Moving in with Dad saved me, but it made losing him so much harder

Moving in with Dad saved me, but it made losing him so much harder: KATE MULVEY became one of Britain’s millions of boomerang children at 49

  • Kate Mulvey moved in with her dad aged 49 when her engagement broke down
  • UK-based author lived with her father for nine years until he died at the age of 82
  • She says that loosing him made her feel cut off without a parent to look after her

A couple of weeks ago, I gathered together a bundle of my father’s drawings and etchings that had lain higgledy-piggledy on the dining room table for over three months. Tears pricking my eyes, I placed them carefully in a large black art folder, then sat on the sofa and broke down in uncontrollable sobs. 

Those charcoal drawings were the last my beloved dad, an artist, had done. They say it can take months, even years, before you accept that a loved one has really gone. I never believed that until he died in January this year. It seems wrong for his possessions to live on without him. 

He was 82 and it has been especially hard for me. Not because I loved him more than my two sisters, but because, unlike most midlifers with their own families, homes and busy lives, I spent the last eight years living with him. 

Others may see their parents once a month, but we saw each other every day. Often eating breakfast together — I would prepare our Italian-style coffee maker the night before — we would talk about politics or friends, me sitting at the dining room table, him ranting at the TV, both of us laughing. 

Kate Mulvey (pictured) moved in with her dad aged 49 when her engagement broke down. UK-based author lived with her father for nine years until he died at the age of 82. Kate with her father Thomas in 2018

So now, whenever I prepare my coffee in the evening, I am reminded of him and it unlocks another torrent of grief. 

Boomeranging back home in midlife doesn’t feature on most people’s list of ambitions, but it helped Dad and me forge a far closer bond. I was a fully fledged daddy’s girl and I adored him. 

When I moved into his flat in Chelsea nine years ago, I was 49 and had just broken off my engagement to my then fiance, Josh. I felt a wave of relief. 

Then I remembered: I had nowhere to live. Rent in London had become astronomical and I dreaded a depressing bedsit. So when my father suggested moving back to my parents’ three-bedroom flat in Chelsea, I jumped at the chance. My mother was suffering from dementia and Dad was glad to have some help. I would live there rent-free, but would contribute to the bills. 

Kate (pictured) explains how it was an adjustment moving back in with her father and swapping lavish dinner parties with her ex for gritting her teeth as her father’s TV blared out of the living room 

I didn’t know it at the time, but I had unwittingly become a paid-up member of the growing number of boomerang kids. The 3.5million adult children in Britain who return to their parents’ or grandparents’ homes after moving out. 

At first, I was just happy to be back with the people who loved me unconditionally, in a lovely flat where I didn’t have to label my milk in the fridge. But while my father was pretty laid back, it was an adjustment. I swapped lavish dinner parties with my ex for gritting my teeth as my father’s TV blared out of the living room. 

Although dealing with my mother’s illness could be harrowing — she would scream out at night if the duvet fell off and I’d rush to reassure her — it did feel good to be able to help look after her. She died a year after I moved in, leaving Dad and me rattling around in the flat. 

Dad was consumed with grief. ‘She was the love of my life, and I’ll never see her again,’ he would say, clutching a photo of them. I took his hand, understanding all I could do was be there when he needed to talk. 

And as the years rolled on, Dad and I forged a unique bond through our grief over Mum, becoming each other’s comforters and confidantes. In childhood, he had always offered sound advice and it felt good to have that shoulder to lean on again. 

On the flip side, it did feel infantilising at times. Telling me to turn the lights off or clear up the kitchen would ignite my inner teenager and I would stomp off, doors banging, despite being in my 50s. But in the main, we jostled along merrily. I thought he would go on for ever. We joked about him not being around. 

‘What will you do when I’m gone?’ he asked. ‘Cry,’ I replied, laughing, imagining it as something in the distant future. 

Then, last November, I found him slumped on the sofa, groaning in pain one morning. He had been unusually tired for months and the ache in his chest and lower back had morphed into extreme agony. We put it down to post-pandemic fatigue and the fact that he had wrenched his arm retrieving the Christmas decorations from the attic. 

A month later, as I brought him his morning coffee, I found him lying in bed in a pool of blood, red scars on his head. He told me he had fallen over in the kitchen, but his words were slurred and he had a blank look on his face. I rushed him to the hospital and he was admitted immediately. The following afternoon, a nurse broke the devastating news: Dad had inoperable pancreatic cancer and only weeks to live. 

The fall in the kitchen was a stroke, which had destroyed part of his brain function. On the one hand, it was a blessing as he never knew he had cancer, but it meant I couldn’t really say goodbye to the man we knew and loved. 

My sisters and I visited as often as Covid restrictions would allow. Then he caught Covid and visits were forbidden until the dreaded call came. He was deteriorating rapidly, could we come to say our final goodbye. That freezing Wednesday in early January will be etched on my mind for ever. Dressed head to toe in full protection gear, my elder sister, Sarah, and I — we spared my younger sister the horror — clutched my dad’s emaciated hands. Two days later, at 3pm, he took his last breath. 

Kate’s younger sister, Louise, agrees that the grief is harder for her. Although she misses her Dad terribly, the structure of her life hasn’t changed like Kate’s has

His loss was marked by a feeling of such devastation, I felt as if I had been hit in the stomach. Later that month, when my sisters left the funeral, bundling their adult children into the cars, I went back to the empty flat and fell apart. They had busy home lives to return to, but ‘home’ and ‘family’ for me meant him. 

When you share a space with someone you love, your lives are inextricably linked, and it is the daily patchwork of familiarity that you miss the most. The voicemails I would receive telling me to bring home ‘a loaf of bread/pint of milk from Waitrose’, the Dad-shaped indentation in the sofa that still greets me each morning. 

Above all, I miss the fact that no matter how tired he was, he would always help me unpick another knotty boyfriend/work/ life problem. 

I miss the way he seemed to know everything except how to use his iPhone; ‘You have to swish,’ I would say impatiently as he furiously jabbed away at the screen. I miss his acerbic wit, his beige suit he always wore to the arts club we were both members of — jokingly they called him The Man from Havana. I miss the comfort of just being myself, the way he gave me stability. He was my rock. 

Now, when I go to bed, I find it difficult to sleep and wake bolt upright at 3am. I feel adrift, cut off without a parent to look after me — even at the age of 58. How will I cope? How can I feel safe? 

My younger sister, Louise, agrees that the grief is harder for me. Although she misses Dad terribly, the structure of her life hasn’t changed. She tells me, ‘I’m still busy working, shopping, cooking dinner for my younger son, Oskar, 17, and keeping tabs on George, 20, who’s at Bristol University. Knowing they still need me provides a distraction.’ 

Sometimes I wonder how it would be if I too had lived a more separate life. Clearly it would be less painful. But I look on those years I spent with Dad as a blessing. I feel honoured to have been with him, to have known the intimacy and comfortable honesty that comes with family. 

Besides, I don’t have to grapple through the recesses of my mind to find a long-forgotten memory. He is everywhere: I can see him now in the garden, sitting in his special wicker chair, coffee in hand, Charles Mingus playing in the background. 

‘Ey ’up, Dad,’ I say, mimicking his northern roots. 

‘Ey ’up, daught,’ he replies, gently laughing. 

I will never get over his death. Yes, at some point I will get accustomed to it, but I don’t think I’ll ever be the same again. That’s fine. He will always be with me, and hopefully these memories that feel gut-wrenching and raw will become a cherished source of comfort. Until then, ‘Ta-ra, Dad, it’s been grand.’

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