Losing Dad: How a Man Responds to the Death of His Father

by A Manly Guest Contributor on June 8, 2010 · 117 comments

in Relationships & Family

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Brian Burnham. Mr. Burnham holds a Masters of Education in Counseling from the College of William and Mary and is a Care Coordinator for Riverside Behavioral Health Center.

“His heritage to his children wasn’t words or possessions, but an unspoken treasure, the treasure of his example as a man and a father.” — Will Rogers Jr.

While growing up, our fathers, whether for good or ill, are our earliest and strongest examples of manliness. Even for those who grow up fatherless his influence is a major one, conspicuous for its absence. It is therefore only natural that the death of a man’s father is an event that holds incredible and often very painful significance. When I last wrote for the Art of Manliness, I spoke to the ways in which men grieve. It is not surprising that many of the men who responded to that article alluded to the loss of their father. While a man grieving the loss of his father will go through an experience similar to what was previously discussed, the fact that the deceased is the man’s father makes the experience unique. Many men who have lost their fathers describe it as a loss like no other. They report that the way they grieved their father was different from any other grief that they experienced and often felt that the only people who could readily understand were other men that had also lost their fathers. ((Veerman, D., & Barton, B. (2003). When Your Father Dies: How a Man Deals with the Loss of His Father. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishing.)) I know that I certainly felt this way when my father passed in February 2009. It is that uniqueness, as well as the short and long term effects of losing a father, that I hope to address here.

In their book When Your Father Dies: How a Man Deals with the Loss of His Father, Dave Veerman and Bruce Barton interviewed sixty men from all walks of life who had lost their fathers. While each man’s story was unique, the authors identified and described the common themes that readily emerged from these accounts.

Vulnerability. When our father dies, we frequently lose much more than the person of our father. It’s often surprising to men how the world doesn’t stop at his passing. Sons are acutely aware of their father’s passing, and when the world doesn’t share that same awareness it can leave the grieving son feeling terribly alone and isolated from a world that doesn’t seem to understand. Many men experience a sense of being an orphan even if their mother is still alive because they feel so alone in the world. This sense of vulnerability is compounded by the fact that for many of us our fathers served as a kind of shield. We knew that we could count on dad for help and advice when things turned against us. With his father gone, the son may not know where he can turn in a crisis and feel vulnerable and afraid. This holds true as well for men who had a negative or non-existent relationship with their fathers. While dad may not have been a protector or provider, men still feel vulnerable and alone, often feeling that they are the only ones that can break negative cycles in their families.

Awareness of Mortality. As I noted in my last article, we live in a culture that prefers to deny and avoid the reality of death. However when a man loses his father the reality that life is finite and that he too will someday die becomes inescapable. While this realization can come anytime death touches us, it is particularly potent when we lose our fathers. This is because many men see their father as part of themselves and a small part of them has died with their dad. Not only is the inevitability of death driven home, but also its finality. The son knows that he will never (at least in this life) see his father again, and that when he too dies it will be just as final. Some may say, “So what, death is an objective fact, why should losing a particular person make this fact so much more frightening?” The problem is the illusion of control. We as men all operate under the assumption that we are in command of our own destiny, that we are in control. In many cases this is more or less accurate; however, when it comes to death, this simply isn’t true. Having our protective illusion stripped from us is terribly emasculating since no amount of self-control or problem solving can bring back the dead. This leaves the surviving son grieving not only his father, but also the new understanding he has reached.

Loss of Audience. It’s a classic American image, the son playing sports and the father coaching and cheering him on. This dynamic between father and son isn’t limited to sports but extends to many areas of a son’s life. A son will often go out of his way to please his father, and he is one of the few people that it is acceptable to truly brag to. We can proudly bring home our trophies and A+ papers to show to dad, and this dynamic extends well in to adulthood as men share their accomplishments in college, their career, and family. When our father is gone it feels, not like the audience is missing a member, but the whole audience is gone. For sons who are also fathers themselves this loss extends to not being able to share the accomplishments of their children with the proud grandfather and not being able to seek out advice for parenting. Many sons miss dad not only when they need parenting advice, but when they need their old coach in any area of life that’s giving them trouble. For a man whose father was distant or absent, this loss of audience was felt long before his father’s death as he struggled in vain to earn his father’s approval. Now at his death the loss is doubled as the son realizes he can never gain the approval he craved when his father was alive.

