FatherLoss: How Sons of All Ages Come to Terms with the Deaths of
by Neil Chethik
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
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
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.