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Fathers, sons, and loss

Fathers can seek deeper relationships with their sons even when their sons are grown.
By Neil Chethik
January/February 2001 1.1.01

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They were my father's most memorable words to me. They didn't come in early childhood or adolescence or even in my college years. Rather, they came as I stood frozen at the door of full adulthood, on the occasion of the death of my paternal grandfather.

The year was 1984. I was 27 years old, between journalism jobs, and living just a few blocks from the small Miami Beach apartment my grandfather had set up after his retirement. For the first time in my life, I was living near my grandfather and along with meals of pot roast and potatoes, I soaked up the stories of his harrowing childhood in Eastern Europe, desperate emigration, and eclectic life that spanned the century.

Then one day, I got a phone call from a doctor. "I'm sorry to tell you this," he said, "but your grandfather has had a heart attack, and he has expired."

The next day, my father flew to south Florida from Michigan, where he lived. I picked him up at the airport, and we drove in near silence to the hospital to identify Grandpa's body, collect his watch and wallet, and make arrangements to ship the body north for burial at my grandmother's side.

Then we repaired to my grandfather's house and began sorting the material remnants of the old man's life. We discovered curled black-and-white photos from the early years, keychains from more recent times, passbooks, matchbooks, coins, coupons, and a pack of pack of cigarettes. Working in different rooms, we'd occasionally exclaim to each other about a special find. Mostly, however, we sorted in silence.

We kept at it until the afternoon waned. Then my father and I collapsed in my grandfather's heavily pillowed living-room chairs, glasses of the old man's scotch in hand. We shared memories for awhile, then quiet. Finally, as the room faded into darkness, I heard a groan. It startled me at first, for I had never before heard my father cry.

I rose and knelt by his side. After a couple of minutes, he spoke. "I am crying not only for my father but for me," he said. "His death means I'll never hear the words I've always wanted to hear from him: that he was proud of me, proud of the family I'd raised and the life I've lived."

And then he uttered the words that continue to resound, all these years later. "So that you never have to feel this way, too," he said, "I want to tell you now how proud I am of you, of the choices you've made, of the life you've created."

Much of the pain inherent in father-son relationships dissolved for me when I received that blessing. And in the months that followed, I felt stronger, more confident, especially as I started my career again. I felt as if my father represented not only himself but the larger world, and I had been accepted into it.

My father was not a Unitarian Universalist then, nor is he one today. And yet, what he did on that day was a spirited expression of our faith's First Principle—affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Though his own worth had been largely denied by his father for 50 years, my father used the power that uniquely belongs to the same-sex parent to affirm my value, and boost me on my way.

Now I have my own son. He's seven years old, and I can't count how many times I've told him how proud I am of him. Yet I have increasingly come to realize that there's a lot more to raising a son than expressing pride in him.

I recently finished writing a book on how sons cope with the deaths of their fathers. While interviewing 70 men in depth about their fathers' deaths, I also had a chance to ask about their fathers' lives—most particularly, how the father performed as a parent. Specifically, I wanted to know: What does a son really need from his dad?

Gradually, a consensus formed around this question. Not an orthodoxy or a rule-book; fathering is too circumstantial to operate on any scheme. Rather, what emerged was a set of indications—hints, really—about the essence of fathering. Here's a brief summary of what I learned:

In the eyes of young sons, fathers often seem gigantic. Again and again, the sons I interviewed expressed wonder at the enormous physical size and power of the men who had guided them in their early lives. Sons described their dads as "awesome," "immense," "imposing," "dominating."

One son who was eight when his father died told me he remembered the older man as herculean. Thirty-five years after the death, the son recalled: "One year, a tornado blew down a large tree in our yard. Most people would have hooked up a car or something" to lift the tree back upright. Instead, he said, "My dad hooked up a harness to his body and pulled it up like a plough horse."

Because we fathers tower over our sons, we must use our power judiciously. The Second UU Principle calls for "justice, equity, and compassion in human relations." And this may be no more appropriately applied than in our relations with our children. Sons told me they wanted their fathers to be strong but to use that strength as a buffer against danger, a shield against the bad guys, ghosts, and other demons. One son spoke for many when he told me: "I wanted to be with my dad. I felt safe around him. I knew he would take care of me." Among the sons I spoke with, the desire for fatherly protection had usually been fulfilled.

