Photo by Sam HeadlandUnsplash

Clara Barnhurst

My family never made a huge fuss of parent days. A card, a phone call. A mention. There wasn’t ever much fanfare. My dad liked being a dad and he enjoyed being noticed at such. After he died, I had Big Dipper’s Father’s Day in my head for weeks. He liked that song; he was big into his little indie prog rock bands when I was a teenager. It worked on many levels.

My mum makes observations. My dad asked questions. His job as a communications professor may make it sound natural that I would involve him heavily in my academic pursuits, but it was his questions that kept him involved. That exchange on things cerebral, that exploration, was — is — a thing I need.

I nearly didn’t finish my master’s degree when he died. It was difficult to pick the work up. He was all over it. The work was rooted in our conversation about how humanity communicates, learns, accepts or rejects. How when we communicate, we create culture. In the end, I finished it because I knew how disappointed he would be if the work we talked over for such a long time went unfinished. It ended that conversation.

I never got to hear his questions about the final product. At that point, I was working outside his discipline to the extent that he wasn’t able to comment on the content directly. Instead, he would ask questions from his perspective as a sociologist. It’s a disciplinary perspective I understand; a point of view he taught us to use from when we were small.

We fought, of course. Actually my last real exchange with him was an argument over Bernie Sanders. My dad was doing a lot of political crusading over Facebook and I wasn’t very impressed. We got pretty short with each other. We did have a conversation where it didn’t come up and we both were trying to just talk about other things. It was strained, but I knew we were fine. I didn’t know he was going to die, of course. I didn’t know that our conversation would be interrupted.


Nobody tells you that you will miss the arguments. That actually, every scrap of interaction becomes symbolic of what you had, even if what you had wasn’t much. I’m lucky to have been very close to my dad, but I’ve seen people who had no relationship with their parents at all still have a lot to process when they pass. Parents give us a continuity we never really believe will end, even if it’s based on bitterness and hate.

I didn’t last in education. My mental health became too much to manage; I couldn’t cope with the day-to-day stress. I know my dad would be disappointed after all the work I put in getting my degree in it. I know he would have been happy that I was working a job that nurtured and empowered me, though I’m sure he would be quietly waiting for me to move on to other things.

I connected with a few PhD students at Reading University a few months ago through a charity I was working with at the time. It was good to talk the language of academia again, even if it reminded me of my interrupted conversation with dad. It’s a comfortable milieu. One I know well. One I grew up around. One that hurt to participate in again.

Shortly before, I took on a psychology course with the Open University. I told someone earlier today that it was a mad impulse, but that’s only half right. I wanted to keep that conversation alive in myself. I know my dad wouldn’t have been overly keen on me doing another undergrad degree. He was fairly sceptical of my master’s and tried to encourage me to skip it and go straight for a PhD. But, like my master’s, he would have accepted my decision and been happy for me to push myself however I felt I should.

Photo by Brandy S.Unsplash

What I wasn’t prepared for was the pain in the work. That I would be picking the wound open by doing the work. That actually, my keeping the conversation alive was threatening to kill me. Maybe I needed to discover that myself.


What I really want is to keep my dad with me in the now. After I escaped the abuse. After my old life ended. I want him to know his daughter without the weight of it all. I know he can’t, but I want to keep the conversation going in myself. In that way, I feel like I can tell him I’m OK. Stubborn as ever, hard on myself as always, unstable but supported. Happy. On an edge of a chasm, but happy.

The happiness is a surprise. That I can have the fog of despair around me, yet find myself happy. Hopeful even. I think he would understand: he had his own battle with depression and anxiety. He had his own happiness despite that. I wonder if it surprised him, too. I’ll never know. We never had that conversation beyond the facts of the matter. It might have been one he wanted to have with me, but we never got around to it.

It’s easy to let the pain of loss or trauma take over. I could stop, but stopping wouldn’t really help me. Avoiding this isn’t going to make me better. My dad wouldn’t have wanted me to turn away, even if he equally wouldn’t want me to suffer. There is another way. Normally, he would have some questions for me. I’ve got to ask those questions of myself, though I don’t know what they would be. I’m keeping the conversation alive. I’m keeping dad alive.


TU Articles