made her body stiff and immobile. We tried for nearly twenty minutes, but we could not soothe her or make her budge.
Our dad threw us back in the truck and spent the long drive home screaming at us. He said the dad who “did fun stuff with us” was dead, totally dead, and we had just killed him. That it was over, he was dead, he wasn’t going to talk or play with us anymore, he was dead inside, and it was all our fault.
My sister sobbed and sobbed, shame replacing fear. According to family legend, I took her hand and said, “It’s okay. Dad says stuff he doesn’t mean when he’s upset.”
The Club has burdens. You can’t bring it up, if you’re young; people get far too uncomfortable and sad for you. If circumstances force you to tell someone about the death, you must immediately be reassuring about just how fine and over it you are. You must act like the death wasn’t tragic. You must act like your relationship with your father was healthy and conventional. You must not be visibly annoyed when people cry and complain and mourn the loss of their grandparents or great-grandparents or their fucking dogs and cats. You must not speak of the Dead Dad Club to a non-member. You must not bring someone into the Club if they are not ready. You must not let membership to the Club visibly taint your relationships, lest you become a girl with D-word Issues. That is the worst fate of all.
I know the rules because I have broken all of them. In graduate school, I made friends with a girl whose mom died when she was a child. I tried to bond with her over it; she belonged to the Club! But it was not the same club. She lost her mom young, they had a good relationship, it was her mom who had died, not her dad, and so on. I tried to tell her about the Club anyway, to commiserate.
She told me that sometimes she suspected her mom was still alive, somewhere out there. I tried to tell her that I had never seen my dad’s body, there was no urn or coffin at the funeral, and sometimes I thought I saw him, too. But she was too busy talking. She could not stop talking about her dead mom, herself, her sorrow, her few memories, herself. It never became a conversation.
When I was sixteen and my parents got divorced, I briefly became my dad’s only emotional outlet. He’d drag me along to landscaping jobs and garage sales, ranting and fuming about my mom. He worried irrationally that she’d accuse him of sexual assault or violence, or that she’d take all the money away. He’d talk and talk and I’d listen; he’d cry and I’d try to console him. But I was a teenager and had little patience. Even speaking to him on the phone left me feeling exhausted and husked out for reasons I didn’t understand at the time.
One week in February, I went seven days without answering his calls. I was busy preparing for debate tournaments and driving around with my friends trying to find vodka. It was an intentional choice, ignoring my dad; I just didn’t have the energy for it.
After a week without contact, my dad left me a long, shrieking voicemail telling me that I had betrayed him. I was disowned, he said. He didn’t want to speak to me or see me, and I could forget about having any financial support for college. I wasn’t acting like a loving daughter, he screamed, and so I wasn’t going to be his daughter anymore.
I put the phone down, walked into the living room, and calmly told my mom that dad had disowned me. I told her that when I turned eighteen I was going to change my last name. My mom tried to be calm and strong for me; she said it was fine, she understood.
I never spoke to my father again.
Recently, I was reading the comic Sex Criminals by Chip Zdarsky and Matt Fraction. The protagonist is a young, foxy librarian who can stop time with her orgasms. She lost her father when she was very young. In a flashback, she says, “I was the first kid at my school to become a member of the Dead Dad Club.”
Reading that, everything inside me dropped a few inches.
I felt the same way when I read Fun Home by Allison Bechdel. In it, Bechdel recalls the death of her father. She was nineteen, away at college. He was a troubled man with a temper. He died in a way that might have been intentional. She was haunted by his death—but also by the long, unpredictable, and verbally abusive years of his life.
Bechdel and I belong to a very small, very specific subset of the Club. We are in a Club within the Club, a Club perhaps consisting only of Allison Bechdel, my sister, and me. When I met her at a book signing I made excessive, plaintive eye contact. I wanted so badly to tell her I was in the same Club. She seemed a little weirded out, and reasonably so. Ultimately I didn’t say a word about it. A member of the Club does not brag about being in the Club.
I found out about my dad’s death the same way Allison Bechdel did: a phone call to my dorm room. It was Valentine’s Day, and I’d been out on a date. I came home and discovered a voicemail from my mom, saying his body had been found. No one had heard from him for a few days, and a cop had gone to his new house to look around and make sure everything was okay. It wasn’t.
My mom and my dad’s brother didn’t want an autopsy, but I insisted on one. Months later, we finally received the verdict: diabetes. He had not checked his blood sugar a single time in almost three years. After so much neglect, his body finally went into a coma and he slowly slipped into death.
I was eighteen. My last name was no longer his, and we hadn’t spoken in over two years.
My sister is in another kind of Club: a sorority. Each year they have Mom’s Day and Dad’s Day, celebrations with scheduled events and potluck meals. Each year the attendance is lower on Dad’s Day than on Mom’s Day. Our own mom attends both.
There are other girls in the sorority with dead dads. When a new girl with a dead dad joins, the rest are hesitant yet excited to welcome her. Eventually they get the courage to ask: “Do you want to be a member of the Dead Dad Club?” Once, a new girl mentioned the Club, without prompting. They were just sitting around hanging out and she said it: hey, we’re all members of the Dead Dad Club.
How does everyone know?
Dads are a funny thing. So many of us have strained relationships with them. Dads are unknown sometimes; sometimes they are distant or ill or very disordered. Some do not know how to love. Some know only how to hurt. Some are mediocre but try very hard. Some disappear. Some lose contact through no fault of their own. Some die too soon. Some die at the appropriate time. Some never exist.
Some people believe that your relationship with your parents determines your political leanings. A motherly government is a Democratic one; a fatherly government, Republican. Some people think individuality is created by having a strained relationship with one or both parents. Some people think your relationship with your father determines your beliefs about God.
I don’t know that I agree, but mine do track: I see both God and Dad as hapless, unreliable, unreal, dead. I see a lot of men that way. I am one of those girls with D-word Issues. I suspect that everyone I know might reject me at any moment, verbally abuse me, and suddenly die.
A childhood friend just lost a father to prolonged illness. He was on dialysis for a very long time; his death was salient long before it came.
He was a good man. They had a good relationship. He was a sweet, expressive, creative, and kind person. I think his death was “good”: it brought peace, and came at a time when all his children were on good terms with him.
Based on social media, my friend seems to have made her first, tentative peace with the loss. I want to see her. I want to send a message, saying, Welcome to the Club. Let me know if you need anything. Let me be your mentor. But I will not. Every member of the Club must recognize the Club and declare her membership herself.
Besides, I’ve learned it isn’t that soothing to realize other people have suffered the same loss as me, or even that they use the same words for it. Instead, learning about the Dead Dad Club is an uncanny experience, like spotting a doppelgänger of your dead loved one on the street. The loss of the father is universal, a fate almost everyone will eventually suffer. That fact binds us all together, but it doesn’t bring comfort so much as terror. The Jungian waters we swim in are deep and shared, but downright chilling.
Rumpus original art by Kara Y. Frame.