Gil Speer was 22 years old when his father was killed in a car accident. He deeply loved the man he had known as an engaged father and good provider, a man who first worked in the coal mines and later on road construction crews. Yet Gil, a tall, gentle man who teaches and coaches at Grant High School in Van Nuys, admits that for years he ached to hear his dad tell him that he loved him and was proud of him--all the things he seemed unable to say in life.
"I felt I would never be complete without hearing those words," said Speer, 53.
For a son of any age, a father's death is a profound, even tragic, experience. While we expect people to grieve with tears and heartfelt talk, our culture's mantra for the American male has been very convincing: Big boys don't cry. So many men face the loss of their fathers unable or unsure of how to grieve and how to begin the healing process. In "'FatherLoss" (Hyperion, $23.95), author Neil Chethik, 44, a former newspaper reporter and syndicated columnist, examines the grieving process of the American male. Based on more than 70 in-depth interviews with men who have lost their fathers, Chethik's first book is both intimate and revealing.
Men, he argues, are not the emotional cripples society has stereotyped them as. They deeply feel the loss of their fathers. Some cry, some don't. Some talk, many won't. But they do grieve, albeit very differently from women.
Chethik, who lives in Lexington, Ky., was in town recently and spoke to a small group, mostly men, who gathered on a rainy night at the Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena. He told his listeners how it was the passing of his beloved grandfather more than a decade ago that first forced him to face the death experience and the often painful recovery process that follows.
The day after his grandfather died, Chethik and his own father spent an afternoon sorting through papers and photographs, sharing old memories and new revelations, even unearthing a little cash stuffed inside cereal boxes. In the evening, as father and son sat together sharing some of his grandfather's Scotch, Chethik heard a guttural groan and realized that he was, for the first time, hearing his father cry.
Years later, when writing his syndicated newspaper column, Voice Male, Chethik was overwhelmed by the emotional responses he received to a couple of pieces he'd written about father loss. His readers asked for other sources, for more information.
Unfortunately, Chethik found, most grief-related research has been based on a female model. The experts tell us we need to talk and cry ourselves through the healing process. Yet when a man or boy can't produce tears, or conjure up Oprah-style conversation, his grief is often compounded by a sense of helplessness, inadequacy, even feelings of being judged negatively. Chethik finds that in their grieving, men are, as in life, more active than emotional. A son may grieve by tending to a father's garden, retracing a trip taken together, hiking a father's favorite trail, possibly even wearing his clothes. For many men, the healing is in the doing.
"The hurt and pain builds like an energy in your body," says Chethik. "Grieving lets that energy out, and crying is a very efficient way of doing that. But many men do not have access to tears, so they release this energy through activity. The style of grieving for men and women is very different, but neither one is more efficient or defective."
In his book, Chethik tenderly describes the impact of father loss. Not surprisingly, children suffer the most, often wandering through years of emotional turbulence. Many cite feeling simultaneously abandoned by their mothers, who are consumed with their own grief, and forced to spend the majority of their time supporting the family.
Young men, who still desperately seek their father's approval and affirmation, speak of feeling cheated, angry that they will never know a father man-to-man. Middle-aged adults often wrestle with their own mortality; and older men, although expressing sadness, are better at accepting death as a natural part of life.
Chethik encourages men to prepare for their own fathers' deaths--talking about a father's final wishes, or providing care to an ailing dad. All can ease the eventual grieving process.
"That first time I heard my father cry," says Chethik, "he said that he was also crying for himself, realizing there were things he would never hear his father say. He then looked at me and told me those things--how proud he was, how much he loved me."
Each man interviewed for Chethik's book gave the same piece of advice to those whose fathers are still alive: Make peace with Dad, the best way you can.
Gil Speer, who had come to hear Chethik's talk in Pasadena, spoke about his father's death. He talked about how he overcame the sadness he felt at the thought that his father would never tell him the words he longed to hear.
"I later realized that he had often shown me how he felt," Speer said. "It was through his actions." Fourteen years after his father died, Speer began building a house using many of his father's tools. "I still live in that house," he said, "and there I feel a sense of being held by my father's love."