But not always. A computer programmer who had grown up on a midwestern farm in the 1950s spoke of painful early memories of his dad. "My father and I were never on the same wavelength," this man recalled. "I always felt he resented me. And I was afraid of him. One memory comes back: He was herding pigs, and he had a long two-by-four that he was using to guide them. And one of the pigs got away, and Dad just started beating him with that stick. I started to cry. And that really made my father angry because I was too soft. . . . He started yelling at me: 'I'll use it on you!' "

I heard numerous stories of paternal violence. Sons reported that their fathers had slapped and punched them or hit them with switches, belts, shoes, razor strops. One son told me that when he was 12, his father had knocked him around for backing away from a fight. Another reported being hit with a belt from the time he was three for wetting his bed.

Granted, not all spankings were classified by sons as "beatings." About three-fourths of the men I interviewed said they'd been spanked by their fathers, at least occasionally. Among these sons, most had either forgiven their dads or felt no need to forgive. "I deserved it" was a common refrain.

Yet even many of these sons acknowledged that nonviolent discipline tended to work better. One son, for example, who was in the middle of the pack among eight children, recalled having gotten "the belt" perhaps three or four times a year in his childhood. It usually fell on him after he had shown disrespect to a teacher or an elder in the church.

The son, looking back 40 years, didn't blame his father for the whippings, but he said his dad's most effective punishment was "when he let me whoop myself. If I wasn't doing my homework or I forgot my chores around the house, he'd sit me down and talk to me [about] what it meant to be part of a family and how important it was to contribute. He'd talk to me for a long time, and then he'd tell me to go sit down and think about it."

A father's style of discipline was only one factor mentioned by sons in assessing the quality of the fathering they had received. Something else, in fact, was cited more often: affection.

Sons didn't always use that term. Affection has the connotation of holding, cuddling, hugging, kissing, and other forms of physical contact. And indeed, when one of those things occurred between a father and son, it seemed to have a strongly favorable effect on the child. Many of the sons I spoke with cherished above all other childhood recollections their memories of wrestling with their dads, being tossed into the air, carried piggyback, or engaged in some other form of physical play. "When my dad would come home from work, I would jump into his arms," one man told me. "I'd give him a kiss. . . . He welcomed it."

"After my father came home from work and cleaned up, he'd set me on his lap and sing to me," another man reported. "I was four or five at the time."

Why was physical affection so fondly remembered by sons? For one thing, it seemed to offer the boy a closeup view of the beast he would one day become. The boy experienced, in his flesh and bones, how a man moves, feels, smells. Just as importantly, when the father's touch was playful and loving, the son felt accepted and protected.

But some fathers do not easily go to physical affection. Perhaps they were raised without such contact themselves and find it alien, even unmanly. Fortunately, I discovered in my interviews with sons that affection can be communicated in a variety of ways. Ultimately, affection is less about physicality than about a father's loving attention toward his son.

Some fathers show affection by simply talking with, and listening to, their sons. A middle-aged English teacher told me that during his childhood, he and his father often sat around the living room on weekends, telling stories. Three years after this son's father died, the son reflected fondly on those weekends: "I could make him laugh. I'd tell him funny stories, not jokes but stories. He had a wonderful laugh. He'd really laugh good and loud."

Another form of fatherly affection involves intellectual interplay. "My father was always playing games with me," recalled one son. "We played chess and cribbage and bridge. We did the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzles together." The son, who later became a mathematician, added: "I do the same thing with my kids." He recalled that he and his dad never said, "I love you" to each other and rarely hugged. Yet he could sense in other ways that his father cared: "I loved to shake his hand," he told me. "It was fun. That was an intimate moment for me and my dad. . . . He had an impressive hand. Big, strong. It's not like he squeezed so hard he hurt you. But you could feel some of his power."

I also heard about several fathers who showed affection by taking an active interest in a son's education or other endeavors. A businessman recalled that his father "didn't say, 'Hey, let's go out and throw the baseball.' But he did do a lot of activities with me." It meant a lot to this son, for example, when his father took him to auto races and baseball games and when he volunteered to help at church with preparations for the son's confirmation ritual. "I don't think he was a touchy-feely person," the son explained, "but he was a real loving father."

