On the Death of My Father

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

Medically Reviewed by Amal Chakraburtty, MD on July 01, 2007
5 min read

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.”

Chethik does not judge these reactions. He doesn’t rank them according to what they say about a man’s mental health. He just describes them, recognizing that the death of one’s father “has a monumental impact on most men, especially when the son doesn’t have a close relationship with him.” One of the most gratifying aspects of writing FatherLoss, Chethik says, is that it brought him closer to his own father, one of the people he interviewed for the book.

“It was an opportunity to sit down and talk about him and his relationship with his father,” Chethik says, “and his reaction when his father died. I had a chance to learn about my father’s life by asking him about his father’s death. We had a chance to connect.”

A son’s failure to make a connection with his father can be a source of lingering grief that easily breeds depression after his father dies, according to Robert Glover, a marriage and family therapist in Bellevue, Washington. In No More Mr. Nice Guy!,Glover argues that fathers often shape their sons most by being absent. This leaves boys to be raised by women ― mothers, sisters, teachers ― who might be more likely to emphasize the importance of being a “nice guy,” Glover says.

While being nice hardly seems like a problem, Glover argues that it causes some men to suppress their own needs and devote themselves to winning approval. That can make them inherently dishonest, especially in their relations with women. Instead, Glover urges men to acknowledge their own needs and become more “integrated.”

“An integrated male is able to embrace everything that makes him unique: his power, his assertiveness, his courage, and his passion as well as his imperfections, his mistakes, and his dark side,” he writes in No More Mr. Nice Guy!

Having an attentive father as a healthy role model can help a son accept his own masculinity, Glover says, and grow into an honest, authentic, and integrated man.

“If dad is available, that’s when the modeling and the attachment take place,” Glover says. “Many societies have rituals of manhood ― the man gets ready to leave the nursery. They make the transition from seeking comfort to seeking challenge, and I think men need men to help them do that.”

As a result, the loss of the father can leave a man with overwhelming grief if he never forged a bond with his father, even if his father was difficult, disagreeable, or downright abusive.

“Once dad is dead … well, it’s harder to deal with ghosts than with real people,” says Glover, who recently decided to rekindle a relationship with his own aging father. “Nobody’s dad was either that great or that bad. He was just a wounded human being, and guys who have a chance to work that out before dad dies seem to draw comfort from that.”

How a father lives on in his son

I did not cry when my father died. I probably appeared to be one of those sons Chethik describes who dash through grief. But I had done my grieving in the months before my father’s death, as he gradually evaporated before my eyes. I experienced the “ambiguous loss” that Pauline Boss describes in her book of the same title ― my father was there, right in front of me, and yet he was not there. His death, in a way, provided blessed clarity ― he was finally, unambiguously gone.

I felt like crying a couple of times, but the tears never came. I was “grieved out,” as Boss would describe it. “It’s a common thing ― people shouldn’t look negatively on a family member whose tears have been shed along the way,” she says.

Instead, I threw myself into writing a eulogy that I wanted to deliver at my father’s funeral. I became one of Chethik’s “doers” ― I would grieve by doing something to pay tribute to my father.

But as I read the eulogy in front of the assembled mourners, I realized I was not just paying tribute to my father; I was reciting a credo of sorts, a list of beliefs and goals drawn from his life that I admired and wanted to keep alive in my own way. I commended his deep compassion for other people, his tireless raging against social injustice, his devotion to family and friends ― and to my mother as she languished for years in a nursing home after a devastating stroke.

Like so many sons, I had modeled myself after my father in many ways. And as I delivered his eulogy, I realized that, like it or not, he would live on through me.