Taking Up the Mantle. In many ways the death of a father serves as a right of passage, though a painful and difficult one. This is due to the fact that for many sons their inheritance is less about property and more about responsibility. Many men, regardless of their age when their father died, feel like they grew up suddenly and significantly when it happened. Their father’s death leaves a vacuum in the family dynamic, and sons often feel compelled to step up to try to fill their father’s role. This is especially true if the father had been the leader and protector of the family. Sons may feel a great deal of pressure and may not feel up to the task of protecting and leading the family. If Mom is still alive, then caring for her will often be a central focus of this sense of responsibility. At best this will lead to growth for the son, and the family will pull together and become closer as it adjusts to the new dynamics. However, this is not always the case. Family members may resist the son’s efforts to take a leadership role; siblings may even compete for leadership within the family. At worst this can lead to a family disintegrating without the presence of the father that had once held them together. For men whose fathers were absent or abusive, the idea of taking up their father’s mantle is sometimes frightening. These sons have no desire to fill the same dysfunctional role as their father and feel an intense pressure to break the painful cycles that their father had embodied.

A Long Shadow. As a boy grows, he learns many lessons and skills from his father who serves as his mentor and teacher. The son also quickly learns that in these circumstances it is often better to do things his father’s way both because he has more experience and because it is often not worth the hassle of disobedience. Sons long for the approval of their fathers and live to be told “good job.” This desire for a father’s approval and dislike of disapproval extends into adulthood and men are not free of it even after their father’s death. Sons will often feel the presence of their father when they use skills that they learned from him, visit places associated with him, or use his possessions. When it comes to these possessions many men report keeping a memento or two of their father that helps them stay connected to him. For me personally, it is my father’s drafting tools and his wedding band, which serves as my own. However, sons can find it difficult to get rid of or make changes to their father’s property. They often feel like they’re trespassing and feel the sting of their father’s disapproval. They may also feel this sense of disapproval when they choose to do things in a way other than “Dad’s way.” Conversely sons will still long for their father’s approval, holding up things they do to scrutiny and asking themselves “Would dad be proud?” In this way the long shadow of our fathers affects the way we live our lives long after his passing. This is superficially similar to the “loss of audience” experience because in both experiences the grieving son longs to interact with his dad again. The experience of the long shadow differs, however, in that it is less about having someone to watch and cheer and more more about seeking approval and avoiding disapproval.

Our Father’s Legacy. As the son progresses through the grieving process, one of the tasks he will inevitably work through is sorting through the legacy his father has left him. Men will often look at the life of their fathers and that of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers to try to take stock of their heritage and to see how their father’s values and lifestyle have influenced them. Some sons will look back happily on men of character and values that they admire and hope to emulate. Other sons will look back to see a chain of flaws, faults, and abuses-a legacy they’d rather leave behind. But even these sons usually seek some positive quality in their father’s legacy that they can hold onto. For the son who is also a father, examining the legacy also comes with the realization that they too are a link in this chain, that someday they will be passing the legacy on to their own children. Many men are inspired by this to forge stronger relationships with their children so that the legacy they leave is one that their children can be proud of when it is their turn to mourn their father.

While these themes are typical of men that have lost their fathers and lend the perspective and understanding that is an important part of healing, it is extremely difficult to effectively capture the uniqueness and complexity of this experience. I personally continue to struggle to understand the loss of my father. Even as I wrote this article I would at times have to stop as memories came flooding back and all I could do was sit there at my keyboard and cry. Even as I struggle though, I know that I have gained at least one thing from mourning my father, a determination to live a life that will find me worthy to be called my father’s son. For each reader who is a son who has lost their father I would encourage you to do two things. First I would encourage you to struggle. While this may seem odd, it is in working through the turmoil of mourning that we stand to gain the most as men. Second I would encourage you to seek out the company of other men in the same position. They can provide some of the strongest support. Fortunately for us, AoM is an excellent place to seek out the support of our fellow men.

To this end I have started a Group in the AoM Community, “Remembering Dad,” for men who have lost their fathers. It is a place to mourn, celebrate, and remember our fathers and a place for men to share experiences and draw strength from one another. I invite you to join up.

Now I would like to turn it over to the reader to share stories of their dads and their struggle so that we can together search for meaning.


