Helping Dad Grieve

Dear Mr. Dad: My mom passed away three months ago. I moved into my parents’ home to support my dad through these hard times. The problem is that it’s like I’m in prison where I can’t do anything. I feel sad and depressed and find myself crying a lot during the day. Is that normal? My dad and I don’t get along either. He’s messy and I’m not. I like structure and he doesn’t. It’s a nightmare—what can I do?

A: When you look at lists of the most stressful life events, the death of a spouse or close family member and moving to a new house are at or near the top. You and your dad are both dealing with a huge amount of pressure. As a result, it’s not surprising that there’s some friction between you.

Losing a parent is very different than losing a spouse (notice that I’m not saying “more” or “less,” “easier” or “harder”—just “different”).

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The Death of Your Father

Sigmund Freud called it “the most poignant loss” of his life. Sean Connery termed it “a shattering blow.” Norman Mailer likened it to “having a hole in your tooth. It’s a pain that can never be filled.” Each year, more than 1.5 million American boys and men lose their fathers to death. And like the three men mentioned above, most are unprepared.

But preparation is possible. Recently, in writing a book about father-loss, I asked 70 ordinary men what they did – or wish they’d done – to ready themselves for the deaths of their dads. Here’s their best advice for sons whose fathers are alive:

* Make peace with your dad.

This was by far the most common suggestion. Sons put it in a variety of ways: “Say what you have to say before it’s too late.” “As quickly as you can, resolve those old issues.” “If you have any conflicts, clear them up.”

The reason for peacemaking: Sons who are estranged from, angry with, or otherwise unresolved with their dads have the hardest time recovering from a father’s death. In addition to their sadness over the loss, these sons often wrestle for years with regrets, resentments, and might-have-beens.

On the other hand, sons who are at peace with the fathers tend to mourn intensely in the short-term, but rebound more quickly.

How can a son make peace with his father? Some feel a need to clear the air, to express lingering disappointment or anger. Others need only to thank their dads. One man told me that at the age of 37, he spontaneously hugged his dad, “and then there was just this melting. I don’t recall ever resenting him again.”

* Care for your father if he is ill.

Many sons told me they were never closer to their dads than during the weeks leading up to the father’s death. They often felt free to comfort him, to care for him – to father him.

One son, who’d sat by his father’s bedside, swabbing the older man’s forehead and lips, during the days before the death, said: “It was hard. But I wouldn’t have traded it for anything…. He took care of me, I’m taking care of him. There was that mutual, ‘coming-full-circle’ aspect of it.”

Another son took his widowed dad into his home for the last two years of the father’s life. After the death, this son relished the memory of that time together: “It was an important period because I’d kind of lost fellowship with my father. He was more of a stranger than a father…. It was a time for me and my dad to get to know each other again.”

* Talk with your father about his death.

This may seem morbid, or just plain rude. But most of the men who did this told me their fathers were glad to talk. Sons, it turns out, are often more afraid of a father’s death than is the father himself.

Still, finesse is important. One son handled the conversation deftly, approaching his 87-year-old father with these words: “I’d like to be able to carry out your wishes after your death. To do that, I need to know what your wishes are.”

The result was a conversation in which the son learned what kind of medical treatment his father wanted in late-life, what kind of funeral he wanted, and what he wanted done with some of his prized personal possessions.

The son also got a bonus: He saw that his father, who’d had a stroke, was not resisting death. Knowing this helped the son accept the death as well.

* Expose yourself to death.

For most sons, the loss of a father is the first death in their immediate family. They have never watched the dying process up-close, and they don’t know what to expect from themselves or family members during the crisis. For such sons, it may help to acquaint themselves with death before it occurs in one’s own family.

One man did this by volunteering at Hospice, keeping company with people in the last days and hours of their lives. This man told me: “Death is something we tend to avoid… until it’s thrust upon us…. Doing something like (Hospice) – a familiarity comes. I got accustomed to death.”

Reading about death also can help, whether it’s biblical scripture, poetry, even self-help books. One Christian man told me that as his father was dying, he read the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying to get a Buddhist view on the life-death cycle. It helped him enormously. “If you see (death) as a natural thing,” he said, “it takes a lot of the sting out of it.”

