5 Lessons I Learned from My Father: Personal Growth, Overcoming Trauma, and How to Say I Love You
Updated: Oct 31, 2022
On his 75th birthday this year my father quietly spoke three words I’d been waiting to hear all my life. Words I thought he’d never say.
But despite everything he’d been through, from childhood poverty and trauma, his near penniless immigration to western soil, and our decades old fractured relationship, my father still managed to prove that personal growth truly is possible at any age.
If you struggle with a broken relationship with your father, or one you’d like to improve, here’s a few true stories offering hope from resignation, and crucial life lessons we can all learn from.
Lesson 1 - Personal Growth is Possible at Any Age
In late September of this year I picked up my phone to wish my father a happy birthday. It was a soupy west coast morning and I knew the window to reach him was closing. A nine-hour time zone difference between Vancouver to Croatia added to our disconnect, but the Adriatic Sea brought joy to my parents who summered there in the sunset of their lives.
So from my office desk, with my laptop opened to complex Microsoft Excel spreadsheets crawling with IFCOUNTS and VLOOKUPS, distracted from ideas and people that really mattered, I’d expected a brief, ordinary and dispassionate birthday call with my dad, until something extraordinary happened.
Near the end of the call my father found the courage to say three words I’d never heard from him before, in my 41 years of life.
He said “I love you” to his only son.
The moment lingered as if in slow motion, overpowering my senses, throwing me off guard and speechless. Until I mustered up the courage to say those three words back to him:
“I love you too dad.” Words I’d not been able to say to him either. Not really ever.
It was a lot to process live, without the time-delayed shelter of text, email or the ancient form of written letter. And while, according to google maps, my father remained 8,967 km away, in that moment we’d never been closer.
Personal growth, I realized, truly is possible at any age, even in the face of my father’s childhood trauma.
Lesson 2 - Childhood Trauma Stays with Us Our Entire Lives
Long ago, in a poor eastern European village with no running water, electricity, or local stores to buy groceries, my father experienced what must be a child’s greatest fear; he along with three young siblings aged 6 – 11 were near abandoned by their parents - for several years.
My grandmother’s life-threatening illness left her in a distant hospital for over two years, with our grandfather becoming both caregiver spending most time away from home at the hospital or at work, unsure of his wife’s survival, if they’d have enough money to make it through, or how damaged his children would become from the ordeal.
Eventually grandma recovered and the family reunited. And whatever damage took place remained unspoken, for almost a lifetime – but we’ll come back to that later.
While a scenario like this was enough to damage any child, there was another form of trauma taking place during this time, and the years that followed.
My father was never told “I love you” by his dad. Not once in the 60 plus years of his own father’s life did he hear those words. There was little to no affection shown either, as “It just wasn’t in him to give, or show,” as my father tried to explain.
The cycle had been created: my father’s ability to express love for his children was at best, lukewarm. Nor did he find us a priority in his life.
Something he’d grow to regret later.
Sadly, at my sister’s wedding, and then my wedding a decade or more later, my father came up to speak, and included an apology to us both for not being a better father. Words he did not need to say, but felt it necessary anyway.
My sister and I have long forgiven him for the things he never did. Instead we appreciated the fact that he chose to stick around in the days he probably wanted to leave.
Sometimes as children we forget or can’t fathom that our parents are people too. That they have their own issues, regrets, and are still processing the life they came from, the life that never was, or the fathers they wish they could have been.
Lesson 3 - Overcoming Trauma Starts by Expressing Locked-Away Feelings
My father’s childhood trauma unsettled and impacted the man he became, adding stressors and handicapping his relationship with his own children. Back then, in the 80’s and 90’s when we grew up, there wasn’t much on the topic of trauma, or how to even identify its existence within a home.
But today there is an ever-growing field of research and understanding in the subtle yet repetitive impacts of trauma, shedding new light on a dark subject.
What we know today is that parents with severe trauma as children may also have an adverse behavioural impact on their children, which has the potential to continue generation after generation.
