(Contributing writer Emily Kil co-wrote this article with her husband based on his childhood experience.)
A 9-year old boy should be playing with friends, going to school, and making lifetime memories with his parents and family. Unfortunately, as a 9-year old boy, my life took turn down a pathway that should never have to be walked by a young child. Unfortunately, tragedies of different types impact the lives of children, sometimes with devastating and lasting consequences.
I share some of my experiences as a child. My hope is that others will benefit from what I share – and may be encouraged to share their own experiences.
My Father’s Death
I want to be upfront about two elements of my childhood:
My father was an alcoholic.
My father died as a result of his addiction to alcohol.
One of the striking developments in a home in which a parent suffers from significant drinking issue is the normalization of alcoholism. The normalization of alcoholism happens in a number of different ways. It occurs because other adults or older siblings take the position that “things are what they are” and this filters down and impacts younger children in the home (including a child like I was when my father labored under an addiction to alcohol).
The normalization of alcoholism occurs in another profound way as well. As a young male child, I looked to my father as a role model. Most little boys look to their fathers as their primary male models. There are likely a number of reasons why this occurs, including the basic family bond but also because in an intact household, a father is the closest male in a boy’s life.
My father was my role model.
Because my father and I lived under the same roof, I was aware that he drank a good amount, but I was young. As a young child, I didn’t fully understand all that is involved with an alcohol addiction.
Alcoholism was the underlying cause of my father’s death, which came swiftly and unexpectedly. Unlike many people diagnosed with alcoholism, my father wasn’t killed in a car accident; he didn’t die because of liver disease. My father died suddenly of an esophageal rupture, brought on by damage to his esophagus caused by chronic alcoholism.
I returned home from playing with friends, not yet knowing my father had been rushed to the hospital. I came upon the bathroom in which my father became the victim of the rupture, a shocking, horrible scene. I would shortly be retrieved by a family member and taken to the hospital. My father died within a short time.
The Words of Another Father Who Suddenly Died
A couple of weeks after my father’s death, I was back in school. With by buddies on the playground, things seemed almost normal. I would also add that when drifting off in some of my classes, things seemed almost normal. It was when I would return home that the absence of my father and his truly untimely death was most profound.
In Mrs. Winthrop’s social studies class, we started studying 1968 – a turbulent era in U.S. history that saw the murder not only of Robert Kennedy, but Martin Luther King as well. In my textbook, I kept re-reading a quote from Robert Kennedy:
“Tragedy is s tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live.”
I was 9-years old. I knew the quote was important by the way it was set out on the textbook page, but I wasn’t fully sure I understood why. I stayed back after class until was the only one left in the room with Mrs. Winthrop.
“Can I ask you something, Mrs. Winthrop,” I asked.
“Of course you can.”
I walked to my teacher’s desk and read the Kennedy quote.
“That’s a good one,” she said.
I shrugged and told her I suppose it was, but I wasn’t exactly sure what it meant.
Rather than just flat out tell me what the quote meant, Mrs. Winthrop had me take a seat and we talked for about half an hour. We talked about Senator Kennedy and what happened to him – and how it affected his children. And, we talked about my father and his death – and how it can impact my life.
I thought about what we talked about and asked Mrs. Winthrop a question: “So, I can learn from bad things that happen in my life but not let those bad things become my life?”
She smiled and nodded her head “yes.”
The Pathway of My Life
I have held that Robert Kennedy quote and the conversation with my teacher near to my heart throughout my life. My life hasn’t been devoid of tragedy since my father’s death. A year after my father died, my grandfather – who lived next door to me as a child and had become something of a “replacement” for my father – was killed in a horrible car accident. I’ve learned from each challenging, even tragic, event that has occurred during my life. But I’ve never let a tragedy define me or my life.
I ultimately selected a calling for my professional life in which I can assist people during what can be the most traumatic times of their lives. I started a business called Eco Bear and we provide what technically is known as biohazard remediation. What this means in layperson’s terms is that my team and I go into people’s homes after a tragic event like a serious accident, homicide, or suicide. We clean up a home and restore it to its original condition.
As an adult, in addition to the Robert Kennedy quote I’ve adopted another one from a famous world leader. I now think of both messages when rough times happen in life – and they do happen, for all of us. Winston Churchill, during a particularly dark time, stated:
“If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Keep going. Never, never, give up.