June 01, 1981 12:00 PM

When a friend died in 1975, photojournalist Jill Krementz was troubled by the despair of the woman’s young son and resolved to write a book on—and for—children who have lost a parent. “Before the first interview I was terrified,” Krementz admits, but she soon learned that the kids appreciated a friendly ear. Her 18 interviews, five included below, will show other grieving youngsters that feelings of anger are normal. Their self-profiles of courage affect and instruct us all.

No one really knows about heaven because they haven’t been dead yet

STEPHEN JAYNE, AGE 11

When my father died, I was 8. He was a producer for ABC News and he was going from Jordan to Beirut in a small chartered plane. There were only four people aboard—another producer and two pilots. The plane crashed right after takeoff and everyone was killed.

I was in third grade and used to go home for lunch. One day my older brother and two older sisters were already there when I arrived, and they were all crying. I asked my brother what was the matter and he said something had happened to Dad. I went up to my room and started praying. Then a few minutes later my mother came home and told us Dad was dead and about the plane crashing.

The first thing I asked Mom was could we keep Skippy and Shadow, our dog and our cat, and could we keep our house, and she said, “Sure.”

Our house was full of people who were trying to make us feel better, but they were all friends of my parents. So the next day I went over to my best friend’s house. He took the day off from school so he could play with me. It helps if your friends treat you the same way as before your parent died. When they start feeling sorry for you, it makes you feel sorry for yourself and then you start crying.

After the funeral, we went to the cemetery in a big black limo, and when we looked back, there was a long line of cars behind us with their lights on. There was an American flag over the coffin because my dad used to be a Marine. There was also a Marine honor guard, and after the priest said some prayers, two of the Marines folded the flag and gave it to us. That night on the news Barbara Walters and Harry Reasoner said a lot of nice things about my dad.

I stayed home from my school for two weeks and when I went back I wasn’t crying anymore. My friends said, “It doesn’t seem like you’re very sad your father died. It doesn’t seem like you miss him.” I did feel sad, but I just didn’t want to cry in front of them, you know. One kid even said, “You must be glad your father died because you’re not crying.”

For a while I used to go into every room and shut off the lights because I was so worried about our money lasting. And I was afraid to ask for anything special that first Christmas.

I hate it when people call up on the telephone and ask for my father. Like somebody who’s selling magazine subscriptions will call up and ask to speak to him. If I’m the only one home, I’ll always say something like “My mom’s not here and I don’t know anything about this and so can you give me a number and we’ll call right back?” I don’t want strangers to know my father is dead and think we’re orphans.

The other thing that bothers me is when they make announcements at school—when the teacher says something like “I want you to go home and tell your parents such and such.” I always feel embarrassed and I think everyone’s looking at me.

Last year there was a guy who was taking my mother out and he was trying to help me in sports and stuff. Like he came to my soccer game. I didn’t really let him help me because instead of thinking he was a friend I thought he was taking the place of my father. I didn’t like that. Mom says I shouldn’t have been that way because he was trying to help me a lot. Maybe I’ll be nicer to the next guy.

I don’t want my mother to get remarried, but I’d like to have somebody around who’s a boyfriend to her and a friend to me. I don’t want her to get married because then she would have a new last name. There’s this other boy who’s in the seventh grade and his mother got remarried. I was looking for his name in the phone book and I couldn’t find it. Then I realized that the phone was listed under his stepfather’s name, and of course I didn’t know his stepfather’s name. I wouldn’t want my friends not to be able to call anymore.

Another reason I don’t want my mom to remarry is because everyone in our neighborhood says my dad was the nicest father on the block. If my mom married someone else, I think our friends would be nervous about being nice to him because they would think I wouldn’t like it. Stuff like that.

I don’t know if I’ll ever see my father again. No one really knows about heaven because they haven’t been dead yet. But I think part of my father is still with me. His body isn’t, but his spirit is. If he’s anywhere, I guess he’s in heaven with my grandfather. At night I usually pray to God and say, “Please help Dad and Grandpop to have a fun time up there.”

I remember thinking that maybe Dad’s dying was some kind of punishment

CARLA LEHMANN, AGE 11

Daddy died of cancer when I was 7. He was in and out of the hospital a lot, and he was having a lot of drugs and treatments. Sometimes it seemed like he was eating pills and nothing else. When he was home, I helped take care of him. I would fix the bandages around his leg. And I brought him his food. And I watched him get worse and worse. That was the hardest part.

I used to hate it when he had to go back to the hospital because the first thing you think of when you’re little is that hospitals are a place for people to die in. So when he would come home, I always felt very relieved.

