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Life after Daddy died (in memory of ‘Wil’)

February 10, 2011
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David and "First Dad" Wil

On 9-11, my first thought was for the children whose parents were killed. Who would tell them? And how would this affect the rest of their lives?

On 2-11 of 1994, my husband died when a huge, ice-laden branch fell on his car as he drove to work.  When I got the news, my first thought was our three-and-a-half-year-old son: How will I tell David?  How can he live without his big gentle daddy, his hero, his pretend horsey? Will this loss wound him forever?

That first year, the “firsts” without Daddy were sorrow-tinged.  No Daddy for birthdays, trips, holidays.  Daily and weekly rituals were hole-ridden.  Bedtime without Daddy snuggles.  Sunday morning home fellowship meetings with an empty Daddy seat by David.  Long hollow evenings with no blue Daddy car driving up the driveway. No Daddy suppers. No Daddy to help David touch the ceiling.

There was the endless death-related business. Financial questions. Deciding whether to move. Making a will. Choosing a guardian in case I died. Dealing with David’s fear that I would die or a tree would fall on both of us.

Each night we kissed a Daddy picture goodnight. We made a book of Daddy photographs and drew Daddy pictures. When we drove past cars, David asked: “Did those people know my daddy?” He’d wash his face with quick little splashes “like Daddy did.”

Keeping memories alive seemed healthy, a part of healing and moving forward. But as the months marched on, I wondered how to keep the memories alive without making them burdensome. If he was having a great day, should I mention a memory and plunge him into sadness?

I also had to decide how perfect to make the Memory Dad. Daddy had played with David all day in David’s memory. I was now mean because I could not.

David missed his father desperately.  He hugged the deliveryman’s legs and chatted with the mail carrier.  By four, he finally understood that Daddy wasn’t just gone a long, long time, as he’d hoped. “I need a new daddy,” he said.  What kind?  “One just like Wil.”

Over time, he lost more and more memories, and his family became just the two of us. A year after the tragedy, David drew me and himself on a paper, turned it over and drew Wil. Another year later, he sometimes drew me, himself and Josie Dog as his family.

I was grateful for the good men occasionally in our lives. The two young ministers who visited often and played much hide and seek.  The single male friend who hosted David’s birthday parties, determined to build good memories. The friend who included David in Daddy’s-home-from-work tosses in the air. Gilbert, always good for a hug after Bible Study.  Male relatives who lived far away. John, the widower in our Forward grief support group, who took David with his own children for ice creams. The trucker friend from out of state who called the fist day of preschool, a sad day, and took us to the zoo.  Men at the park who shared their kites.

I’d heard that viewing pictures causes brain reactions similar to actual experiences, so I snapped photos of nice men spending time with my son. And we looked at the pictures over and over.

But I knew David needed more consistent, deeper, long-lasting relationships with good men. So two and a half years after Wil’s death, when David was six, I moved from Tennessee to Minnesota–to be closer to Wil’s family and to send David to a school with lots of dad volunteers and a male teacher.

A few months later, we met a man who was everything I wanted in a husband and father. David called his father on a toy phone: “Daddy, we met a nice man. Is it okay if I love Jeff?”  In a shaky father voice, I assured him that was wonderful. When Jeff, David and I visited Wil’s grave together the first time, David asked Jeff and me to kneel and touch the marker while he took our pictures.

After our wedding, David dubbed his fathers First Dad and Second Dad. One day he stood before the mirror, folding back his ear lobes. “I’m trying to make them small like Second Dad’s,” he explained.

At age eight, for Father’s Day, David drew a picture of his two dads giving each other a high five. His dads, he said, would have been best friends if they’d known each other.

“Goodnight, Dad, you’re the best dad in the world,” David says. Occasionally he still adds: “And First Dad is the best dad in heaven.”

We call and visit Wil’s parents often, tell Wil stories and spend Thanksgivings with the Accola clan. This 2-11 anniversary, Jeff enlarged a photo of Wil holding David for our photo wall. But at 11, David has few real memories of First Dad.

David is gifted in photography, pleased that’s like First Dad.  He loves to read and tinker with computers, like Second Dad. Recently he drew a family tree chart for school and Jeff was the father on the tree.  I don’t think First Dad would mind. I think he’d only chuckle at the caricature dad.

David has been lucky. For the orphans and half-orphans of 9-11 and all children of loss, I also wish good men and women to fill the holes left in their lives. ##

Written in 2002

“Sharing Love,” a story about David, Jeff and me was published in Chicken Soup for the Father and Son’s Soul. See that story by clicking the story title at the top of the home page of this blog  (

7 Comments leave one →
  1. February 11, 2011 10:18 am

    Julie, that was just beautiful. It is nice now, 9 years later to know that David is such a fine young man. You (and Jeff) have been so wise and have much to be thankful for. And we are thankful for you and your good example!

  2. February 11, 2011 10:36 am

    You went and made me cry!

  3. Linda L permalink
    February 16, 2011 5:01 pm

    What a very touching story, Julie. It brought back the memories of the couple times that I remember seeing you and Wil. The first time was when Arnold and Mary Anne got married. I think we took you for a ride up to Estes. We had the old yellow/brown station wagon and 4 fighting kids!!!! Then I remember when we visited A/MA in AZ and you all were there. When were were leaving we were going to the airport about the same time Wil needed to go, so we took him with us. Julie, I’m sure your story has been an encouragment to many.

    • February 16, 2011 5:05 pm

      Thanks, Linda. You were there at 2 key times. Actually Wil decided he wanted kids after being around yours! Yes, when Wil rode off with you was the last time we saw him.

  4. February 16, 2011 11:06 pm

    A very special post ….

  5. Clarice M permalink
    February 19, 2011 4:42 am

    Your writings give expression of your talent, warmth and honesty. Love how you share, special lady!

    • February 19, 2011 4:50 am

      Thanks, Clarice. I was just thinking this week of how you and Jim have been there for our family at important times. We can’t ever “pay you back,” but we can pay it forward.

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