Life Without Father

The death of a man's father -- no matter his age -- has a powerful impact. How a son grieves is receiving new attention.

April 01, 2001|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

When his father died, Jim Fitzsimmons was devastated -- and surprised by the depth of his sadness.

His dad, a longtime mason, had been the "king of the family," as solid and dependable as the bricks he had fashioned into homes for much of his life.

For months after the funeral, Jim's allergies worsened. An ankle injury throbbed. He couldn't bring himself to drive down the street of his 84-year-old father's old house, a mere three blocks from his Arbutus home.

"It was more than I had expected," recalls Jim, a job counselor to disabled people. "It was a strange thing. I still feel his presence. I constantly remember how he did stuff and what he taught me."

How a son deals with the death of his father has long been a centerpiece of literature. Shakespeare's tragic Hamlet was obsessed by it. Dylan Thomas wrote one of his greatest poems in homage to his dying father, "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night."

Yet neither the fictional Hamlet nor the real-life poet dealt with their fathers' death particularly well. Hamlet couldn't decide what to do about it -- to tragic results. An alcoholic, Thomas died at age 39, one year after his father.

Experts in grieving say that this mirrors Western culture and its failure to recognize the impact of a father's death on a son or to prepare sons to cope with that loss. Too often, they say, men are expected to face such a loss stoically -- or else produce an emotional display that is neither comfortable nor particularly helpful to them.

Only recently has this experience begun to get a critical examination in the mainstream media. It's a movement boosted by a number of celebrities -- from media tycoon Ted Turner to author David Halberstam -- who have publicly examined the impact of losing their fathers.

"You look at a man walking down the street, and you don't think about the complicated emotional issues going on inside him," says Neil Chethik, a Lexington, Ky., author who has written extensively on men's issues. "Something is going on. We don't always talk about it, but it's a vibrant inner life."

Chethik recently wrote a book on the topic, "Fatherloss" (Hyperion $23.95), based on interviews with 70 men and a national opinion survey he commissioned. A former newspaper columnist, Chethik says he was surprised at how little had been written on the subject -- at least judging by the nonfiction section of his local bookstore.

"More than 1.5 million men lose their fathers each year, and I was shocked at how little attention that gets," he says. "I think because these feelings don't appear on the surface. But when you talk to men, you find that even when their fathers have been dead for decades, the conversation will bring these feelings right back."

The author's survey confirmed his impression. Of the 306 American men who participated in the study, two-thirds say their father's death affected them more than any other loss in their lives.

But Chethik, who is 43 and whose father is, incidentally, still alive, had also expected to find that men didn't cope well with their grief. While he still believes that men are less likely to cry or talk a lot about their feelings, most of his subjects dealt with their loss in other ways -- and were satisfied by how this helped them.

"We do things that accomplish what crying or talking about a loss does," he says. "Men are often active about it. They may do things to honor their fathers, set up foundations or build memorials. We play to our strengths."

Therapists acknowledge that the way men grieve can be a challenge, particularly for the women in their lives. Rarely do men choose to join grief support groups or seek counseling, even when they have been overwhelmed by a father's death.

Fred Schneider, supervisor of bereavement at St. Agnes Hospice, agrees that you can't force men to "grieve like women" and engage a network of friends to hash out their feelings. His grief support groups attract relatively few men. When he created a support group exclusively for men, it had to be discontinued -- because of too little interest.

Instead, he counsels men to write letters to their dead fathers or sit and talk to their father's empty chair.

"Sometimes there are things that need to be said or done to take care of unfinished business," says Schneider.

In fact, grief counselors say the men who have the most trouble with their father's death are usually the ones who had difficult relationships. The death leaves them feeling that much is left permanently unresolved.

"The worst is when they are estranged or there is an ugliness to that relationship," says Sandra B. Fink, coordinator of adult bereavement at the Stella Maris Center for Grief & Loss in Timonium. "Those difficulties are still there."

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