Neil Chethik was twenty-seven years old when he first heard his father cry.
“In 1984,” Chethik recalled, “my paternal grandfather died suddenly. I was living a few blocks from him at the time. My father came to town the next day, and we spent an afternoon going through my grandfather’s apartment. My father began to cry…after a couple of minutes, he spoke. ‘I am crying not only for my father, but for me,’ he said.
‘His death means I’ll never hear the words I’ve always wanted to hear from him: that he was proud of me, proud of the family I’d raised, and the life I’ve lived.’ ”
Chethik was struck by the “potency of the event that had brought my father, then a successful, fifty-two year old university professor and psychotherapist, to such depth of grief.”
It was a watershed moment for Chethik — it led him to research and write Fatherloss- How Sons of All Ages Come to Terms with the Deaths of Their Dads.
As a syndicated writer on men’s issues, Chethik discovered the subject of a son’s loss of his father had been largely ignored by the professional community.
He found resources on other losses (mother-loss, child-loss, spouse-loss, job-loss, pet-loss, even hair-loss), but nothing that focused “exclusively on how men react to the loss of this most influential man in their lives.”
Over a three-year period of time, Chethik personally interviewed 70 men about the relationship they had with their fathers and the healing process that followed paternal passing.
In addition to these sessions, Chethik, along with professional consultant Dr. Robert
Kastenbaum (an expert on aging and death), contracted the University of Kentucky Survey Research Center to conduct a nationwide scientific inquiry with 306 randomly selected participants. Dr. Ronald Langley, Director of the UK Center, personally oversaw the research.
The book is a meticulous study of grief. Chethik reviews the experiences of hundreds of men who lost their fathers — the struggles they endured and the coping mechanisms they discovered along the path to recovery. Between chapters, Chethik includes vignettes which chronicle how some very prominent men (John F. Kennedy, Mahatma Gandhi, Ernest Hemingway, Dwight Eisenhower and others) dealt with the deaths of their fathers.
The raw data Chethik amassed is a fulsome harvest of emotional insight. Men mourn in individual styles, but Chethik found four primary groupings: Dashers, Delayers, Displayers and Doers.
These are not hard and fast categories: some men mix several reactions together, but generally there is one dominant style.
The Dashers sped through the mourning process. “Dashers tended not to cry, but rather create, almost immediately, an intellectual framework to help them manage the loss,” Chethik reported. “The father was old, or out of his misery, they told themselves.”
One subject summed up this pattern when he said that his father had a complete life —
“I guess I appreciated that. Other than that, I didn’t dwell.”
Delayers exhibited little overt emotion at the time of death. Months or years later, they felt a delayed kick. This group tended to paper over their immediate feelings: consequently, some of them fell into drinking or drugging traps.
The third group, Displayers, expressed powerful emotional reactions at the time of their fathers’ passing. They were overwhelmed by a jolting mixture of sadness, anger, fear or guilt.
Doers constituted 40 percent of the participants. They were deeply moved immediately, but then sprang into action: some took public steps, like setting up a foundation in the father’s name, or more private rituals like spending time organizing family photos. They were not overwhelmed; they channeled feelings into activity.
Fatherloss, however, goes far beyond a dry presentation of clinical hypotheses such as styles of mourning — Chethik unflinchingly tells compelling stories about real men caught in the throes of loss. It offers a fresh perspective on the behavioral adaptations these men employed.
Chethik did not write a how-to, self-help book, but Fatherloss does provide some practical suggestions about preparing for death. For example, reviewing the will to eliminate any misunderstandings after the passing, resolving any outstanding issues as best as they can be resolved, and making an audio or video recording about special moments in the loved one’s life were among the recommendations.
Chethik strongly advised readers to trust their own mourning process. In an interview included in the most recent edition of Fatherloss, he emphasized that those facing a loss should “allow the grieving process to happen naturally.”
The “major message of my book,” Chethik said: “don’t let anyone else tell you how to grieve.”