After about two years my father got really worse, so he went back to the hospital, and toward the end we didn’t go to visit him because my mother didn’t think it was good for us. I think she was trying to keep us from being hurt any more than we had to be because we had never experienced anyone dying before. But now that he’s dead and I look back on it, it really makes me feel good that I was able to help him when he was sick—that he could count on me. It makes me feel as if my father is going to remember me now for doing all those things.

I remember thinking that maybe his dying was some kind of punishment. I broke his typewriter in the office one time, and another time I broke his swivel chair. And I thought I’d done all this bad stuff so, you know, his dying was like a punishment.

I also remember thinking, why was God picking on me?

It was like a bad, bad dream and I kept wishing I would wake up. And I felt so sad. I wouldn’t talk to anybody for two weeks.

Lots of people came to the house, but I didn’t want to talk to anybody who had more memories of my father than I had. I didn’t want to talk to anybody in the office where he worked because it was as if all these people knew my father better than I did. I felt very jealous of them.

Even the sympathy cards made me feel worse. I don’t know why. They gave me a lot of strange feelings—it’s like sadness and anger and blame and jealousy all mixed up in one. I behaved really mean after my father died.

And I was very worried about my mother. I was worried that she would die and if she did, where would we go? But now I don’t worry about that as much.

My memories of my father are very important to me. I don’t want to forget them because they make me feel better inside and also because if I have children of my own someday, I want to be able to tell them how it was.

One thing that makes me sad is every year at school there’s a father-child night and Daddy always used to take me, so this is a real hard time for me now. I didn’t go this year and it was like a part missing in my life. It was as if there was an empty seat there—and that night my mother went out, and that made me feel worse. I didn’t say anything because I guess she’s lonely and that’s why she needs to see people. If she’s having a good time, I wouldn’t want to ruin it for her.

My mother has been seeing a man named John. He’s divorced and his three children live with him. I hope they don’t get married, because suppose they did and then John died? That would be really bad.

Another reason I don’t want them to get married is because I know I would get mad at John for trying to replace my father. This year he took us down to Disney World and in a way it was fun, but in a way I felt sort of like my father would be mad at me because he always talked about taking us to Disney World and we always looked forward to that. I’m glad I went with John, but it made me feel very confused and it was sort of scary.

A third reason I don’t want them to get married is because he has children and I know I’d have to share my mother with them. And since my father died, my brother Jackie and I have gotten used to having her all to ourselves. Sometimes when she goes out with other people, I feel those people are trying to take her away from me.

We all went to a psychiatrist for a while after my father died—my mother, my brother and me. We had been taking our feelings out on each other and I was having a lot of bad dreams—like my father’s ghost would come back and haunt me for the bad things I did. And my mother and I weren’t getting along at all. I was so close to my father and I never thought my mother loved me—I thought she was closer to Jackie—and I used to keep all this stuff bottled up inside me, which made us fight a lot. So talking it out was the only way.

It’s hard to live without one of your parents, but I think you become adapted to it and after a few years it becomes natural. I’ve even started doing some of the things that my dad used to do—like mowing the lawn, which is something I never dreamed I could do. And trimming the weeds and cleaning up the yard. And Jackie takes care of the garbage. These are things we feel real good about because we’re doing something my father used to do and also because it makes us feel good about ourselves. Every year gets a little easier.

The day before he killed himself, he paid all his bills

JACK HOPKINS, AGE 8

A year ago, on Easter Sunday, my father died. He was 29. He had been real sickly for a while—dizzy and tired and aching in a way that made it hard for him to walk around. The doctor had told him to take some pills and stuff. So he was just staying around the house and relaxing. He had been doing that ever since summer.

I was playing a game with my three sisters in the living room when we heard a loud bang, the shot of a gun. My mother went into the room and she saw him lying on the bed. She screamed and told us not to go in there. We were so frightened about what had happened, and then she was on the telephone and when we heard her talking, that’s when we knew for sure what had happened. We all started crying. Some policemen came over and the ambulance came and a whole bunch of people came over.

The last time I spoke to my father was about 50 minutes before it happened. I asked him if he could help me lift my barbells and he said, “Yeah,” but then he went back into the room and the next thing I knew he was dead. He must have known what he was going to do, because the day before he killed himself he paid all his bills.

We buried him in his hometown of Thomasville, Ga. because that’s where my grandmother lives. We went out onto the bank by the river and the minister preached some stuff from the Bible, and then people who had brought flowers put them on top of the coffin. Most of the stuff we heard made us cry, especially my mother and my aunt. I was just sitting there listening and trying to keep my tears back. It’s the only funeral I’ve ever gone to.

