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Men's Health

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On the Death of My Father

How one son coped with his father’s illness and death
WebMD Feature

My father lived with me and my family during the last two years of his life while he sank ever deeper into Alzheimer’s disease.

His behavior was frequently bizarre. He might emerge from his bedroom with three of my son’s baseball caps piled on top of his head but wearing no pants. When trying to participate in a conversation, he might blurt out passionate pronouncements that made no sense at all. “Ya see, the individualism is something that’s not already formed,” he would bellow. “You gotta fight it!”

At the same time, as the dementia brought down his defenses, all of his emotions flowed more freely. The pleasure he found in being with his family, his sense of humor, his kindness ― all of these things emerged stronger than ever.

Seeing him so exposed helped me recognize how much of him had seeped into me. I started to hear his indignation in my own voice as well as his laughter. I could even feel his facial expressions on my own face.

The loss of a father produces a complicated form of grief in a son. The emptiness created by a father’s death quickly fills with volatile emotions ― sadness mixed with relief, affection mixed with lingering resentments, appreciation mixed with sharp criticism. That’s why a man’s grief over his father’s death often emerges in disguised forms.

Four ways of reacting to a father’s death

In his book FatherLoss, Neil Chethik divides the men he interviewed into four types based on their reactions to the death of their father:

  • Dashers speed through mourning and get on with their life, often without any crying. Instead, they take a rational approach to their father’s death. Dad was old, they’ll reason. Or, at least he’s out of his misery. “Dashers thought their way through their grief,” Chethik says.
  • Delayers also display little emotion at the time. But a delayer experiences a strong reaction to his father’s death in the months or even years that follow. This might happen after building a community of support or coming to understand his feelings better.
  • Displayers, in contrast, express powerful and acute emotional reactions when their fathers die. “They tended to experience their grief as happening to them,” Chethik says. “They were not in control of it.”
  • Doers ― about 40% of the total ― are deeply moved when their fathers die. But a doer deals with it through action. For example, one man Chethik interviewed used his father’s tools to build a container for his ashes. “What set doers apart was their focus on action,” Chethik says. “Most often, the actions were things that consciously connected a son with the memory of his father.”

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