When a son doesn't get affection, in any form, from his father, the resulting wound can be deep and lasting. Second only to the abuser in generating resentment among the sons I interviewed was the faraway father, the distant dad, the uninvolved or unavailable patriarch. Whether the father meant it or not, the message to the son was clear: You don't matter.

"One of the memories I carry from childhood is Dad's bookshelf," a 45-year-old man told me. "My dad read a lot. He would come home from work, sit in his chair, and read for most of the evening. Maybe it was his escape. . . . Sometimes, I'd go to that wall of books and try to figure out what was there that was more fascinating than me." This son never reconciled with his father, who died when the son was 30. The father's death hit the son that much harder because, as the son told me, "I'm still mourning what I didn't get from him."

Other men spoke of having fathers who were loners, "checked out," "strong and silent," lacking in empathy, or "just not involved." Among such fathers, alcohol abuse showed up again and again. The father might stop for a few beers on the way home from work or start drinking when he got home. He'd often become absorbed in a book or TV show, or he'd fall asleep. One son even said his household chores included helping his drunken father stumble from his easy chair into his bed.

Clearly, a father's attention matters crucially to his son. But as with discipline, some fathers overdo it. The Third and Fourth UU Principles speak of promoting "acceptance of one another" and "a free and responsible search for truth and meaning," and several sons I interviewed spoke of fathers who were too involved in their lives, unable to free their sons to make a "responsible search" for truth. Several men used words like "controlling," "heavy-handed," and "in my face" to describe their fathers. One man said: "If he'd had his way, I'd have been a marionette." These dads, according to their sons, tended to have an agenda; they wanted their sons to get involved in certain activities, even if the sons were not interested.

Sports was a central arena for this struggle. Several men told me they resented being pushed into sports, and were hurt when the father grew angry or distant in reaction to the son's lack of athletic interest or aptitude. One 56-year-old recalled: "When I was seven years old, my father told me I threw like a girl. I still feel the wound. After that, I never wanted to play ball again." Another son, a teacher, said: "I couldn't catch a ball. My brother was the athlete in the family. So my father preferred spending time with him."

Beyond sports, when fathers tried to push their children into certain professions, or toward the father's vision of success, it also tended to backfire. One 42-year-old man recalled being pressured by his father to go to college and succeed in business. At first, the son tried to please his dad, a mid-level state employee, but eventually the son began to resent what he called the father's "constant hounding." Looking back, the son told me, he quit college in part because he feared he wouldn't measure up to his father's standards.

A few years before his father died, this son told his dad: "No matter what I do, you're not going to like it. If I'm governor of the state, you're going to say I'm not president. If I'm a manager of a Kroger's supermarket, 'You're not chairman of the board.' If I become a priest, 'You're not the pope.' If I'm the pope, 'You're not God.'"

Another thing I learned from the sons I interviewed was that fathering doesn't end when a son is 21, or 41, or even 61. Throughout our lives, right up until the time of our deaths, we fathers can deepen our relationships with our sons, even when a positive father-son connection failed to form during the son's childhood.

One way a father can improve his relationship with his adult son is by blessing the younger man. One man I interviewed, a business executive, said he received a traditional Mexican blessing—a bendición—from his father when the son left Texas at age 19 to look for work in California. The blessing, uttered by his father in Spanish, affirmed that the son was ready for the journey ahead and called upon God and humankind to look after him. Being blessed in this way softened the son's feelings toward a father who had often been harsh and uncompromising.

Other blessings can be less explicit, delivered, like affection, in ways unique to the father and son involved. A 43-year-old son I spoke with recalled feeling blessed during a chat with his dad when the son was about 20. "We were sitting in a bar at the time, and I remember I wasn't quite old enough to drink. Dad often preferred the atmosphere of a bar, not so much for drinking but talking. The bar. . . . was generally frequented by professors and other educated types like my dad. He was friends with many of them and liked to engage in philosophical debates with them."

The son said he couldn't remember that day's conversation topic, but he recalled demonstrating to his dad that "I could hold my own among the mental giants, and that's what prompted him to say we were equals. . . . that I was no longer his child but his peer and friend. In a way, I suppose I had proven my manhood to him, like some sons who bring home their first deer or pass their bar mitzvah."

In the course of writing my book, I asked my own son, Evan, then six years old, what he thought made a good father. He told me that a good dad "plays with you," he "takes care of you," he "reads you books." Evan paused a moment and then added one more trait: "He waves to you before he goes away."

