On Tuesday 12 May 1992, my father was murdered and my world changed forever.
At 3pm, a teacher came to my classroom to tell me my mother had requested that I go home urgently. I will never forget that heart-sinking feeling at the thought that something terrible had happened. I arrived home to be greeted by police cars and the sound of my sister crying in the living room – a sound that will stay with me forever.
My mother took me upstairs and told me my father had died that morning. I have never held her so tightly. I would never see my dad again, I thought. I would never play football with him again and I would never hold his hand again. I was 12.
After I was told, I fled the house, got on my bike, and went back to school to see one of my closest friends, whose father had died of lung cancer when she was nine. I remember dropping my bike on the school driveway, running towards her and collapsing into her arms. I whispered two words – “Dad’s dead”, then sank to the floor and burst into tears.
It was not until I came back home that evening that my uncle sat me down to tell me that Dad had not died in a car crash, as I had at first thought, but had been murdered.
At the time, our family had a cleaner who was going through a difficult divorce and my parents were helping her through it. The husband would check her post to try to find anything that pointed to his wife having an affair. Because of this, she had her post redirected to our house so my father could keep it and pass it safely on to her.
On 12 May, the husband followed his wife to the house where my father delivered the post. He turned up to find my father’s car outside. He went to a local shop where he stole a boning knife, then returned to the house where my father and the woman were drinking coffee in the kitchen.
After a brief struggle, the man pulled out the knife and stabbed my father twice, killing him instantly and then turning on his wife. The wife ran out of the house and the man grabbed another knife from the kitchen and continued to stab my father. He then buried the knife in the garden and left.
He was later caught and went to prison for four years.
That evening, as my uncle told me how my father had died, my feeling was one of anger and I swore to do to the man what he had done to my father. I even picked up my father’s pocket knife, telling my uncle that I would get revenge.
After he died, I stopped playing sport – it was too painful a reminder of the times we had spent together
Deep down, though, I knew that the only way I could live my life was to make peace with myself. It sounds strange, but I always tried to stay positive after my father’s murder. I had to make peace with myself at an early age for the good of my future.
I still vividly remember my father’s funeral. I was standing outside the church when one of my father’s friends approached. “You are now the man of the family,” he said. For a 12-year-old boy who had just lost his role model, it was quite a burden to be told I was now responsible for looking after my mother and two sisters.
For many years, I wouldn’t talk about what happened. I locked the memories away. But I could never forget my dad’s smile, or how quickly he walked and how I struggled to keep up with him when holding his hand. I had loved spending time with him, particularly playing football or tennis. After he died, I stopped playing sport – it was too painful a reminder of the times we had spent together.
The grieving process is strange. No matter how you experience it, one day you are fine and the next the grief hits you like a sledgehammer.
Throughout my teenage years, my grief had turned to anger and frustration – why had this happened to me? The last thing on my mind was leaving school with good grades. But I was extremely fortunate to have a support network that kept me on the right path. I had an incredible mother who loved me and accepted that things would be OK in time, and my friends were supportive and understanding.
I have always believed that I have been guided subconsciously by something; perhaps my father has been helping me along the way.
On 17 April 2011, I became a father for the first time. I was a dad to a baby boy, Otis. To hold your child for the first time is a magical moment, but for me it felt extra special. All of my emotions and heartache had washed away at that moment, and all I felt was love for this baby.
I had never really thought about the emotional legacy of my father’s murder until I became a father myself. Now, nearly 25 years after my father’s death, I am married to Simone and have two children, Otis, six, and Thea, two. But the overwhelming sense of loss is still great and I can’t help but wonder how this traumatic event made me the parent I am today. The obvious consequence was that losing a role model at such a young age left me without a male figure to go to for advice.
I would also find it painful visiting friends’ houses, seeing them with their fathers. I did become very close to one friend and his family. They would let me stay over and eat with them; and I have always tried to take inspiration from my friend’s father. Mainly, though, I enjoyed the strong sense of family they had together. This is what I missed most in losing my own father so young.
I have been very lucky to be helped by people who simply cared and this has helped me be the father I am today.
If there is one hero in this tragic event, it is my mum. The strength she must have had to carry on with three children is incredible and I will never understand how she kept so strong following the loss of her husband, just as I will never be able to comprehend why another person would want to cause so much senseless destruction, affecting so many lives in the process.
Since becoming a dad, I have always known that the time will come when I will have to sit down with my children to tell them what happened to Grandpa. Otis has recently been asking questions about where Grandpa is and why he isn’t alive any more. I guess it is about dealing with it in stages throughout his life. But the time will come eventually.
It was not until my mid-20s that I looked for proper help. The greatest challenge for anyone struggling with their mental health is to open up and be brave enough to talk about how they are feeling. I was helped greatly by the bereavement charity Cruse.
By speaking about this subject so publicly, my hope is that, in some way, I can help a young person experiencing a similar loss.
Fantastic charities such as Winston’s Wish and Cruse understand the impact of bereavement at a young age and have developed a range of practical support and guidance for children, their families and professionals. They offer specialist support programmes for children affected by deaths related to murder, manslaughter, suicide or the military community.
Writing about something so personal has been hard, but strangely cathartic. Four words have always stuck with me: time is my healer. Time doesn’t make dealing with my father’s tragic loss any easier, but it does enable me to learn how to cope with the loss.
I hope that in some way my experience has taught me to enjoy life and love my family even more. It has certainly given me an outlook on life that can only come from losing someone so precious. It has made me stronger, both for myself and for my family.
• Mark Lemon’s latest book, Thea Lemon and Her Super Sporty Fairy Godmother, is published by lemondropbooks.co.uk