Preparing for the Death of a 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
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
* 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
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
* 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
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
* Expose yourself to death.
For most sons, the loss of a father is the first
death in their immediate family. They haven't
before 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 oneself 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.
* * *
years, Neil Chethik has made it his goal to find
out what men really think -- about family,
relationships, fathering, aging, sex, and more. He
is the author of two best-selling books,
(Hyperion) and VoiceMale
(Simon & Schuster). Hes been a nationally
syndicated columnist, a big-hall speaker, and now,
the national medias go-to guy for what men
really think about their everyday lives. Contact:
Neil Chethik, P.O. Box 8071, Lexington, KY 40533 or
859.361.1659 or E-Mail
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