Of course, no matter how thoroughly you prepare for a father’s death, you cannot fully mourn it in advance. And you generally can’t predict how you will respond. Some sons told me they expected to be crestfallen at the loss, but felt only relief. Others knew the death was coming, but still were shocked at the finality that it brought.

Nonetheless, consciously preparing for loss has value. By removing at least some of the surprise of the loss, and by intentionally bringing closure to relationship with the dying person, it can take the hard edge off the mourning to come.

Got a teen? You need to know about the 5 most dangerous teen jobs

Okay, this is going to be a bit of a downer, but if you’re the parent of a teen who’s going to be out trying to find work this summer, you need to read this.

Every year, about about 146,000 young people 15-24 suffer a work-related injury. That’s 400 every day. In addition, 2012 has seen some rather shocking cases of teens getting killed on the job. Here are just a few example from a just-release report by the National Consumers League.

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Women with skin cancer do better than men — and it’s not estrogen

A new study found that men with skin cancer are 30% more likely to die or have a recurrence than women. Researchers thought that estrogen might have a protective effect. But the reasons are more complicated. You should check out my article on the  Talking About Men’s Health blog, here.

 

 

Talking about Death and Dying

Dear Mr. Dad: Recently, my wife’s father passed away after a very long illness. My son, who just turned six, seems to be taking it in stride, but I can tell that he really doesn’t understand what’s going on. How can I explain to him what happened to his grandfather in terms that he’ll understand? Or should I even worry about it? Is he too young to really understand the meaning of death?

A: Let me start by offering my condolences to your family.

The short answer to your question is that while your son does understand that something pretty significant has changed (after all, his grandfather isn’t there anymore), you’re right: he isn’t old enough to fully understand what death is. Even at his young age, he’s already had some experience with death—seeing dead bugs and insects, road kill animals, perhaps even the death of a pet. But he’s too young to truly grasp how permanent death is (that’s a concept that may be hard for older kids too—in the age of video games, if a character dies, all you have to do is restart the game and life goes on). So you’ll need to do some age-appropriate explaining.

At six, how quickly and fully your son understands will largely be a function of how mature he is. But there are several important ground rules. First, be prepared to answer questions—you may get a whole slew of them all at once, you may get the same one over and over, or some combination of the two. For that reason, be sure to make it clear to your son that it’s okay to ask as many questions as he has, as often as he wants to ask them. Keep in mind that for at least another few years, your child will be processing just about everything that happens to him through the “how is this going to affect ME?” filter. He may not be asking the question, but he’s definitely thinking about whether—and when—the same thing will happen to him (even if he’s not quite sure what that means).

Second, explain what death is, but be careful. Telling him that grandpa was very sick and that his body stopped working is a good place to start. But stay far, far away from euphemisms like “grandpa fell asleep,” or “he went away,” or “we lost grandpa.” Most of us—adults included—don’t really like talking about death, so we come up with all sorts of ways to avoid talking about what actually happened. But if you don’t give clear, simple explanations, your son’s imagination will kick in and you could end up with a child who’s petrified of falling asleep, having people go away for a while, or of losing anything (including himself). Again, be prepared to answer his questions again and again.

Third, if your child doesn’t ask many questions, encourage him. Ask him whether he misses grandpa—and let him know that you do too. If you think he’s having trouble coming to terms with the death, ask him to draw a picture of a happy memory he has of his grandfather. That can help him deal with the loss in his own way, plus it can start the important process of keeping his grandfather’s memory alive.

Finally, don’t worry if you don’t have all the answers to his questions. Give him as much information as you can without making stuff up. And let him know that you’ll find out whatever it is you don’t know and get back to him.

Keeping memories alive

Dear Mr. Dad: My father died when I was a teenager and now that I’m a dad myself, I find myself missing him more and more. Of course, my children never met him, but is there a way to include him in their lives, to keep his memory and the wonderful lessons he taught me, even though he’s not here anymore?

A: For many of us, our own parents can be a constant source of advice, and without that sounding board—even if we swore we’d never be the kind of parents they were—it’s easy to feel lost.

Your dad may be physically gone, but there are lots of ways to keep his memory alive. The best is to talk about him often with your children. If you have an important memento, display it in your house and tell your kids why it was special to Grandpa.
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