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  • Writer's pictureLorna J Westley

I wish I had asked my Dad better questions...

A Facebook post I wrote about wishing I’d asked my Dad more questions sparked an interesting conversation with a lovely friend who told me that my post inspired her to spend more time with her father and she asked me for some insight on what I would actually ask so that she might know what to ask her own Dad.

I didn’t answer straight away because I wanted to consider my response and now that I have, I thought it might be worth sharing.

Because what I realised is that it’s not about asking questions. It’s about asking BETTER questions. I actually know quite a bit about my Dad’s life. He often told us stories from his past and he also wrote a short story about his childhood which we’ve had printed. I listened to his stories and I know about things that happened to him, experiences he had and things that he did but I’m not sure that I know how he felt or what meaning he gave to the events in his life.

It’s interesting because my Mum has also passed but I don’t feel the same way about her. She also wrote a story about her childhood but I believe that I know much more about how she felt about everything she experienced during her life. Sometimes I asked her but other times she just told me, volunteering her feelings and emotions quite openly. I knew what she was proud of, what she loved, what she regretted and what she would have liked to do differently. We talked about these things a lot. Perhaps that is the nature of female relationships?

But not Dad. Dad was old school. Boys don’t cry and real men shake hands, not hug (although we made him drop that outdated adage when the first grandson came along and wanted to hug Grandad).

Whilst readily offering his opinions on most matters, he kept his feelings to himself. As I said, I knew the events of his life, all the major milestones, and I asked questions. But they were pretty ordinary questions and now that I’m older and wiser; I wish I’d asked BETTER questions, more powerful questions that evoked emotions and feelings.

I know that my Dad had a hard and turbulent childhood and wasn’t loved or cared for as he should have been. He was only 6 when England became involved in World War 2 and there were many stories about his youth as a bit of a naughty lad. At age 16, he came out to Australia by ship on his own and worked as a Jackaroo in outback NSW before joining the Australian Navy at age 19. After deciding Navy life wasn’t for him, he returned to England and was conscripted into the British Army and sent to Korea and Japan. He returned to England and married Mum at age 24. My sister was born a year later and my other sister the year after that.

Mum & Dad emigrated to Australia in 1964 with two young girls and 13 pounds. Dad had the heart of a gypsy and moved his young family around quite a bit - from Melbourne to Canberra to New Zealand and back to Canberra where I was born in 1970. Three years later, his restless spirit stirred again and we moved back to England, only to arrive during a terrible recession. After a tough year, we returned again to Australia, this time settling in Melbourne. We moved houses a few more times but things seemed relatively stable for a while and Dad welcomed two son-in-laws and became a lovely Grandad.

Unfortunately Dad became unsettled again and on my 21st birthday he left his marriage and ran away from his family for a while. He built a wall around himself and estranged himself from his daughters and grandchildren. He remarried but that marriage didn’t last and Dad was alone again. He got himself a little dog and took up ballroom dancing, which became his passion and where he acquired several lady friends. It was these years where I felt that our relationship started to repair but it still wasn’t completely healed when he died of Acute Myeloid Leukaemia in 2006, three months after my Wedding to Troy.

So yes, I know my Dad’s story and I did find it interesting enough to ask questions. But I asked basic questions such as “What happened next?”, “Then what did you do?”, “Why did you say that?” and “Where did you meet Mum?” Average questions that drew a pretty simple response and didn’t explore the depth of Dad’s character or unpack what made him tick. I wish that I had asked better questions. Personal questions that drew an emotional response and gave me real insight into his thoughts and behaviour.

Some examples might be:

  • “How did you feel about that?”

  • “What impact did that have on your future decisions?”

  • “Why do you think that happened?”

  • “What do you wish had happened, if anything were possible?”

  • “What were you looking for? What was missing?”

  • “How do you think it affected others when you did that?”

  • “What do you regret?”

  • “What would you change or do differently?”

  • “What would you do the same?”

  • “Is there anything unresolved that I can help you with?”

  • “What memories spark the most energy / emotion for you?”

  • “What do you spend the most time thinking about now?”

And the biggest one:

  • “What do you think I should ask you about that I haven’t?”

I also wish I’d listened better and had been more present and engaged. There were times that I listened with teenage indifference or arrogance, times that I listened with adult anger or resentment and times that I listened with scorn or blame. Times that I interrupted or was waiting to talk. Times that I was distracted or apathetic. I wish that I had the chance now to listen with an open heart and curious mind. And really gotten to know my Dad on a deeper level, not just in his role as my father, but the authentic core and essence of the man he really was. An ordinary yet magnificent man who helped to shape me into the woman I have now become.

So to all of you who are lucky enough to still have parents and grandparents, please learn from my hindsight and start having more meaningful conversations now. Start being more present, more curious and start asking better questions to get to know who they really are and what they really think. One day it will be too late and you’ll be left regretfully thinking “ I wish...” just like me.

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