By Joanne Zakartha Bruno, J.D.
Recently, my cousin asked me, with sincerity and care, “What was it like to be raised in a single-parent home?” I must admit the question took me a bit by surprise, and despite being a mature adult, I had to reassess my sense of family.
Emotions and memories came flooding into my mind as I tried to sort this out. As I’ve done so many times over the years, I had to go back to the day when life changed completely and reshaped my sense of family.
Was I raised by a single parent? It definitely didn’t start out that way. I was born to two wonderful parents who truly treasured me as their only child and gave me the best that they had to offer. My mother loved being an at-home parent, and my father was proud of the life he built for us in suburban Connecticut. But one day that ended, suddenly and unexpectedly, and the cold, dreary fact is that my dad died of a cerebral hemorrhage when he was at work, and when I was 12 and my mom was only 40. So on October 26, 1959, I became one of the more than 5 percent of children nationally who lost a parent by the age of 16.
The days following my dad’s death were overwhelming. My mom and I became paralyzed – each in our own way. My mom descended into a deep grief as she tried to cope, so early in her marriage, with the loss of her dream partner and the life she loved. Even though I know she tried, she couldn’t comfort me in any manner. She needed support to get through the tragedy, and for her, this meant moving back to be with her family in New Jersey.
The change happened so fast, I didn’t get to say goodbye to my friends. For within a month, my mom had sold the house in Connecticut, and rather than living in my own home, I was sharing my grandmother’s bedroom with my mother. I withdrew into myself even more than what one would expect of an only child. I wanted to know: “How could this have happened?” But there was no answer and no one to help me work through my questions and fear. No one knew what to say or how to help. They tried to comfort me with thoughts like “Time heals,” “Your dad would want you to be brave,” and “God has a plan.” But their well-meaning efforts didn’t reassure or console me.
I recall being angry in those days, chiefly at my mother. All I saw was a woman who cried incessantly, who moved us to a foreign life in New Jersey, and who often pretended that dad was still alive. She would sign his name as well as hers and mine to holiday cards and notes, and she even created a shrine to him, displaying his nameplate and other items in a cabinet in our apartment. It was as if she was trying to bring him back and recreate his identity within that glass case.
So I guess I’d answer my cousin’s question about growing up, this way: “Yes, I was raised by one parent from the age of 12 forward.” It took all my teen years and beyond to grasp the gravity of what my mother and I both faced in those years “after dad.” It took me a long time to forgive my mother for being the one that survived, and not my dad. And it took years to rebuild my relationship with my mother, to see and appreciate things from her vantage point, and to understand the desperate but very human decisions she made so soon after my dad was gone. But fortunately for both of us, we did come to build a new, smaller family, and we truly became closer than I could ever have imagined. We survived the tragedy together, even though we experienced it so very differently.
My mother never remarried, although I hoped and even encouraged her to do so. She was a vibrant, creative young woman at the time of my dad’s death. But instead of rebuilding a life for herself as well as for me, I became everything to her. I knew that I had to do all that I could do to be in her life to the very end. At the same time, I also understood that I had to create my own life apart from her and consciously moved out on my own at 18. I lost my mother when she was 82. I was fortunate to be at her bedside in intensive care, holding her hand and listening to one of her favorite operas, as she too slipped away from me.
Many years have passed since my dad’s death. I am older than he was when he died, and in a dozen more years, I will be as old as my mother when she died. It’s something that I think about often. I believe that our losses become part of us, shape us and sometimes haunt us. But my consolation and raison d’etre is this: Even in the very hard years, I always knew both parents loved me – and in my heart, I always knew that we were a happy family of three.
Yet, the sense of dissociation from my dad’s death was so extreme and the grief so unbearable, my mother’s family alone could not help fill the void created with the sudden loss of life as we had known it. Although I’m grateful that both my mother and I survived the terrible loss and had a wonderful life together, the reality is we struggled for years to find our new place as a fatherless family.
Looking back as my adult self, I see the importance of the services that Imagine offers to those who are trying to cope with a loss like my mother’s and mine. Whether the loss of the partner or parent is through death, divorce or any other kind of separation, it leaves an empty and lonely place. If my mother and I had the type of support and community that Imagine offers, I believe that we would have reached a place of healing sooner rather than later.
To those struggling with the loss or absence of a parent or partner, I can truly say that you can get through the storm. I hope that you have family and friends to help you, and I also hope you can seek support from others who can help you find your way through the grief – whether through a place like Imagine or somewhere else. And in the very hard moments that will come, please try to remember this…No storm lasts forever.
Joanne Zakartha Bruno, J.D., is the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at East Stroudsburg University, East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania.