Legal & General, a mainstream insurance firm, has recently run a series of ads focusing on life insurance. I encountered my first such ad walking down the street to Aldi, hungover as hell but generally quite cheerful. The ad, plastered on the side of a train bridge, hit me so hard it was like I’d been smacked round the face. ‘I can still remember Dad’s voice like it was yesterday’ and in slightly smaller print ‘Being a parent doesn’t stop when your life does.’ By happy coincidence, I’ve encountered lots more of these ads in my daily life, my favourite offering from Legal & General being ‘Not even superhero dads are invincible.’
My dad, a perpetual risk taker and bad boy about town, didn’t have life insurance because I think he assumed he wouldn’t die the day before my thirteenth birthday. Shockingly enough, even without a pay off, I can still just about remember the sound of his voice, or the way his eyes looked when he sat at the wheel of his sailing boat.
Child bereavement is regularly used to manipulate the general public in such a way that callously disregards the fairly complicated reality of child bereavement. Legal & General have a product to sell, and decided the best way to sell it was wringing raw emotion out of people until they spent their cash. Now, I’m not out here saying that life insurance isn’t a good shout, but what I do have a problem with is the implication that if you don’t have it, your children won’t remember you.
McDonald’s got into trouble for similar tear-jerking stuff last year, when they ran an ad that centred on a boy being thrilled to find out that his dead father also liked Fillet o’Fish. These ads don’t really aim to be relatable to young people who’ve lost parents, because the emotion they invoke is superficial. I can’t claim to sit here and be an unofficial spokesperson for everyone who’s suffered child bereavement, but this advert actually made me laugh. Sorry about your dad Jimmy and the trauma you’ll spend your life dealing with, please do eat this burger to take the sting away. I love finding out similarities about me and my Dad, I search for them with a fine tooth comb and look for them in pictures of him when we were the same age. We smile the same way, I have his temper. I cried when I found out that my dad’s favourite whisky was the same as mine, just by coincidence. But it was just that – coincidence. No one profited off it, no one suggested it to me, it came from somewhere deeper than the marketing room at McDonald’s headquarters.
The way we deal with child bereavement romanticises it in myriad ways. A huge number of our cultural heroes are either orphans or have lost one parent along the way. Batman, James Bond, Harry Potter. These heroes were forged in the fires of grief. What does that say, then? That greatness can only come after loss? I can’t deny that losing my dad made me grow as a person, but I’m pretty sure I’d rather have him back than be an unusually mature 22 year old. Or does it say that you have a responsibility to climb up onto the moral high ground as a result of childhood trauma? James Bond’s emotional callousness is explained by his parent’s deaths, as is his prowess in his field. Batman and Harry Potter lost their parents and tried to save the world. I lost my dad and frankly, I’m quite pleased that I’m a functioning human being who still has some kind of capacity for emotion. If being an orphan is a prerequisite for greatness, I’m halfway there. But I don’t want that to be expected of me, I just want to be alright.
When you throw a cheeky dash of gender into the whirlpool of child bereavement, things get even more problematic. In a room full of my mates, I joke about my daddy issues like there is no tomorrow; when a palm reader at Glastonbury asked if my father was emotionally or physically absent I replied ‘both.’ But in popular culture a trope exists, encapsulated by characters like Lara Croft, that suggests that women become strong through trauma. The fact that we talk about ‘strong women’ is strange, it’s as if those two words are mutually exclusive and need to be actively put together, rather than cohabiting peacefully. Women are strong, and they don’t need dead or disappointing fathers to become so.
I can’t deny that the death of my father affected me irrevocably. But it did so because I had to live through it, not because it ennobled me or ruined me. It did something in between. Child bereavement is widely represented in media, but I would like to see these portrayals become more nuanced. Legal & General missed the mark by a mile. My dad wasn’t a superhero and he wasn’t invincible. But every time I lose my temper I know that my dad is still about, in a way. Sufferers of child bereavement don’t have to turn into moral heroes or callous villains, we can just be people, buying Jameson’s whisky at Sainsbury’s and winking at the sky in the booze aisle.