Evan was referring to our family's off-to-work ritual. Our driveway runs alongside our house, past the dining room window. As I back my car out in the morning, I usually stop for a moment outside that window and look for Evan, who is often finishing breakfast in a chair by the window. If he's there, we wave good-bye.

For me, this is a satisfying little ritual. But for Evan, who invented it when he was three, it's evidently more than that. If I forget to stop and wave, he'll remind me about it at the end of the day. Or he'll call me at work to get his good-bye said. He seems to recognize that my leaving holds in it the potential that we'll never see each other again.

In a way, Evan spoke for all sons, of all ages, when he cited the importance of the wave good-bye. Our last weeks, days, and even hours as fathers can be important ones. A man I interviewed for my book was 34 years old when his father informed him just before dinner together one night that he was dying of cancer. The news "knocked me back like a boxer," the son recalled. Just five years earlier, the two men had begun a reconciliation following a long period of anger and estrangement.

In the weeks after his father's diagnosis, the son visited the older man regularly, first at his dad's house, later in the hospital. And then the father, a physician, took a sharp turn for the worse. In the father's hospital room one evening, something memorable occurred. For most of an hour, the son had been sitting on a couch a few feet from his father's bed, where his father alternated between turbulent coughing fits and labored breathing. The older man still had his barrel chest and full gray-black beard, but the skin on his face had become pasty and drawn.

During a break from his coughing, the father reached out a hand toward the son, who stood and clasped it. For a long moment, the father gazed at his son's face. Normally brown, the father's eyes had gone gray.

Then, in his thick Austrian accent, the father forced from his ravaged throat the few words he must have felt he had to say: "You've got a beautiful wife and a gorgeous child. You've got a good life. You're going to be fine." The father then beheld his son's face again, brought it forcefully to his own, and pressed his lips against his son's cheek. Then he said: "Good-bye. Now get out of here! Go, go, go!"

The son left the room without looking back. He wept as he drove home. Several hours later, his stepmother called. The father was dead.

In retrospect, the son marveled at "how much selfless effort it must have taken" for his dad, "being pulled in the other direction," to offer such a good-bye. Had the encounter not occurred, the son told me, he would "probably have doubted a lot of things. I would have wondered if he was still angry. But I never worried about it. . . . [The good-bye] reduced my mourning to the sadness of losing him.”

Ultimately, good fathering summons us to act out the Seventh UU Principle: "respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part." To me, respecting the web includes teaching our sons both that the web exists and that they will be called upon to help make it strong. To teach these lessons, we must show them the meaning of interconnection by creating a genuine connection with them.

The men I interviewed might have put it in these terms: Give your attention to your son. Not to the exclusion of your spouse or daughter. But find a way to meet your son. Read with him, run with him, wrestle with him. Find reasons to admire him. And every so often, no matter his age, offer him a gift that can come only from you: Tell him how proud you are to be his dad.


Fathers, sons, and mourning

How do sons prepare for, and recover from, the death of a father? For my book FatherLoss, I commissioned a scientific telephone survey of 306 men whose fathers had died. Here's a sampling of the survey results:

  • 65 percent of sons reported that their fathers' deaths affected them more than any previous loss in their lives.
  • 61 percent of sons cried over their fathers' deaths.
  • 12 percent of sons used alcohol or drugs to cope with the deaths, including a quarter of men who were ages 18 to 32 when the death occurred.
  • 28 percent of sons talked to, prayed to, or in some other way tried to communicate with their deceased dads.
  • 68 percent of sons dreamed about their deceased fathers.
  • 93 percent of sons who had gotten involved in the late-life care of their fathers said that such involvement helped them cope with the loss.
  • 55 percent still had regrets about things they had or hadn't done when their fathers were alive.
  • 13 percent of sons changed their diets or health practices after their father's death.
  • 8 percent of sons sought professional counseling to help them deal with the loss, and 96 percent of those sons said the counseling did help.
  • 13 percent of sons said they became more religious after the deaths of their fathers; 2 percent became less religious.

The FatherLoss Survey was conducted by the University of Kentucky Survey Research Center under the direction of Ronald Langley, using methods developed by the American Association for Public Opinion Research. Robert Kastenbaum, professor emeritus at Arizona State University, served as a consultant on the survey. The survey's margin of error was plus-or-minus 5.6 percent.

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