Reflections on the Interactions between the Loss of a Father and Leisure

Parental Influence on Leisure and Sport

My sister, Dad, and I on the beach in Prince Edward Island in the late 1980s.

This is a day when I expect I will think about loss. Two years ago today, my father died. Nearly all of us go through this at some point in life. I know I am not alone in experiencing the anniversary of the death of a parent as a time for reflection. I think about him often, but those thoughts, rightly or wrongly, are much more intense on the anniversary of his passing – perhaps because I reserve space for myself to reflect.

One of the the things that has struck me over the last two years, among other things, is how leisure experiences can trigger both wonderful memories of my father and a deep sense of loss. These moments produce both joy and sadness. In the last year, I’ve paid particular attention to how the loss of my father interacts with my leisure experiences and wanted to share my thoughts.

Feelings of Gratitude. I think this is a good place to start. I had a father who loved sports. I shared experiences of watching a variety of sports with him on television – some that I would never have been introduced to without his interest. In particular, I remember watching the Indy 500, boxing, downhill skiing, football, baseball, and basketball with my Dad on Saturday or Sunday afternoons. I have not taken up any of these sports, but I do have an understanding of them. My father used to endure hundreds of questions about rules and players (e.g., “Dad, why can’t they run from home plate to third base and then second and then first and then home?”). And while I never developed an interest in participating in these sport, I learned about them. As a result, this past year when the movie, Rush (about Formula 1 racing), came out, I had an interest in seeing it with my husband and thought of my Dad. I knew I was at and enjoying that movie because of him and it was definitely a moment when I felt gratitude for helping me develop a broad understanding of various sports.

My Dad also played a lot of sports with me. I’m not sure how many hours he tossed a tennis ball to me in the back yard so I would could learn how to catch with a glove. We played tennis and went cross country skiing, biking, tobogganing, and swimming. For a few years, my dad and I went skating on Sunday evenings together. I also remember running in the Terry Fox charity run with him one year. While he wasn’t a perfect role model in the health department (he smoked), he did serve as a role model for physical activity – he was a runner for many years and worked out with weights regularly.

My father was also an avid reader. I am not as avid a reader as he was, but I grew up with a father who was always getting books and reading. My valuing of this activity, again, is influenced by his valuing of, interest in, and engagement with books.

Because of his influence, I think of him often when engaging in various sport-like activities (e.g., as a participant and as a spectator), when reading or poking around a book store, when talking about various activities (e.g., cross country skiing), or hearing news about athletes whose careers I know he followed. Although there is a feeling of sadness at times, I can’t help but feel grateful for his influence on my leisure interests and recognize that the influence is ongoing.

The Sense that Something is Missing. I think one of the saddest moments for me was the first card I got from my mother after my Dad died. It might have been an Easter card. It was the first card I’d gotten that didn’t say “Love, Mom and Dad“. Wham-mo. It hit me like a brick. In my family, holidays and celebrations were peppered with leisure experiences connected to family and so something as simple as a card seemed, in the earliest days after my father’s death, to emphasis this loss for me.

Part of moving forward after a loss is being able to find and experience joy in everyday life and also during holidays, special occasions, and celebrations when that sense of loss may be great. I feel like I have done a fairly good job with this. I eagerly anticipate Christmas – love decorating and baking during the season, and enjoy getting cards or gifts for the special people in my life. However, I find that in preparation for holidays and celebrations I do have this sense that something is missing. In December, I would pass by a book or CD that I know my Dad would love to read or listen to – I don’t buy it – no reason to. I was genuinely enthusiastic about the Father’s Day plan my husband and I had made for his father last year (e.g., we went to a vegetarian cooking class together). But that sense that something was missing was present while shopping for a Father’s Day card for only my father-in-law. I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to putting together an Easter basket for my mother and not buying my Dad’s favorite chocolate bar or shopping for Mom for Christmas and not for my Dad. There is always that person who is missing from the table at Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner. While I may enjoy these leisure experiences with my family or with others, there is sometimes that sense, in my gut or the back of my mind, that something is missing… because there is something missing.

And sometimes I have needed to actively anticipate how a leisure experience or event may bring about that sense of loss or that something is missing and work on not letting it overshadow the joy. I got married in June 2013. Without my Dad to walk me down the aisle, I was determined to find a way to get down the aisle without all the guests (or me) focusing on the fact that my Dad wasn’t there. I wasn’t going to walk alone. Having my mom or anyone else (e.g., brother-in-law, sister) walk me down the aisle, I feared, would focus attention on the loss. I decided that my future husband was the best choice. How could people feel a sadness when seeing the bride and groom come down the aisle together? I was happy with my decision and I had a charm on my bouquet with a picture of my Dad and a little note to him. He was with me, but the moment of walking down the aisle was not steeped in sadness.

There could be a variety of leisure experiences in which one might anticipate feeling that sense that something is missing – family reunions, the birth of a child, or any kind of annual event that involved family (e.g., vacation, a fun run). I’m sure that I will have other experiences when I feel this sense – ones I don’t or can’t anticipate and ones that I may be able to anticipate.

Opportunity to Reflect on Memories. I am an interesting position. I am living as an adult in the city I grew up in. My parents moved away from Fredericton, NB shortly after I started university. Many places I go in town provide chances for me to remember leisure experiences I shared with my Dad or my entire family while growing up. When I go to hockey games on campus, I have the chance to reflect on the time my parents attended an Acadia University alumni event – an Acadia versus University of New Brunswick game (I asked a lot of questions about hockey that night).

My office is in the building on campus that houses the swimming pool I swam in a lot as a kid. If I park at the back of building, I remember the countless mornings over the years my Dad and I sat in the car waiting for the swim coach to arrive to unlock the doors and let us in for practice. We’d listen to the radio – often discussing music – songs we liked, songs we didn’t. If I’m in my office on a weekend when there is a swim meet, I something go watch for a bit. As I watch the officials dressed in their whites move around the pool deck, I think of Dad’s efforts as a volunteer during my competitive swimming days.

When I go bowling, I think of times our family went bowling and how good my Dad was at that sport (he had trophies). Times when I take a walk in O’Dell park, I remember going cross country skiing and toboggan there. On January 1st when they play the top 40 songs of the year on the radio, I remember my Dad and I listening and trying to predict what the number one song would be. When I watch the Olympics in February, I will no doubt remember previous years when I either watched them with him or, after I had moved away, we watched them in different cities but discussed them.

While sometimes these memories remind me of the loss and make me temporarily sad, I also see the memories as a blessing. Having memories that are grounded in leisure and that surface when I engage in leisure somehow helps reinforce the value and place of leisure in my life and the importance of shared leisure with family.

Closing Thoughts

In reflecting on the interactions between my leisure and the loss of my father, I also think of friends and even those I don’t know who have lost their fathers. I wonder how they may think about or remember their fathers during leisure, what leisure experiences they had with their fathers, what they learned from their Dads, and what they taught their Dads about or during leisure time together.


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