The silver lining lay in the importance of understanding that if nothing is done, trauma will repeat itself, highlighting the need to take action, to seek help, and to begin discussing those experiences with the loved ones in our lives.
Because thankfully, the cycle can be broken.
In my father’s situation, his healing started just a few years ago, when he opened up about his childhood to us just a few years ago. This we believe has lead to breakthrough moments like the extra warmth he now shows his us from time to time. And to saying things like “I love you,” which seemed impossible before.
Now, whenever I speak to my dad over the phone, I do my best to say “I love you.”
I still struggle saying it every time. Breaking age-old thought patterns is never easy. Progress can feel glacial at times, but the sheet of ice is moving, and melting to warming all our hearts.
Trauma, it turns out, is not something that owns you. It is something any of us can work to first understand, and then gradually begin to overcome.
Lesson 4 – How My Father Discovered FLOW Before Oprah Did
When I was a kid, I’d wake to the sound of my father working in the garage behind our house, every Saturday morning.
Without fail, regardless of the season, we’d hear whirling, cutting, hammering, and drilling from his myriad of worn out construction tools while the rest of us, my big sister, mom and I, slept our Saturday mornings away.
I’d ask mom why dad never slept in, or didn’t just relax with us over a bowl of cereal and Saturday morning cartoons?
“It’s Saturday morning mom!!” I’d protest regularly vein.
But mom would just calmly reply, “It’s okay Goran. Your dad is happy. He’s doing something he loves on his day off. You’ll understand someday.”
But I didn’t understand. How could someone love hammering away in a garage on a Saturday? Where was the fun in that? What was I missing?
Years would go by…
I’d grow into a young man, finishing University, discovering love and heartbreak. I’d move overseas, living and working in London, England. Then I’d finally make Vancouver, Canada my new home. I’d struggle at first but eventually find a way to prosper.
Unexpectedly I’d become a consultant, pushing myself hard in the corporate world, placing all my energy, determination and hard work into that world. Early days and late nights. I’d created financial wealth at a relatively young age. On the surface everything should have been perfect. But all of a sudden, I realized something was missing.
Then I remember what my mom had said long ago over a bowl Captain Crunch Cereal (I was eating the cereal, not her) - that our father, with what little free time he had, did something he loved each and every Saturday morning in the garage.
Dad didn’t do it for the money. He did it because he loved it.
My father worked in the garage on Saturday mornings to master his skills, to eventually become a highly sought craftsman in his trade.
It was a simple pleasure for him, to build and create beautiful things. And that I could understand.
So just over two years ago I started doing what I loved.
In 2017 I took a break from the corporate world and I founded my own website, an online magazine of sorts, filled with real life stories, interviews, and simple life lessons that focus on personal development and career advice, told through good old fashion story telling.
I founded the website because the world need more good in the world. But honesty, I created the website because I love to write.
Writing is my Flow, which if you haven’t heard, is the psychology of optimal experience. Writing pushes my creative limits, develops my skills, and brings a feeling of joy that’s hard to describe. Time loses meaning. And after a productive session, my cup feels full for hours.
Now I can’t wait for Saturday mornings, for the same reason my father did.
But there was one last lesson in it all.
Lesson 5 – Success takes Discipline, Hard Work, and a Personal Desire for Perfection.
This lesson is the shortest but the most difficult of all, because it takes place over a long period of time. Time enough for us to falter, slip, and fail. To give up and stop because we don’t see the results right away.
What we do, or who we want to work on becoming, may not make a whole lot of sense to others. But for those willing to continue, there is truth in the old platitude that practice makes perfect.
The 10,000 hours rule may no longer hold true across all spectrums, but working hard, expressing our determination through action, and ensuring quality in our work, pays off over time.
My father worked 10 -12 hours each day to put food on the table, and because he cared about the quality of his work. Saturdays he developed his skills further because it was part of his personal drive to become better at what he did.
He didn’t leave construction sites or office building because the clock hit 4, or 5, or later. He left when the job was done right. He was authentic to himself in this. And perhaps that’s the greatest lesson for us all.