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.

When Friends Let Friends Down

Dear Mr. Dad: My eight-year old daughter’s best friend—a girl she’s known since kindergarten—just moved out of the area. My daughter doesn’t make friends very easily—she’s always had a small number of pretty intense friendships—and she seems particularly devastated that this girl is leaving town. I’m worried about her. Is there anything I can do to make her feel better?
A: Losing a friend—whether because of a physical separation or a relationship-ending disagreement—is usually a major event in a child’s life. Unfortunately, though, too few parents take these breakups seriously enough, and may try to comfort a child with a well-meaning but flip, “Don’t worry, you’ll find another friend” or “You can always email each other.” I’m glad you’re taking your daughter’s loss more seriously.

The truth is that children at this age make very deep emotional attachments to their friends, and although losing friends is a normal part of growing up, friends are not interchangeable. Parents need to encourage children to explore and understand why a friendship ended (although in this case, it’s pretty clear—at least to you). Otherwise, “they can end up blaming themselves, and that self-blame may make them wary of forming new friendships in the future,” says psychotherapist Mary Lamia. Reassuring your daughter that she’s in no way to blame for her friend moving, may help.

On the other hand, as irrational as it seems to most adults, your daughter may be very angry at her friend for leaving. So if you have any suspicion that she’s blaming her friend, it’s important that you gently encourage her to forgive. “Hurt feelings, disappointment, and transgressions are an inevitable part of close friendship,” says Lamia.

You’re absolutely right to be concerned about your daughter’s reactions. “Children often compare potential new friends to the old one,” says Lamia. “And usually, the new ones can’t compare.” You may need to remind your daughter that establishing a friendship often takes time. Encourage her to talk about the feelings and emotions she’s experiencing, and let her know that you understand how hard it can be to lose a friend, and that being sad, angry, and hurt is perfectly normal.

At the end of the day, your daughter will be okay, Although it comes naturally to some, for others, making friends is very difficult. And since your daughter values quality over quantity (and that’s just fine—as long as the quantity isn’t zero), it may take her longer than you think to move on. If she’s still down in the dumps in a few weeks, talk to her pediatrician about getting her some counseling.
In the meantime, here are seven characteristics that researchers believe (and common sense confirms) are critical to forming long-lasting, healthy friendships:

  • Friends share—anything from toys to secrets.
  • Friends help each other. This might mean anything from helping a fellow preschooler look for a lost doll to helping a fellow twelve-year-old deal with the death of a parent.
  • Friends forgive. This is easy enough for a toddler, a little harder for school-age kids, and pretty tough for pre-adolescents.
  • Friends manage their conflicts. Everyone has fights once in a while, but friends are willing to spend the time it takes to work things out.
  • Friends are active participants in maintaining the relationship and don’t just wait for the others to call.
  • Friends want the chance to be open and frank with someone who is open and frank with them.
  • Friends keep each other’s confidences and stick up for each other.