Sunday, June 3, 2012

Monday Mournings: The Death of a Father

Hi there! My name is JT O'Neill and, yes, I do  love the androgynous nature of my name.  I came of age in the heyday of the peace movement and was forever impacted by that and by the second feminist movement.  The newly established Women's Center at San Jose State University in NorCal literally saved my life.  
Post college, I pointed myself towards education and have spent about 35 years in either the classroom or in admin in the front office. My official title is guidance counselor in a 500 student K -8 school north of the Golden Gate. I wear many hats - whatever hat is needed at that moment:  counselor, nurse, office manager, disciplinarian, yard supervisor, club advisor, entertainer, and on and on.  The most important work of my life has been as part of a two person team.  This team raised two children who are now in their 20's.  Both are compassionate, responsible, and creative adults now and their dad and I are very proud of them.

DW:  Who was the person that died?
 JT:  My father, Robert Paul O'Neill, died very unexpectedly of congestive heart failure at the age of 74.

DW:  How old were you at the time?
JT: I was 43 at the time he died.

DW: Did you and your Dad talk about death?
JT: Although we clearly did not talk about his death, I know he thought about death often.  He had lost most of his siblings and many friends by the time he died.  He was lonely for them, I think.

DW:  Had you experienced any other deaths in your personal life before your Dad died?
JT:  I lost my two remaining grandparents when I was a teenager.  They were not especially warm people and I didn't know them well.  The biggest impact on me was that I saw both of my parents shed a tear or two - very little expression of sadness but enough that I was shocked at the tears.  There were several other adults in my life who died along the way and their deaths shocked me.  The three year old brother of one of my childhood friends died very unexpectedly when I was ten years old. That sadness and empathy for the family stayed with me for years.

DW: Were people supportive of your grief or did they shy away when you were grieving?
JT:  When my father died, I was amazed at the outpouring of support from my community.Within my immediate family (siblings, cousins, uncles, aunts), people contacted me about his influence on them and many people stepped up to put their arms around me (literally and figuratively).

DW:  Is there anything you wish you'd done differently with your Dad?
JT:  I've always wished I could have talked to my dad more but he was of that silent generation.  The man was the salt of the earth but he did not talk about his feelings or his memories much.  He served in the South Pacific during WW2 and that had a huge impact on him but he didn't want to talk about it.  I believe now that he was chronically depressed (and who wouldn't be with the hard life he had lived).  He often sat in silence, simply looking out the window, lost in his own mind.

DW: Was he buried or cremated?
JT:  He was cremated and his ashes were buried at his home in the hills of Mendocino County, CA.

DW: Did you learn anything about the grieving process that you'd like to share?
JT: I learned how important the messages from family and friends were.  Now, when I hear of a death, I try to get something in writing to the grieving family.  A few words can be so healing. 

DW: Last but not least, were any songs played at the memorial that were important to your Dad?  
JT: Taps and Amazing Grace - some other hymns but I don't know them.

This goes out to JT's Dad...


  1. Aww! What a wonderful interview.

    1. Thank you for saying so. It takes a certain amount of bravery to appear on this blog and share your loss. I can see how much traffic the post is generating, but my interview subject can't. I know that people are reading and I also know that many people don't know what to say. I think I may offer the suggestion for those who just want to say "I got it" to post a heart. That would be cool.
      Thanks again!

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  3. Pamela and JT, this is a beautiful and heartfelt interview.

    JT, I can identify with what you said about your father seeming to be lonely. My mother got that way in the last few years of her life after most of her siblings and acquaintances had passed on. She lived in sort of a quiet, reflective state of being.

    1. I appreciate your sharing the story about the loss of your Dad J.T. And I love the advice you give about notes, those personal words of kindness are so important when your hurting.
      Pamela very insightful stuff.

    2. Thank you for your kind words. I was never so shaken as by the death of my dad. It was so unexpected and hit so deeply. During the weeks after his death, my siblings and I talked a lot about who he was. I actually think I got to know him best after his death. Friends and relatives spoke about his influence on him and I learned more about the gifts he had given me. I remember being struck with how often people spoke of his generosity and compassion. This was a steel worker, a working class stiff, born and raised in Detroit. Yet he did give freely of what littile money he had and he often spent his non work time in the service of others. He also had a natural affinity for kids and, as a dad, he often had the youngest on his lap. I think I got my affection for kids from him. Since his death, I have made it a point to embrace generosity and give when I can.

    3. "his influence on them... not him"

    4. I find that so interesting that you got to know him more after his death. It got me thinking, what will people remember about me?
      Thank you so much JT for sharing your story with me today!

  4. Mendocino has got to be one of the most beautiful places in the world to be buried.

    And hearing you say that the messages family & friends sent were important is a really good thing to hear. Sometimes I worry about overstepping boundaries, or just not knowing what to say. Hearing how much that helped, and that now it's something you do for others, helps me know how to be there for those I love in times of loss. Thank you for sharing this.


Comments are welcome and appreciated!