On the Death of My Father
How one son coped with his father’s illness and death
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
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
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
- 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