When Your Father Dies: How a Man Deals with the Loss of His Father by Dave Veerman and Bruce Barton

{ 117 comments… read them below or add one }

101 Pete November 18, 2013 at 2:11 pm

My father died on February 1st, 2012. He had dementia with Lewy body. He withered away to nothing before our eyes. It’s rather typical, but he was always a strong presence. He was a Marine, a carpenter, and an engineer. He rarely gave any sign of approval or encouragement but seemed rather to find pleasure in making sure I new I wasn’t as good as he was. I didn’t expect to morn. I didn’t expect it to last so long. After his death, it was like everything just crumbled. My brother-in-law died shortly after, and he was one of my best supporters as my father as dying. A few months after that, I lost my job. I took a new one that was awful and had to change. Now, I’m making less than half what I was making before, and struggling to pay the rent. My family has fallen apart too. My mother is all alone. She and my sister barely speak. One of my nieces is in jail for armed robbery. One of them has a baby with a junkie who is likely to go to jail for a very long time. He just reject a 12 month plea deal. My other niece is suicidal and has been in and out of the hospital recently. No one even liked this man. How could he have left such a path of destruction through my family with his passing?

102 Anon November 28, 2013 at 8:33 pm

I lost my mother to cancer (apparently lymphoma the doctors weren’t sure) 6 years ago, it was scarily quick, she only found out something was wrong a 2 weeks before. I was the only one at her death bed, it wasn’t a pleasant experience of closure and saying goodbyes, it was a frightening experience of watching your mother scared out of her mind while her organs shut down one by one knowing her life was slipping away, having her clinging desperately to her hand knowing you were powerless to do anything to help her. As I watched her last breath from all her struggle, it just numbed all my emotions, I didn’t cry, I just sealed it all away so I could keep robotically functioning day to day.

On my mothers death I took over the part time care of my Father who had Parkinson’s disease, sold up my house and moved in to my parent’s house with my partner. I felt it a duty as he had taken care of us (my brother and I) and was always patiently there for us when we needed him without fail. My brother opted out helping which I resent him still a bit for, but that’s just his character. The next 5 years were quite taxing, but I got to know my father really well, you sort of get to when you have to cook for him, dress him, bathe him, see him naked, help him with toileting and clean up accidents after him. And for those years I am very grateful as I would not have otherwise got to know him so closely if he was in normal health. My father was not one to show emotions or talk about his feelings let alone be a hugging type of person. I never saw my father get angry or upset at all during those hard years, something I will always be amazed of.

I ended the 10 year relationship with my partner during that time, I think she couldn’t handle the stress of work and having to care for dad along with our relationship and decided to relieve that by having an affair with a 50 year old. With the anger and humiliation I felt, I closed off my emotions again during that time and started going through my days robotically so I could just get on with it. I dropped the ball with looking after Dad and stopped putting the effort in, it was just basic needs keeping him alive making his food etc and not spending the quality time with him like I used to. Six months later I came home from after a couple hours of work found him slumped in his chair motionless and not breathing; I did 20 minutes of CPR but could not revive him. After the ambulance came and tried also, he was declared dead and they zipped up his body in a body bag to be taken to the morgue. The police questioned me for a couple of hours and decided there was nothing “suspicious”. I spent the rest of the night in the house awake and alone, “what if” scenarios playing over and over in my head.

My Father’s death affected me a lot more than my Mothers. My parents were both in their late 60s, still fairly young, I in my late 30s. They were fundamental life changing experiences for me, feelings of guilt and grief which still often keep me up at nights.

I now exercise and eat healthy almost religiously, no more alcohol, smoking, drugs at all like my younger years. I quit my job and have spent my time renovating their old house with dad’s old tools. I use his old shoes, his favorite cap which I wear a lot and I keep my parents wedding rings as a reminder around my neck. My plan after finishing is to rent the house and travel and experience life for some years with what inheritance money I have left and see what happens. I hope burying my parents ashes (when I finish the house, they’re still with me) will bring some sort of closure.

I’ve read stories with people struggling through such experiences which fundamentally change them for the better, for me there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel but I’m not there yet.

I think for most people who have not yet experienced such loss directly up front, it’s just something you know that’s always in the back of the mind but they’re bad and horrible things which happen to other people not yourself.

One thing I was unprepared for was the loneliness and isolation of going through these events. It’s something I still think about almost every day. As a man trying to talk to other people about such heavy issues seemed to yield the same kind of response.

“Lots of people suffer in life you know, just man up and deal with it… so how’s [quickly change the subject]?”

Maybe being a woman could make it easier to talk about and express these issues, but as a man having these kinds of responses just made me stop, I don’t ever talk about my experiences with anyone anymore.

It’s somewhat cathartic to read these stories, I think the death of a parent or close family member is a very much an under emphasized rite of passage in society which every person will have to go through at some time in their lives.

103 Bob November 28, 2013 at 9:51 pm

Thanks for all the posts here, my deepest condolences to you all for sharing your loss.

104 Dan Peterson January 4, 2014 at 6:51 am

I just lost my father suddenly Jan. 2 2014. Im having a harder time than I imagined I ever would dealing with it. Im 48 and will turn 49 in 3 weeks. This article describes everything I’m feeling, it’s amazing….thank you!

