In this personal essay, Henry Wismayer reflects on losing his father to lymphona when he was just 4 years old. The death of a parent at this age is devastating—Wismayer notes that one in five adults who had lost a parent as a young child are expected to face some form of psychiatric disorder, while anxiety and hypochondria are common. For Wismayer, the lack of concrete memories of his father has also meant he’s remembered him largely as a deified, larger-than-life figure. Listening to his father’s story through the recollections of his mother, he writes beautifully about his dad, his legacy, and the lifelong effects of childhood bereavement.
Twelve US presidents — Washington, Jefferson and Clinton among them — lost fathers early in life. From the start of the 19th century to the outbreak of the second world war, 67 per cent of British prime ministers lost a father before their 16th birthday. “That’s roughly twice the rate of parental loss during the same period for members of the British upper class,” writes Gladwell.
Perhaps these public figures, behind whatever resilience was forged in their early misfortune, wrestled with the same paradox. Bereaved children carry with them a mark of exception. But to live in the shadow of a lost parent is to also live with a pervasive feeling of absence and abandonment. In the decades after my father died, I often sensed a thin line between purpose and futility. It would never be possible to emulate the taintless ghost I held in my mind, and so the line between self-belief and self-loathing often felt thinner still.