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