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Book Review


How Sons of All Ages Come to Terms with the Deaths of their Dads

by Neil Chethik
Review © 2001 by J. Steven Svoboda


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Neil Chethik, FatherLoss: How Sons of All Ages Come to Terms with the Deaths of their Dads (ew York: Hyperion, 2001). Order paperback Order hardcover

Book cover
FatherLoss: How Sons of All Ages Come to Terms with the Deaths of their Dads
by Neil Chethik
Order paperback
Order hardcover

Neil Chethik's first book is nothing short of phenomenal: heartful, tightly analyzed, addressing a topic which remarkably has never before been treated at book length with grace, insight, and an admirable ability to select stories capable of speaking for the many others which had to be excluded due to space limitations. The interspersed thumbnail sketches of specific famous men and their response to the demise of their dads--which could easily have come across as a bit corny or superfluous--marvelously complement and enhance the main text. I was particularly moved and intrigued by the piece on John Quincy Adams, of all men.

FatherLoss draws on interviews of seventy men which were personally conducted by Chethik, as well as a commissioned survey of another 306 men who had lost their dads. 1.5 million times each year, a man's father dies. Chethik notes that while psychologists have come in recent decades to consider crying and talking--the traditionally female mourning style--as the "gold standard" for grieving, men typically have a distinctive yet no less valid style of grieving. To facilitate his analysis, Chethik separates the sons into four groups according to their age when their father died: childhood (birth to age 17), adolescence and young adulthood (18 to 32 years of age), middle adulthood (ages 33 to 55), and later adulthood (ages 56 and up).

This book's impact is immeasurably enhanced by Chethik's decision to excerpt real individual stories rather than providing the reader with composite tales whose actual correspondence to reality would be dubious. Many of these tales are touching, even inspiring. For example, after Tom's father died suddenly when he was eight years old, he ran through a series of troubled relationships and grappled with alcoholism before finally realizing that it was all right to feel sad about losing his father. While a quarter of the men who lost their dads in childhood stated that they still didn't feel that they had fully recovered, most do recover though they may have difficulty with trust for decades following their loss. A key variable in their ability to recuperate is their mother's ability to relate to and attend to their emotional needs after the death of their father. We meet a son who was diagnosed with prostate cancer at nearly the exact age when his father died of pancreatic cancer. Many men whose fathers died in their childhood reported developing traits--independence, self-reliance and emotional distance--which proved of great value in their careers.

Men who have been there counsel their peers to make peace with Dad while they can. One particularly piquant tale shows a single spontaneous hug washed away a lifetime of father-son resentment. An overwhelming 93% of sons who had the opportunity to do so stated that being involved in caring for their father helped them to cope with his loss. Chethik provides some heartwarming examples of how to care for your father. I found particularly moving the tale of the son who, feeling his father should not die alone, remained behind after his mother, sister and grandmother departed and sang the first verse of "Amazing Grace" to his father, over and over, till his heart was no longer beating.

Men who lose fathers in early adulthood face formidable challenges, including substance abuse, social withdrawal, and ongoing battles with self-doubt. Nearly two-thirds in this group reported having unfinished business with their fathers, the highest figure for any age group. Drug use to manage the pain is most common in this age group. A defining moment for such men comes when they feel equal to their fathers. While many of them complete their maturation process with assists from father-surrogates or on their own, for innumerable others an empty hole remains in their lives, often even decades later.

We must strive never to lose faith in a man, as exemplified by the story of Walter, who at the age of fifty-five, an outward success in every way, finally balked at another advancement in his career as an engineering executive and instead started to learn to open up emotionally to his wife and children.

If nothing else, attending his father's funeral may often help a son to gain a greater appreciation of his father. Viewing the body also helps promote closure. Chethik and his witnesses encourage us not to try to protect children from death. As a man, process feelings in your own way. A willingness to depend on others can prove a great ally in recovering from a loss.

Fear that they themselves will be next is common among men who lose their fathers in middle adulthood. Sons over the age of 55 when their fathers pass away are, predictably enough, not as strongly affected by their father's demise and are less likely to harbor ongoing regrets. For them, mortality seems less a coming catastrophe than motivation to enrich what remaining time they have.

Partners are offered advice on three areas in which they can offer support: holding down the fort, anchoring to preserve psychological equilibrium, and helping to sort the deck of cards life has played. Don't hurry him through his process. As a partner, one must also be prepared for the possibility that with Dad gone, issues that were previously projected onto him may be transferred to the partner. Male friends tend to be less feeling-oriented than women but just as crucial in helping with recovery. Grief counselors are advised to be sensitive to male ways of grieving and to invite men to do something.

Men should, if possible, resist any pressure they may feel to complete their grief process hastily and to become "normal" again. Recognize your own adaptive strategies and use them effectively. Chethik's powerful work provides substantial evidence of the benefits from this passage. Change is bound to come. Two thirds of the men experienced significant changes in themselves in the two years following their father's death. Your romantic relationship is twice as likely to improve in the two years following your father's death as it is to decline. Nearly half the men had their relationships with their mothers change after Dad's demise, and 80% of these changes were for the better. 36% experienced change in their relationship with siblings, and 80% of these changes were for the better. Dad's death may also deepen relationships with friends, especially male friends. Most astonishingly, relationships with children improve in 26% of the cases and NEVER worsen in Chethik's experience.

Chethik distills all this information to set forth a vision of what a son needs from his father. By being close to Dad, he experiences in his body what it feels like to be a man. Most sons are willing to forgive almost anything if they can hear their father's genuine affirmation. Chethik offers advice on how to prepare your children for YOUR departure without being morbid. Most importantly, he stresses, give your son the gift only you can give: your attention. Tell him how proud you are of him. Apart from one minor detraction, a provocative if somewhat unconvincing taxonomy of four basic grieving styles, this book is flawless. Highly recommended.


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