Fatherhood is pretending the present you love most is soap-on-a-rope.
– Bill Cosby
If this quote makes you smile, you must know a father like mine: selfless and wise, strong and sensitive – loving and loved beyond words. Regardless of physical stature, a father is a giant among men. And when a father dies, he leaves a hole the size of Texas in the hearts of his children.
An Orphan Is an Orphan at Any Age
No matter how old you are when it happens, your father’s death is a defining moment, catapulting you into adulthood in an instant. Although I was a mother of two when my dad died, I felt like a lost little girl. Outwardly, I was the competent adult – thanking the doctors and nurses who cared for Dad, handling arrangements, greeting visitors, making sure Mom was okay. But inside, a little girl’s voice cried: “What will we do now? What will become of us? Daddy!”
Grief is personal, and no two people grieve in the same way. A child or adolescent may feel bewildered, frightened, and abandoned, not only because he lost the dad who represented security, stability, and love, but also because other significant adults may be emotionally unavailable to the child as they struggle with their own sorrow. If your father died when you were very young, you may find yourself revisiting your loss at various stages of your life. Even years after your father died, you will miss his presence with each passing milestone.
These days especially, if you are a young adult in your 20s when your dad dies, you may still be living at home as you work to establish your independence. In addition to your emotional loss, you may face the loss of financial or other material support from your father.
In your 30, 40s, and 50s, the loss of your father may hit especially hard, forcing you to confront your own mortality for the first time. At the same time, the demands of career and family may constrain your ability to grieve fully and freely.
If you are blessed to reach your 60s or 70s before your dad dies, you may be surprised that letting go of him is no easier than it would have been decades earlier. Well-meaning but misguided friends may say things like, “At least he lived a long, full life,” but you know that even after all these years, he died much too soon. Those extra years only reinforced how much you counted on your dad to always be there for you.
Coping With Your Loss
So how does one cope with the loss of a hero? Grieving takes time, but healing will come. Still, as long as you live, you will miss the Dad you loved so much – the one who taught you how to ride a bike, throw a fastball, change a tire. The one who led by example, showing you how to live a life of faith and service to others. The one who let you know that no matter what happened, no matter where you were or what you were doing, there was always someone back home who loved you unconditionally.
How do you cope with a loss like that?
As with any loss, you may experience a flood of intense emotions in the weeks and months following your father’s death. Grief demands that you step back, slow down, and allow yourself to feel those feelings. Listen to your heart and your body. Take time when you need it, and seek the support of others. No matter how young or old you may be when your dad dies, you father’s death is one of the most significant losses you’ll face in your lifetime. Give yourself the time and space to heal.
Honor Thy Father
As the acute pain of early grief subsides, your intense sorrow will give way to an occasional quiet pang of remembrance and longing. Now you can turn your energy to honoring your father, rather than mourning his loss. You can make the world a better place by passing on the wisdom and skills your father gave to you.
- Teach a child a skill your dad taught you.
- Prepare your father’s favorite meal and share it with friends and family.
- Play your father’s favorite music and feel his presence.
- Share defining stories about your father with your children and other people in your life.
What If You Were Estranged From Your Father?
Sadly, children and their fathers are sometimes at odds, and sometimes those conflicts last well into the child’s adulthood. If you were estranged from your father when he died, you may have a very different view of his death. In a future post, we’ll talk about finding closure in the face of such a grief.
Tell Us About Your Dad
Please take a few minutes to tell us about your dad. If he is alive, tell us what makes him special; if your dad has passed on, tell us how you coped with your grief.