105 Kevin January 4, 2014 at 8:59 pm

Wow, this article describes my feelings almost to a T. My father died on October 23, 2013. He was diagnosed with cancer in February. He had surgery to remove his bladder in July and appeared to be doing very well up until the end of September. I had an excellent relationship with my father and a twin brother who is very close to me. I can’t imagine going through this without him. Dad always cheered me up after a failure and was always my first call upon a big success. I graduated college a few weeks after he passed. I feel so young to be talking about this, it seems unreal. I almost lose it when people begin getting upset about stupid, petty problems. I worked at a restaurant through college to help pay for my education and there was a girl who posted a lengthy passage on Facebook about her boyfriend breaking up with her, and that she needed God to help her through such a devastating experience. She’s in high school. It took all of my will power to not slam her because I felt her experience paled in comparison to my grief.

106 Jimmy January 5, 2014 at 5:14 pm

I loss my father on Tuesday, April 30, 2013 at 01:09. I still can’t believe it.

At first i use to cry and feel so sad but for some reason now when I think about his loss I get very upset and get so mad that I can’t even understand myself.

107 Howard Safran January 8, 2014 at 9:47 am

I lost my dad to cancer almost 3 weeks ago.

It is my feeling that the grief gets worse when it feels like after the funeral, people not related to your father, do not care enough to put themselves in the shoes, of the son. I feel like I will always keep a Legacy of my dad, but I will have to be assertive and even attempt to contact my dad’s old friends who do not even know he passed away.

It just seems to be a reality, that there is a truth that if it is not the person’s own dad, they get caught up in their own life and family.

Perhaps understanding this reality will eventually make my grief go away as time goes by (the expectation that more people would keep up with Obituary notices and respond on the Internet – Legacy was a false expectation by me).

108 Chris January 8, 2014 at 12:29 pm

My dad passed away at 61 on Christmas morning a couple weeks ago with all of us by his side. He had a massive heart attack in 2009, which he probably shouldn’t have survived, but he pulled through bypass surgery. The past 4 years had been difficult for him physically as he could no longer work like an animal like he used to. Even still, he was the same guy I knew and loved.

A few months ago he was told he needed a heart transplant. At the time, it didn’t seem like a big deal and that he’d have plenty of time to wait it out. However, he only lasted about a month at home on medication before he was readmitted to the hospital where he spent the next (and last) 2 months of his life. Those past 2 months were the most stressful of my life. There were times when we thought he wouldn’t make it and there were times (like after surgery for a heart pump) where we thought he’d finally get to come home. He was actually 1 day away from being released from the step-down unit when he went into respiratory distress and had to go back to the ICU.

Seeing him Christmas morning was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do. He was so out of it that I’m not sure he knew we were there. Despite never being emotional with one another, I had the chance to tell him I loved him and that he made me into the man I am today. Watching as they shut off all support and him fading away only minutes later carved out of a hole in my life that won’t soon be filled. I don’t know how long, if ever, it will take to start patching that hole.

109 Jeffrey January 9, 2014 at 3:43 pm

I was around 14 when my father died, he died slowly and painfully and throughout this stage of his life I felt nothing towards him. This article speaks about how bad a fathers death can be to a son but what about when the son has been emotionally abused and such. At his funeral I merely stood their in silence waiting for the day to be over to get away from people pitying me, these people hardly knew me and acted as if he was a great man and trying to console me with these lies.
But I digress, I guess he wasn’t considered a father figure and I’d be surprised if he thought of me more than anything other than a disappointment.

110 J January 21, 2014 at 3:06 am

Anyone who reads this comment and is in the disorienting aftermath of losing a parent or someone you love, just know that the intensity will subside. It won’t hurt like it does after some time passes. You’ll have peaks that come up here and there and that pain will burn some more. A lot of the time you might be seemingly indifferent to it. This is just dissociation and is a natural way to survive intense emotional pain.

There’s no escaping how life altering it is to lose a parent. The world has changed forever. We have no choice but to change. You can’t ever replace them, and that’s very confusing and painful. There will be an empty place there for the rest of your life. It is what it is. One thing that always comforted me was remembering that my Dad found himself in the same situation after losing his father around the same age. If he could bear it and keep going forward, than I certainly must.

I felt so lonely when my Dad died, that this person who I spent so much time and had been here since my first day, was suddenly gone forever. All his endless knowledge, his stories, etc., gone with him. I was so angry and sad. I’ll miss him the rest of my life.

