Death In The Family – Falling Into The Abyss Of Love, Distress, And Freedom

Following my father’s death, in 2012, I felt no grief because I had thought about his passing away for years, analysing the feelings I would have and coping with them. Was it anticipatory grief, without the symptoms? Was it a sense of detachment from my parents? Was I challenging moral standards, where grieving death is the norm?


There are not many deaths of celebrities that profoundly affect me, but that’s no to say that I’m not saddened when a well-known actor, comedian, or singer, dies. It’s a normal reaction to feel the passing away of someone whose work you loved and who has been associated with your past, even if it was an anonymous association. But the further this association goes in your past, the deeper it gets and the more real it gets. This “bonding” explains why people get so emotional when an iconic figure passes away, some crying as if it were a close family member who had just died.

Upon hearing the news that French legend Charles Aznavour had died at the age of 94, I did shed a tear. In fact, I shed quite a few tears, hiding in a room for a good 15 minutes, trying to “pull myself together,” and not be an embarrassment to my family by crying for someone I didn’t even know. The fact was, though, I was not embarrassed to cry, because although I was saddened by the death of a singer whose song, “La Bohème,” I never get tired of listening to, I was crying over my late father and, as far as I know, there’s nothing to be ashamed about crying over your deceased father.


I suppose that in many ways, Charles Aznavour and my father had a lot in common. I’m not talking about fame and talent, of course, but on a more personal level, they were very much alike. Aznavour had to face up to the prejudice that his Armenian origins had bestowed on him, despite the fact that he was born in France. My father was a migrant, born in Poland and migrating to Paris, before fleeing to London, in 1940. Both Aznavour and my father carried the weight of their Armenian and Jewish heritage, respectively.

Aznavour got his revenge on the critics who mocked him, those who said that he had no business to sing and would be much better off as an accountant. My father, too, had to put up with insulting remarks. Having changed his family name to avoid being treated as a “Jewish Polak,” he ended up (and so did I) with a double-barreled name. It was not out of pomposity, but merely because the new name was the closest he could get to his old one without giving his origins away.

I’ll never forget the day we attended my elder brother’s very English wedding. The bride’s mother, whose double-barreled surname was “the real deal” when compared to my father’s foreign fake, decided to embarrass him in front of guests.

“Tell me, Alan, where does your name come from?” she asked, with an air of snobbery that was difficult not to notice.

“I may be foreign,” my father answered, “but my genes are perfect.” His comment was as short as it was cutting, with reference to her son who was mentally handicapped.

Looking back, I realize that the relationship I had with my parents wasn’t helped by me living so far away from them and the strange fact that my mother was becoming more and more the step-mother she actually was. When she made it clear that I was no longer welcome, it dawned on me that I had lost two mothers in a same life. It’s not surprising that I really do have a problem in understanding the nature of the true, long-lasting feeling that should exist between a mother and a child. My biological mother lost a battle with cancer when I was 8 months old. My step-mother was, to all intents and purposes, the only mother I learned to love. She severed all contact, in 2011, for reasons that I have given up trying to understand. Being rejected by a mother, even one who adopts you, is hard to accept and mentally absorb.

The relationship with my mother was probably already deteriorating long before 2011 and I only made a point of regularly visiting in order to see my ageing father. It came to an abrupt end when, in 2011, she blatantly did not want us to visit for Christmas, which turned out to be the last one for my father. I regret, to this very day, that he was not able to see my child – his grandson – one more time. Although my anger towards my step-mother has disappeared, so too has my love.


My mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.

I received a telegram from the old people’s home:

“Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Very sincerely yours.”

That doesn’t mean anything. It might have been yesterday. 

Albert Camus – The Stranger


It is sometimes difficult to advise people how to cope with the loss of a close relative. Each one of us has a unique way of dealing with grief and the way I dealt with the loss of my father may not be the way you would deal with the loss of yours. Following my father’s death, I felt no grief because I had thought about his death for years, analysing the feelings I would have and coping with them. Was it anticipatory grief, without the symptoms? Was it a sense of detachment from my parents? Was I challenging moral standards where grieving death is the norm? My younger brother probably thinks so, judging by the way he spoke to me on the phone after telling me that my father had passed away. He told me that I was not to phone my mother, and that he would speak to me a few days later. Needless to say that he didn’t and I haven’t spoken to him since. They left me alone to cope with my loss as if I was just a friend of the family. I’m just lucky that I was so prepared.

I did have rather strange and deep visceral feelings that I didn’t expect. Deep down, there were these recurring thoughts about my biological mother that, up to my father’s death, were non-existent. Concerning my step-mother, my feelings of affection were fast disappearing. It is as if, with the passing away of my father, my biological mother briefly reappeared, only to vanish again from my psyche and take my step-mother with her. Surprisingly, I felt much the better for it.

For the French novelist and Nobel Prize winner, André Gide, it was the death of his dominant mother that caused him to feel ambiguously liberated. Both he and his mother seemed to merge into a single character who was full of contradictions. It is noteworthy that in the correspondence between Gide and his mother, he seemed to share absolutely everything with her, except the most important discovery of his existence – his homosexuality.

When at last her heart stopped beating, I felt my whole being sink into an abyss of love, distress and freedom. – André Gide

I too, had been liberated in a strange sort of way. I was not obliged, anymore, to put up with a dominant mother – who, strictly speaking, wasn’t even mine –  in order to see my ageing father. But it is a liberation that is now tinged with sadness and regrets that I probably have been denying all along. With Charles Aznavour’s death, I have come to realize, for the very first time since my father passed away, how much I really and truly miss him.