I’ve been to the cemetery about five times since then. Once I brought a plant. It makes me feel better when I look at the gravestone because when I look at the words I can see his face. It says HOPKINS and there’s a pair of hands praying—like when you say grace before a meal. All of my family think he’s in heaven, but I’m not sure.

For about three months after my father died, I didn’t talk to anyone. I’d just go to my room and lay down and stare at the walls after I’d done my homework. Sometimes my grandmother would call on the telephone and I’d talk to her for a few minutes, but then I’d just hang up the phone.

When my father died, we put his clothes in boxes and put them up in the attic. I keep some of his colognes on my dresser for decoration. They remind me of him—the way he used to smell. My mother says that when I grow up she’s going to give me some of his pens and pencils.

It’s better for me not to think about it too much because I know there’s nobody like my father, and I don’t know why he did what he actually did. So I just say, “Jack, you might just as well relax and don’t think about him and just live your life.” That’s what I try to do. I can’t say it isn’t hard, because it is. When he first died, it was harder, but after a couple of months it started being easier on me. After about six months I started playing again. I started getting more active and doing things I used to do when my father was alive. Like playing baseball. Only now I practice with one of my sisters instead. He could really throw a fastball—like you couldn’t even see it, it went so fast. My sisters can’t throw the ball as well, but they’re getting better. And I like soccer better now anyway.

I asked Dad, ‘Do you think Mom knows she’s ruined our lives?’

NICK DAVIS, AGE 15

I remember the day my mom died very clearly. It was six years ago and I woke up and my dad, who is a writer, asked me to go to the library with him because he had to do some research. We said goodbye to Mom and my brother, Tim, who was 11, and off we went for the rest of the day. When we came back, we saw a big commotion about a block away from our house, and when we got home, Dad called out for Mom, but she wasn’t there, so we went to a neighbor’s house to see if he knew what was going on, and that’s where Timmy was. The neighbor said Mom was at the hospital, and while Dad went there, Timmy told me what had happened. He’d gone out for a walk with Mom and there had been two taxi cabs that crashed into each other. One swiveled around and hit Mom and she hit her head—she was thrown up in the air against a mailbox. I didn’t think that the accident was serious—I had this picture of Mom coming home that night with a big bandage around her head, telling some funny story about how it had happened. She would have been so good-humored about the whole thing.

A little later Dad came back to our neighbor’s house and took us into the bedroom. He said, “Boys, I have to tell you something. Your mom died.” There was a loud wail—really loud and really sudden. I remember hearing Timmy at the same time as myself. We went over and hugged Daddy and we cried for a long time. That night the three of us slept in Dad and Mom’s room in their bed.

Dad said I didn’t have to go to the funeral, but I wanted to. I would feel bad now if I hadn’t gone. When I walked in, everyone was looking at me and I felt a strange sort of pride, like “I’m the one you have to feel sorry for.” I know it sounds stupid, but that’s the way I felt. I felt bad that Mom had died, but I also felt proud that everyone was looking at me, and I wanted to look strong. I didn’t cry, because I had done most of my crying. The way I looked at it, there was no need to cry. There was nothing I could do to bring her back.

I was really mad at Mom. I never blamed the taxi drivers. I don’t know why, but I didn’t. I just took it for granted that accidents happen and it wasn’t their fault but Mom should have known better. She should have jumped back more quickly like Timmy did. Timmy was mad too—mad that he hadn’t been able to pull her back. He felt helpless that he couldn’t help her, and that was rough. I even asked Dad, “Do you think Mom knows she’s ruined our lives?”

Mom was buried out on Long Island and I’ve been there only five times. I’ve never been there on a sunny day, so it’s always been dark, and I’ve always been with someone who’s crying. Everything there is ugly. Everything a cemetery represents is terrible—the way they look, orderly and gray, gravestones and slabs. Going there makes me feel worse inside. It just reminds me that people are going to die, and my worst fear is that I’m going to die. When I do, they can bury me at sea or send me into space.

Instead of going to the cemetery, I’d rather remember my mother by thinking about her on her birthday and maybe going to temple on that day. I like it when people tell me stories and I get to know her better. I love finding out more about what she was like, because I was only 9 when she died and I didn’t know her that well. I mean, I knew her as a mother, not as a person.

Sometimes I see someone from the back who looks like her and I think, “Maybe she’s alive and this is all just a cruel joke.” I think maybe she’s had amnesia and she doesn’t know who she is and I’ll go tell her.

About a month after she died, I asked myself if it had to happen over again, would it have been better to have Dad die than to have Mom die. I didn’t really answer the question because I felt so guilty about even thinking of it. The thing about losing a mother is that now I know I can take just about anything. It was so painful, but I survived the loss and it’s made me a stronger person.

