A Eulogy For My Socially-Distant Dad
Updated: Dec 7, 2020
By Scott Beller
Director of Communications, DADocacy Consulting Group
My father died in early June of 2017 and wasn't found until weeks later. My family and I were on our way home from vacationing in the Outer Banks when we got the news. It wasn't a shock. He’d been in and out of medical facilities for many months prior and had been kicked out of several for violent behavior. He died angry and alone in his apartment. He was 71.
By the time of his passing, my father had become adept at social distancing. He’d alienated what little family he had and didn’t have any friends that I can remember. This isn’t surprising since he treated everyone with contempt, particularly his family. My father wasn’t at the hospital when either my sister Jodi or I was born.
There are very few photos of him holding or playing with us as babies or toddlers. The snapshot of me and him (shown at right) was typical: dad asleep, a child in the vicinity, mom snaps candid before dad notices. It’s one reason I’ve made taking photos of my kids growing up a priority – especially ones with me in them.
As my sister and I got older, my father often went days without speaking to us. It’s not that he completely disappeared for extended periods or retreated behind closed doors. He either went outside to do "yardwork," or simply sat and ignored us, refusing to acknowledge us when we tried to speak to him. The alternative was no better. When we did get his attention, he made fun of, criticized, or yelled at us. He made us feel not only unloved but also unworthy of it.
My mom, on the other hand, did her best to balance my father’s hostility with regular support, affection, and effusive, unconditional love. After 17 years of enduring his abuse, she finally had enough. It was the summer before my sophomore year in high school, and she took me and my sister with her.
Last September, my mother Mary passed away unexpectedly. I was fortunate to have spent time with her the day she died. We had lunch. I was able to hug her, to tell her how proud I was of her and that I loved her. She was also 71.
It took me just 90 minutes to write her eulogy, which I read to a large gathering of loving family, friends, and her former coworkers at her funeral.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I started writing my father's eulogy in 2003, soon after I met and began working with DCG founder Allan Shedlin to launch the first of his three advocacy organizations promoting dad involvement. Actually, what I wrote was not a eulogy. It was a short story, titled “Father’s Day.”
For 17 years, I’ve been rewriting it in my head and on my laptop. Wrestling with it. Last week, I read it for the first time in at least a decade. Its references may be dated, but the sentiments hold true. Now almost three years after his death, I’ve finally realized the story really wasn’t for my father. It was for me.
It remained unpublished until it appeared here today on Daddying.
I’d kept my feelings of loneliness, abandonment, inadequacy, and imperfection mostly to myself for so long. I needed to see it on paper, in my own words. I needed a way to deal with the pain before I had my own children. I didn't want to ever expose them to the same undeserved bitterness and resentment I’d experienced.
I can say with some confidence, though difficult, the writing process has helped. Of course, like all parents, I’m not perfect. After working with Allan for almost 20 years, I’ve gained a better grasp of how to express the frustration, pain, and longing I often feel not having a reliable, loving dad in my life. I also recognize, despite not having the best dad role model, there have been many other positive parenting examples in my life that have helped me now that I’m raising kids of my own. My "patchwork dad," as Allan called it in an article he wrote for the New York Times back in 2009, included characteristics from my mom, former teachers and bosses, a host of characters from TV/movies (e.g. Mr. Rogers, Jim Henson, Steve Martin’s character in Parenthood, to name a few), and even Allan himself.
The last time I saw my father was a couple of months before he died. He was serving a long stint in hospice care at the same facility where his mother breathed her last a year earlier. I was there with my aunt, his sister, holding her hand when she passed.
I feel confident in my final words to him. I wouldn’t call it tough love, but I was honest. I told him what I felt about his recent behavior, how he treated me and my sister growing up, how it hurt to see him neglect himself as much as he neglected others, how he purposely pushed people away, including those trying to care for him and anyone who might have loved him.
I also told him he was forgiven.
I left, as I usually did after spending time with him, vowing to be a better father to my kids than he had been to me. But I felt some of the weight lifted from my heart.
The decades-long process of forgiveness taught me to forgive myself. It's an ongoing process and it could certainly have gone a different way. I know I am an imperfect dad but I also know I’m always trying to be better. As a work-at-home dad since the day my oldest of two daughters was born, I’ve been blessed with daily opportunities to be involved and to become the kind of dad my daughters want and need me to be. I’ve learned the best thing I can do for my kids is to show as well as tell them how much they are loved and let them know I’m always there to support them and their dreams, unconditionally.
I never got the chance to deliver a eulogy for my father because there never was a funeral. His body was cremated, and I received his ashes in a box to do whatever I thought best with them. So, my sister and I decided to spread him somewhere peaceful. Somewhere he could finally be at rest. We chose his favorite (and our only) vacation spot from our childhood in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. It was a trip we hadn’t taken together in almost 40 years.
By releasing my father’s ashes, my sister and I also hoped to ease our own pain that had burdened us for so long. Today, my thoughts and feelings about my dad have calmed but remain adrift, much like the remains I dispersed that warm, breezy October day in the Atlantic surf.
Scott Beller is the proud dad of two mighty girls and also Editor of the Daddying blog and DCG's Director of Communications. He's a seasoned writer and PR agency veteran with more than 25 years of experience helping organizations of all sizes reach audiences and tell their stories. Prior to launching his own creative communications consultancy in 2003, he led PR teams with some of the world’s most respected agencies, including Fleishman-Hillard and The Weber Group. As a consultant, he’s helped launch two other parenting advocacy nonprofits with DCG founder Allan Shedlin. His first book, Beggars or Angels, was a ghostwritten memoir for the nonprofit Devotion to Children's founder Rosemary Tran Lauer. He was formerly known as "Imperfect Dad" and Head Writer for the Raising Nerd blog, which supported parents in inspiring the next generation of scientists, engineers, and creative problem solvers. He earned his BA in Communications from Virginia Tech.