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Losing a parent at the age of four is a little like a trip to your favorite dive bar: You have memories, but they’re few and far between, and the rest you just make up.

In my hazy memory, I recall my Uncle Kieron wearing purple Y-fronts on the morning he told me my father had died. I do remember my mother, brother, and sister crying in a huddle, a trio of tears in feverish, traumatized embrace that soon drifted toward me, a loving familial cloud seeking out its youngest member. I was shown love from the off and it never let up. That much is true.


My dad was a sailor. He was Irish, from a small coastal town in the southwest of Ireland called Cahersiveen, which juts its nose out toward America and the Atlantic Ocean.

My dad liked opera and had a thing for Tina Turner and Kate Bush. He hated Gaelic football and soccer, was a decent rower, and could play musical instruments with a talent I have always envied. He smoked a pipe but accidentally added non-pipe tobacco one time and gave up smoking altogether.

These are not recollections—rather, they are tidbits of information passed down to me through the years. My own memories are vague and unclear. I remember — or believe I do — clambering on top of him as a toddler while he lay relaxing on the sofa one evening, the light of the fish tank casting a purplish glow across the room. I recall running into the house before him and accidentally slamming a door, glass shattering across the patio floor. And I remember going to a beer garden with him in Surrey, where I fell into a pond. My mother wrote a poem about it called When Ronan fell into the pond.

I also remember being at Stansted Airport the last time he saw us and telling him not to go, because he might die. This never happened. Yet somehow I carved out a memory of it, just as I told the children in my class that he’d been swallowed by a whale in the aftermath of his death, unable to process the vague, unknown mystery of how he had died.

My dad was a captain, leader, colleague, and friend. He was meant to be called Gerard, but a baptism mishap hours after his birth saw him named — in the eyes of God — Patrick. Everyone called him Gerard anyway.

He went missing at sea in October 1991 in the Bay of Bengal, off the coast of India, on a stormy night during monsoon rains. He was a merchant navy sea captain who ferried cargo around the world — a job he loved but had been planning to quit so he could take a boring pencil-pushing job and spend more time with me, his chubby, youngest child. So it goes.

Losing a parent young is not without consequence. That much is also true. I suffer from anxiety and depression, struggle with loss, and am a deluded fantasist who seeks respite from the humdrum and harsh reality of the world through imagery and story.

I lack confidence and am rarely at ease, yet I view the world with humor, am capable of great (internal) emotion and warmth, and can laugh at myself. I am my father’s son, a man with Irish hair and English teeth. So it goes.


After my dad died, my mother became the sole breadwinner, and won bread; never heaps of it, but enough so I’d have food, shelter and security. I never missed out; I was safe, happy, and secure in my childhood and made it through. That is my mother.

It’d be horseshit to say we got through it easily; no, the reality of life without my father was one spent negotiating the muddy waters of tragedy with love, hope, confusion, difficulty, and resolve.

I rarely spoke about him growing up, but we looked alike, and I was often reminded of that fact on visits to Ireland, when knowing faces would marvel at the Tick-Tock-shaped little boy with the English accent who so closely resembled Gerard O’Shea.

Photos courtesy of author

In teenhood, I deemed it better not to talk about my father for fear of upsetting my mother—a baseless untruth and act of self-preservation that allowed me to hide from the reality that I lived in fear of the pain, the grief of his loss, the unfamiliar spectacle of aired emotion. I was 28 before I made my mother talk about him, on a therapist’s advice.

I learned that he was good and kind, that he could be judgmental and stubborn, that he refused to argue with his wife with irritating virtuosity. In short, I learned that my father was a man, a human who had lived and loved, leaving an indelible mark on those fortunate to have known him.

I shed 24 year’s worth of tears in one afternoon and put my T-shirt in the wash.


As an adult bereaved in childhood, revisiting your parent’s death is unavoidable. Whether at work or on a date, discussions about parents inevitably arise. I always feel sympathy for anyone who learns I grew up without a father, pitying the look of incomprehension in their eyes as they attempt to fathom the unfathomable. I envy their innocence and assure them that it’s okay. And it is. I’ve survived this far.

