The Grief of Fathers

Fathers are cast in a societal role that is different from that of the
mother. Although there are many role crossovers and although frequently
the deep strength in a family is in the mother, society expects, and
fathers themselves expect, that they be the “strong ones.”

Generally the father is the major support of the family, and he plans to
meet his current expenses, insure against the unanticipated, save for the
anticipated family expenses of the future, and establish an education fund
and some security for old age and years of declining capability. In
effect, as a father plans for his family, he also accepts the
responsibility for planning positively for his own death, As he buys a
house, real estate, and particularly insurance, he fully accepts the
concept that insurance actuarial statistics indicate that his spouse will
live five to ten years longer than he, will have her own needs, and may
have to meet all child needs without his productive capacity and support.

The role a father assumes is a learned role: he also often emulates his
own father; a societally imposed role in almost every contact in life
expects him to provide, disburse, save, plan, and guide. For example, it
would be a rare insurance agent who approached the mother of a family
first and rare father who did not carry some insurance against the
anticipated and expected eventuality of his death. In the same sense, he
accepts the possibility of early death of his wife.

The death of a child is a shocking, unanticipated, dislocating, damaging
event which weakens the structure of the family’s entire life and makes
all of their work and planning a futility of catastrophic proportion.
Although father may never have stated is or even thought of it deeply, he
has already spent a large portion of his own life being a father.
Suddenly, there is NO future for the lost child and NO reason for a great
deal of what father has been working for.

Our cultural heritage is such, however, that the father is expected to be
strong, to comfort his wife, to assist the siblings in reaching an
understanding, and to cope with ail changes, including the funeral
arrangements. Assuming a normal existence prior to the death, he already
had a job, a mortgage, some problems, some debt, and felt that he had a
load to carry. Suddenly, with little or no warning, he has a terrible
additional, emotional load and an additional practical load Unwanted,
unplanned and emotionally unacceptable to him.

As the responsible family head, the father also feels a responsibility for
the child’s death, and he asks himself: What did I do wrong? Where did 1
fail? Why did I not anticipate? What should I have done to prevent the
catastrophe? Intellectually we know this is irrational. Emotionally we all
seem to do it.

Within weeks, our society expects the father to assimilate his loss,
comfort his wife, guide the surviving children, and go back to work with
his usual dedicated, efficient ability. Responsible men attempt to do what
is expected of them and what they expect of themselves. Still in acute
grief, father finds himself shattered: his working capacity is perhaps
only 30% of normal, and his confidence destroyed by-this event which he
could not prevent, but for which he feels responsible.

As father departs for work he leaves a distraught family, hoping they can
get through the day, and approaches a demanding work situation where he is
expected to be productive, capable and sound. With the physical symptoms
of grief, he has ail the sensations of somatic distress: sighing,
depression, an empty feeling in the pit of his stomach, tension, mental
pain, lack of energy, and a great feeling of futility. Any effort seems
exhausting to him; he is tired; there is no incentive to normal activity;
food is tasteless; any enjoyment hi life seems “wrong.” As he attempts to
pick up the broken strands of his own and his family’s existence, he does
so with a sense of unreality, personal failure, self accusation of
negligence, and a desire to withdraw from others and distance himself from
these very painful and unacceptable circ**stances.

If father is able to work halfway efficiently, communicate, project warmth
to others, and show interest in the job, he finds the effort exhausting
and the result less than satisfactory. He has no patience for the routine
and mundane problems of the workaday world and feels resentment toward
those who cannot see that he is now half a person, faced with great
change, little energy, no zest for life, and little or no incentive.
Having taxed his energy and patience just to get through the day, he goes
home again to the family, knowing they, too, expect much of him Knowing he
has little to give, he can barely hold himself together. The result can be
an increasing sense of inability, inadequacy, failure, and guilt. At times
he feels that he really cannot cope with all of it.

If at this point in time, a friend he trusts will take him to task and
force him to think he is fortunate. Someone needs to remind him that on
the day before the death, he was a responsible, caring parent doing the
best he knew at the time. If less than perfect, he was only human, and a
pretty good human at that – or he would not now be so devastated. As much
as he hates to accept the most undesirable change, it has already happened
and it is irreversible. The way in which he copes with the changes will
have a marked effect on all those lives that touch upon his own. As the
responsible family head, the father must now gather the broken structure,
accept the great loss as best he can, build where he can and work towards
a normality of existence for that family remaining.

In effect, if anything so devastating can be put into one coherent
paragraph, the father’s job is not to hold himself up in great strength
The job he really has is to realize that events beyond his control have
struck him down; he has been nearly destroyed and is severely damaged and
his remaining family is so shattered that he cannot expect too much help
there.

If he can realize how down he is, how depressed, how normal it is to feel
failure, near insanity, and reduced capability, he has made a long step
toward the necessity to pick himself up, keep what remains together as
well as he can, and go on, expecting time to provide some relief and some
answers.

Life, after the death of a child, must be restructured. That this must be
done when one is ineffectively functioning and when few goals are
seemingly worth accomplishment, makes it ever so difficult. There is a
positive necessity to avoid major decisions and major changes at this
time. Judgment and balance are impaired. With severe grief the probability
of both physical and mental illness is much higher. A father who realizes
the dangers and recognizes the impairment of self is much more able to
manage until time provides its relief. By accepting the facts of reduced
capability and by establishing smaller goals, a father can obtain the time
and strength to be kind to his family and himself It is not a time to show
great strength as a facade. It is a time to accept the damage and recover
slowly. A father in grief cannot afford the time and energy to feel
“responsible” for his child’s death; his primary responsibility is to
survive and to endure as he slowly restructures the lives which have been
severely damaged by events beyond his control.

By Helen and Dayton Robinson – TCF, Tuscaloosa
~lovingly lifted from River Valley Chapter Newsletters, Fort Smith, AR

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