Name: Katherine Cousins
Tell me about the person who died:
My father died on April 16, 1987. He was 40 years old. I was 14.
My dad had left my mom and my brothers long before that though. In 1978, when I was 5, he sat my older brother and me down and told us that he was leaving. My younger brother was 6 months old. There wasn't really an explanation. It wasn't discussed; it was just our new reality.
After that point, my dad was in and out. Money was in and out. Mostly out, really. It was unpredictable.
When my dad first left in 1978, I always hoped he would come back permanently. He never did, not for any meaningful length of time. There were holidays here and there and, oddly, these great presents. I always got great presents from him—a Swatch watch, Valley girl t-shirts (“Gag Me With a Spoon” and “Grody to the Max”), shirts from Hard Rock Café Stockholm and Tokyo, a pair of diamond earrings. The gifts were episodic; the deeper wound was so much inconsistency and uncertainty and disappointment. When he died, it was a relief in some way to stop the cycle of hoping and being disappointed. The finality of it made my day-to-day life more predictable and finally forced us all to deal with his permanent departure.
Tell me about an object that reminds you of the person who died and why?
I still have one of the diamond earrings that my Dad gave me in 1985. I lost its mate in college in that awful dorm carpet that can swallow a small animal. It seems fitting somehow that even my memories are broken. I still wear it sometimes in my double-pierced ear that he hated.
What was your experience of grief like after your loss? How did it change over time?
I come from a family of secrets. They can't stay hidden forever. They come into focus slowly, revealing a damaged puzzle, one piece at a time.
I was never told why my dad left in 1978. When he died in 1987, I was told that he had viral meningitis. In 1997, I discovered that he died from complications associated with being HIV+. I still don't know how he contracted AIDS.
In all those layered secrets, there was a deep instinct to protect—my grandfather, my mother, our meagre life insurance payments. But the secrecy prevented me from feeling some compassion for him or for myself. Why was I sad about such a jerk?
The story is more complicated. His own mother had committed suicide when he was 12 years old. The 1950s were not an especially forgiving time for boys to express grief or work through issues. At 22, my parents married too young, and they had their first kid at 24 years old. My dad never had time to grow up.
I married at 31 and had my first kid at 33. Sometimes I feel like I'm barely keeping it together (in a two-parent household no less). I have so much more compassion for what my young dad must have experienced. I imagine that he had no ability to identify, let alone express his issues. Escape was the only option.
Did anything surprise you about your experience with grief?
Major milestones (marriage, birth of children) present new moments of poignancy. I am sad for him and for my kids. He missed everything.
How did people support you in your grief? What was helpful? What was frustrating?
I think about two periods of grief—the time after my dad left and the time after he died.
After he left, I was deeply grateful for the surrogate parents—my grandparents, my Aunt Jean. And for our family friends—the Gootblatts, the McClintocks, the Shanahans. They all selflessly helped my family so much, without expectation of getting anything in return.
After my dad died, it was also really nice and yet painful to meet his work colleagues at the funeral. Apparently, my dad talked all about us to them. He was very proud. I never knew.
The condolence letters also really mattered. They were incredibly touching and thoughtful. Miss Whittington, my beloved eighth grade French teacher, wrote me the kindest note of support. I still have it.
How did people who were grieving the same person respond to the death compared to you? What similarities and differences did you notice?
I noted gender differences. In the short run, the men in my family seemed to internalize their grief more. Then they acted out in self-destructive ways for periods of time. Most emerged from their rebellious periods after a while.
The women tended to get down to grieving more quickly—talking more, working through it. They seemed more resilient.
How did your private grieving relate to your public mourning?
In the hustle and bustle of daily life, I don't often reflect on it anymore. It was so long ago...
How did your loss and your grief change you?
I believe deeply that I am more resilient, stronger, and self-reliant than I would have been.
Katherine Cousins lives on the north shore of Massachusetts with her husband and two sons. She works at Timberland, a global outdoor lifestyle brand that has a long heritage of environmental stewardship, responsible sourcing and social justice. She also serves as the Board chair for the Global Development Incubator, a non-profit focused on scaling social enterprises around the world. When not working or volunteering, Katherine loves discovering new places with her friends and family.