But childhood bereavement is a complex — and costly — kettle of fish. Adults bereaved in childhood are one and a half times more likely to have a mental health condition. They’re more likely to be youth offenders but also high achievers, often subconsciously driven by a need to make their late parent proud. Each case is different, no two exactly the same.

I tend to throw up an invisible wall when faced with traumas big and small. From relationship breakdowns to layoffs to stubbed toes and bad Wi-Fi, losing my father has made me keenly aware of my vulnerability.

I am conflict-averse, unspoken frustrations compensated with imagined slights, fantasized arguments, made-up dramas, none of which is healthy. I’ve spent most of my adult life in a ménage à trois with citalopram and fluoxetine for depression, and I’m cripplingly shy, god-awful on Tinder, hilariously awkward in person, and never fully at ease. I am my father’s son, but a Rocky V to his Rocky, a flawed model, but his son nonetheless.

Childhood grief is brittle self-confidence, yet sitting down to write novels in the stubborn belief you’ve something interesting to say. It’s a life of perpetual doubt paired with a pigheaded arrogance that sees you pitch stories to strangers. It’s being afraid, while at the same time moving to a foreign country to keep writing at the age of 24.

It’s feeling down about the state of the world yet laughing in its face, despising solitude while loving a job that demands it, disliking the man in the mirror and wanting to keep him just the same. It’s a life of many parts.


Though childhood grief varies from person to person, there are some consistent patterns, Julie Stokes tells me. A clinical psychologist with a specialism in childhood bereavement, Stokes saw her own mother struggle with losing her sister and mother as a child, which inspired Stokes to found Winston’s Wish, now the UK’s largest childhood bereavement charity, in 1992.

“What I see in many bereaved children is a sort of unconventionality,” Stokes says. “It’s almost like they’ll say, ‘The worst thing’s happened.’”

“The factors [child psychologists] look for is a parent who’s good on warmth, who can put themselves in the child’s shoes…the other thing is boundaries and discipline,” Stokes says.

Surviving parents often struggle at both ends of the spectrum—some afraid to instill boundaries; others smothered by their own grief and unable to exhibit warmth or love. My mum read to me most evenings, hugged and kissed me daily, but didn’t let me stay up to watch Ray Houghton score as Ireland beat Italy in the 1994 World Cup. Boundaries.

Many bereaved children are less fortunate.

“Children bereaved in childhood are overrepresented in our prisons,” says Stokes, who adds that childhood bereavement in youth offenders is up to 41 percent higher than the national average. “We need to support the surviving parent and children and give them the right kind of ways of belonging and all the different types of interventions you see in childhood bereavement services.”

Stokes argues for a more inclusive approach to childhood bereavement, involving the child in discussions about what is happening when a parent dies. Charities like Winston’s Wish and the Dougy Center provide opportunities for children and surviving parents to understand and air their grief.

Zoe is a 21-year-old woman whose father died in a midair collision when she was just two years old. At a recent event organized by Adults Bereaved as Children in London, she describes the comfort she found in meeting others with similar experiences, of feeling normal, of not having to negotiate the difficulty of discussing childhood grief with people who can’t understand it.

“A girl came up to me and asked how my father died,” Zoe says. “I told her how. She told me her story, and then she said, ‘What did you have for breakfast?’ It normalizes it.”

Death and breakfast feel like a good way to sum up what it’s like to lose a parent young. Facing the unfaceable, then getting up each day and eating breakfast like everyone else. A different life, but also the same.


When you lose a parent young, you feel like the chance of living a linear life has been taken away from you. But it doesn’t mean being deprived of a happy life or of an identity that is any less meaningful.

I have felt conflicted between my dissonance and my need for connection, feeling vulnerable yet resilient, stoic yet fragile, a struggler and yet a survivor. Someone who often can’t cope but makes a decent fist of it all the same. So it goes.