Life doesn’t end until you take your last breath. It is an inescapable reality that every person in our life may die on any day. We live in the illusion that tomorrow will always be there until we experience our first real loss. You see that you too will die one day, and then perhaps your child will be grieving you. And on and on and on. Make your life count and don’t take the people in your life for granted. Don’t sweat the small stuff, we’ll all be dead someday. :)

111 luke January 21, 2014 at 1:25 pm

I lost my father the day before his 59th birthday, last year. This happened almost two weeks to the day before the birth of my second daughter.

Amidst all the funeral planning and arrangements along with the pending birth I gave myself very little room to grieve, partly feeling duty to be strong for my younger siblings as well who were visibly taking it much harder.

6 months later work and life begins to slow down and I find myself thinking and grieving more for my dad now then I did right after his death. Just trying to make sense of all these delayed feelings of anger and anxiety.

It’s nice to have stuff like this around because sometime I find it to difficult to talk to anyone about it and it helps me make sense of it.

Thanks for the article

112 Rob Elliott March 7, 2014 at 11:27 am

Don’t give up. I will not share my story due to lack of time, but I know there is a God in heaven who decides the fates of men according to their choices and as we strive He strives with us. Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up on trying to know and do right.

113 Thomas March 23, 2014 at 3:10 am

I found out today that my father has Liver Cancer, and the outlook is not good. While he is still physically here, the emotions going through me right now, I never felt before. I also know that when the time comes, I will want to join him. He is more than a father to me, but my best friend and someone I can call up on the phone, and just talk about what ever. Any advice please.

114 bella March 26, 2014 at 4:30 pm

Hey I’m Bella and I’m 14 years old, I was talking to this awesome guy for over a year and he’s now my boyfriend and bestfriend. He’s 16, when he was 11 his father killed himself, it’s coming up to the 5th year of his father’s death but its the first time I have been with him for it and honestly I know I will get very emotional but I don’t know how he will be feeling because I know I need to be their for him instead of him cheering me up so could someone please help me ? Thank you I would really appreciate it

115 Rich March 27, 2014 at 1:09 pm

I enjoyed reading this article as it helped me to understand a couple of things I’ve been feeling but not been able to articulate very well.
I feel constantly torn between standing tall and stepping up to curling up in a ball and crying like a child. My Dad died on the 24th January 2014, six days after my birthday. He went into hospital on Xmas day and was diagnosed with cancer shortly after. Despite being given the arbitrary figure of three months he passed away just a few short weeks later. These last three months have felt like years. I found myself suffering insomnia after I heard the prognosis. Then following weeks of minimal sleep I started to get anxiety attacks. Something I’ve never experienced in my life. I thought I was mentally strong but this one ‘life event’ has torn at the very core of me. I remember when my Grandfather died in 1990 my Dad said to me ‘Who do I go to now if I’m trouble?’ and that’s exactly how I feel now. I feel scared and alone despite all the love and support of a beautiful family. My amazing boys now cause a bittersweet pain in my heart. I’m so proud of them and love them so much but they’re a constant reminder or my Dad because he too was so proud of them. Plus I look at them and can’t help thinking that I’m going to put them through what he’s putting me through now. I wish I could see the joy on his face at the sight of my kids just one more time.
To kiss him one more time and tease him about being grumpy, which he never was really.

But he’s dead now. It’s final apparently. I need to cowboy up and crack on. Which I will.

All in good time. All in good time…

116 E April 10, 2014 at 6:56 pm

Hey Guys,
I just wanted to ask some advice from any one whom believes they have any to give. I lost my father in November due to Pancreatic cancer. I was 19 when he was diagnosed last may and he was sick till November. My father was my rock , my best friend, my everything. I had such a close relationship and now i am really feeling the pain and the hole. I am applying to medical school in the summer and this semester has been so though for me. Before I was aggressive about my goals, succeeding in every aspect. And now i feel so tired all of the time, not wanting to do anything, and really dragging myself around. I have been having so much anxiety and constantly worrying about everything. I spoke to a few other and they said I have quite the work load and really need time to morn. I am viewing myself as week as I have always been a strong person in my opinion, but it doesn’t seem like it these days……in such a critical point in my life where I am deciding my career. Please let me know what you guys think.

Best Regards

117 jeff April 14, 2014 at 7:51 pm

My dad passed away today. He was ex navy and a great father. He was a very tough man who was run over by a crane and was only given 24 hours to live. 35 years later with 4 kids and a wife he pulled through and beat the odds many times. This time I think god needed his help. Love you dad. R.I.P. Richard C. Washington boatswain’s mate United States Navy.

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