Last year Dad got remarried to Karen and we’re more of a family now. It’s still weird to have people call up and ask for Mrs. Davis and it’s not Mom. The first time it happened, someone said, “Hello, is Mrs. Davis there?” I never said, “Wait a minute.” I said, “No, she’s dead.”

For a while I didn’t think Karen had any right to tell me motherly things like “Wash your hands,” “Eat your vegetables,” or “Clean your room”—things like that. In fact, I still don’t like it.

Jesse was born three months ago and he’s a very unifying element. We do a lot of things together and I take care of him like a brother. But in some ways, I’m just his half brother because I call Karen “Karen” and he’s going to call her “Mom.” I could never call Karen “Mom,” and I sort of wish he couldn’t either so that we could be perfect brothers. I wish that his mom was my mom and he would feel what I feel about Mom. As it is, he’ll never know.

At the wake, I told him he couldn’t go because I wanted to go with him

VALERIE CROWLEY, AGE 15

My father was a fireman for 13 years and before that he was a policeman. I always felt proud of what he did because he saved people. He was like a soldier in a way working for his country. He died a year ago, after fighting a fire. He had come out of the building and was sitting down resting. Then when they were about to get back on the truck, he collapsed from smoke inhalation and had a heart attack. They revived him for about six minutes, but then he had another heart attack and died.

Even though he was a fireman, I never thought about my father dying. He never got a cold and nothing was ever wrong with him. Sometimes I would think that maybe he’d have an accident—like the rope would break or something—but I never thought he’d have a heart attack because he was always so healthy.

I was at my neighbor’s house and it was about seven o’clock at night. My father’s two good friends at the firehouse came to the door and said, “Your mother wants to see you.” I didn’t think anything of it—just “Oh, what does she want now?” I came home and the fire chief was there and so was the chaplain from our church and some other firemen. My mother was crying and she said, “Daddy’s not going to come home anymore.” At first I thought, “Well, maybe he just got hurt and he’s in the hospital,” because he had been injured once before. But then they were telling me that he had a heart attack and died and I couldn’t believe it. I ran out of the living room and up to my bedroom. Then the chaplain came up and told me what a good man my father was, as if that would make me feel better.

Lots of people started coming over because as soon as they tell the family they can put it on the news. I didn’t feel like staying home, so I went back to my friend’s house and stayed there the rest of the evening. I just sat there crying and saying, “I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it,” because he had died at three o’clock and that day at three o’clock I had been walking home from school with my friend and we were talking about another fireman who had died. She had asked, “What would you do if your father ever died?” and I had said, “My father wouldn’t die. I wouldn’t be able to believe it. I couldn’t take it.” It was really weird.

After it was on TV, I couldn’t face my friends. I would walk down the street and they’d all look out the window staring at me. If somebody would say, “Hello,” I’d just cry and then I’d run back home. I hated all my friends watching me on TV crying because my father had died, but in a way I wanted them to realize that he was a good person and that’s why he was on TV and, in a way, famous.

Before the funeral we had a wake. For me that was the hardest part. When I first walked into the room and saw him lying there in the casket, I was shocked because I realized he was really dead. Before they closed the casket, I kissed him on the cheek and got him all wet because I was crying so hard. I told him he couldn’t go because I wanted to go with him.

Going back to school was very hard because nobody would say anything. I guess my friends didn’t know what to say because they felt kind of embarrassed, so they’d just look at me and no one would say hello. Then they started to be really nice and a few of the kids would say, “Oh, I’m sorry, I heard what happened,” and I’d say, “It’s true,” and they all started sending me sympathy cards, which made me feel better. But it got to be a little too much—like no one would say the word “father” in front of me. So I transferred to a different school.

About a month ago there was a memorial service for all the families of the firemen killed in the last year. I went with my mother and my grandmother, Daddy’s mother. The best part was getting to meet some of the other families there. I had never met anyone whose father died the same way my father died, and when we started talking, it was as though we had known each other for a long time and we could talk so easily about what had happened.

Sometimes I think that maybe my father didn’t really die—that maybe they just told me that because he did something bad and had to go to jail or something. They say that time makes it better, but it hasn’t really. As time goes by, I think about him more, not less.

My father and I were so close—he was more like a friend than a father. Every Saturday we’d go to the firehouse and I’d ride on the fire engine with him. Lots of times we’d go to dog shows. And we always used to walk the dog together. Now that he’s gone, I miss him the most when I’m doing the things that we used to do together. I can feel him with me when I walk the dog at night. And at dog shows I like to win because it made him happy when I did. So sometimes I think, “This one is for you, and then when I win it’s fun because I think he’s watching me.”

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