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.