Written by Jo Tynan

In The News

“I don’t remember being told he was dead”

Jo Tynan’s father drowned on a family day out when she was just eight. Like Prince Harry, who has spoken about how he regrets not talking about how Princess Diana’s death affected him, she rarely discusses it.

Jo on her wedding day wearing her clover-leaf necklace.

Jo on her wedding day wearing her clover-leaf necklace.

After my dad’s funeral, I spent a long time combing the grass outside our house looking for a four leaf clover because if I found one, I could make a wish that he was still alive.

I was eight and even though I didn’t believe in Father Christmas any more, I still believed there must be some magic somewhere that could undo the events of the worst of days that left me, my older brother and younger sister without our beloved dad.

We were on a Bank Holiday day trip with another family at Tatton Park, a historic estate in Cheshire, when he died. He and the father from the other family did a test run on a sailing boat that we were all due to go on, when it capsized.

My dad offered to swim for help and drowned. The rest of us were on the shore, although fortunately we didn’t see the tragedy unfold. His body wasn’t found for several days.

During that confusing first week, which was filled with lots of crying adults, I don’t remember ever actually being told he was dead – he was just missing. So I filled my time doing things like checking how long I could hold my breath for when I was in the bath.

My reasoning was that even though I couldn’t hold it for very long, my big, strong dad could probably manage much longer. Turns out he couldn’t and soon I was staring at a coffin in a church which held my father’s body. He was 36. That is when I started looking for clovers.

I went back to school after the funeral, wearing a red dress with a bow instead of the usual blue and white gingham. I remember being allowed to play rounders with the class above mine and feeling strangely pleased that they had let me join in. Nothing about this day was normal.

“I wanted my children to know they had a grandfather who died but had he lived, he would have loved them.”

A couple of years later my mother remarried and we moved from the north of England to the south, and in many ways that was worse than my father dying. We had to find our way in a new, very rural school where people mimicked our strong northern accents. There was no email or social media, so we had to write to our old friends to maintain contact, although my best friend from my childhood village is still one of my best friends today – a testament to the bonds that are forged in the primary school years.

I counted milestones for a long time. Soon after my 16th birthday I realised I had lived for longer without a father than I had lived with one. My brother has already outlived our father, and I walked down the aisle alone when I got married – not just because I am a feminist but also because if anyone was going to do that, it should have been him.

This article is the most ‘talking’ I have done about his death ever – we were never offered counselling as children. I imagine in 1990 it wasn’t the done thing. Some of my closest friends know that he died when I was young, but wouldn’t know much more than that. We just don’t talk about death, grief and its effects and we really should.

And for many of my adult years, I was actually fine. I was busy studying, travelling, living. But when I became a parent and began to watch my husband interact with our children, I felt what we lost again.

Prince Harry at the Invictus Games in May: he recently told the BBC of his regret at not talking earlier about the death of his mother, Princess Diana.

Prince Harry at the Invictus Games in May: he recently told the BBC how he regretted not talking earlier about the death of his mother, Princess Diana.

So, I have started with the next generation and I have talked to my children a little, not in a maudlin way. I wanted my children to know they had a grandfather who died but had he lived, he would have loved them. My son has his name as his middle name and my daughter has a double-barrelled surname (although my son refuses to answer to anything but ‘Bruce Wayne’ at the moment.)

I tend to drop my dad’s death into conversation a little more now, because it is part of who I am today. As a journalist you often interview people about the best day of their lives or the worst day of their lives, and I’m sure, on some level, it helped me empathise and communicate with people who had been through something traumatic.

It has also made me fiercely independent. I think coping with a bereavement at a young age has made me quite tough, sometimes too much; it is almost like I want to prove to myself and the world that I can make it on my own.

But my husband – who is romantic enough for the both of us – surprised me in a quiet moment on our wedding day with a four leaf clover necklace: one leaf for me, one for him and one each for our two children. So in the end, I found my four leaf clover and my little family love me enough to heal the crack in my heart.

@jo_tynan

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Written by Jo Tynan

Jo Tynan is a former journalist who is now the Communications Director of Newnham College, University of Cambridge.