The year my best friend was killed in a work accident, my son was two, his mother and I around 22. As underskilled young parents, we had our share of breakdowns, but I was certain that we could get through anything and would be together as a family until death. I never thought the death that would be the beginning of our end would be someone else’s.

We were so young then, with so few life skills. We didn’t have the tools to navigate the immensity of my mourning, manifesting in prolonged sorrow and withdrawal. Within months of my friend’s passing, our relationship ended. We did the best we could with the tools we had at the time…I hold no blame for her. Shame, however, is a different story.

Amidst sadness, anger and confusion, I moved out from our shared home and began to awaken to this new parental context. Suddenly I was a part-time dad which, in my mind at the time, meant utter loser. While my mourning for my friend remained present and real, it was cleaner, simpler. I had no guilt mixed into my sadness.

My failure for my family, though, was a different type of devastation. It was my fault. I was supposed to have the skills to make it work. I was supposed to be able to communicate better. I was supposed to wake up with them every day and take care of them. I was supposed to find a way.

My own father left when I was an infant, and chose not to be involved in my life. Largely driven by my experience of abandonment, I had grown up clear about one thing: when I had a family one day, we would be together forever. My identity as a man had become deeply interwoven with my “success” as a parent and family man.
I was clearly insufficient in the one domain that most defines manhood. To my despair, I had become the vision I had of my own estranged father, an incompetent bumbling half-man. As it goes in life, my story began to drive my behaviours. Though it was not a “truth” that I was a failure as a result of my nuclear family ending, believing I was a failure was debilitating. Convincing myself that I was bereft of manhood had a very real impact on my relationships with my son and his mother. It impacted me everywhere.

A year later his mother was in a new partnership, which came packaged with two young daughters. Shortly thereafter, a nice home, dogs, minivan—and a new baby on the way. The fulfillment of the family I hadn’t been able to provide was now complete. I felt a deep resignation into my self-created irrelevance. I lost sight of where I fit into the equation. My shameful younger self with pre-existing ideas about family and failure decided they would be better off without me. I withdrew.

Looking back, it’s amazing to me how much my story that I was a failure led to actually failing, and not the other way around. Connecting with my son meant I had to work with his mother, and in every phone call there it was—my part-time-dad-ness. I was a diminished version of myself, ever present to my own shortcomings, both real and perceived. I arrived to each conversation self-berating, and behaved consistent with that—tentative, curt, indifferent, irrelevant, bitter, fearful, shameful.

I don’t envy her having to deal with my lack of presence, groundedness, consistency, and belonging, my deficiencies further amplified by our mutual frustration and righteousness.

I spent many years of my son’s youth feeling certain that I didn’t belong, my guilt compounded by not being able to be the dad I’d hoped to be.

By the time I began to transcend my failure story a decade had passed. I had been intermittently involved in my son’s early life. The years since have been a process of slow repair, rebuilding and reconnecting through the distance I had allowed to be created in our relationship.

It has now been 20 years since my nuclear family’s nuclear meltdown, and although I’m a vastly different human than I was, I can still tap into my shame. Everyone involved suffered, too, all inside of a myopic vision of how it is “supposed to go” and my inability to adapt to a new reality.

Today, my son and I are great friends and love spending time together. While we continue to deepen our connection and practice our communication, I know our fragmented history may forever impact our trust and depth. Still, I learned long ago that I can’t live in a state of shame and love at the same time. Only one of these feelings has a home here now.

Jason Guille lives and plays in Victoria, where he runs a social enterprise providing video livestream services and spends his recreation time making music, kayaking and in nature.