The Canfield family recently announced a big loss in our lives—the passing of my wife of 43 years, Dee, who was also a mother to five, mother-in-law to four, and Nana to twelve. Being by her side for the past few months really opened my eyes to the reality of death and grieving. This definitely isn’t the fun, carefree, greeting-card side of fathering, but it’s an inevitable part of life, and it tests what we’re made of as dads.
At my stage of life, with adult children and grandchildren, sometimes it felt like my fathering role had been reversed since my children were helping to guide me through various decisions during the last days of their mother’s life. I was thinking, When did this become a democracy? And now I’m carrying around their mom’s phone so they can track my location! But all in all, the experience brought out some of our best family time and pulled us closer together.
On a more practical note, when a family member or other close loved one passes, it’s a huge time of transition. And fathers, the comfort and care that we provide to our children is very critical. Grieving is a complex and lengthy process, so I won’t pretend to provide you with all the answers in a short blog, but here are four important points to consider:
First, don’t go it alone. If you’re with your kids every day then you won’t be alone, but this is more about opening up, sharing your pain and daily struggles with someone else, being vulnerable. In some cases you can do that with your children if they’re mature, but I’d suggest depending on a trusted friend or perhaps seeking out another dad who’s been through a similar dark valley and come out of it with his strong character and his family intact.
Second, be ready for anything. It’s important to understand that grieving is different for every individual and will often be out of sync with other family members. It may be more emotional for one person than another, or one may go through the process more slowly than others. So, even as you may be wrestling with your own painful emotions, as a dad you need to be sensitive to others who are also grieving—whether they are your kids or your wife. For a while, you’ll be working through different emotions at different times. That’s one reason many marriages that go through the death of a child often end in divorce. But time does help the healing process.
Third, be vulnerable with your kids. I know I mentioned this before, but the loss of a loved one is a monumental event in your children’s lives, and certain memories or images will likely stay with them forever. As dads, we are perhaps the most important role models they’ll ever have, so they can learn a lot by watching our appropriate responses to grief—expressing pain and anguish, tears, and so on. And be mindful of thoughts or inclinations toward some inappropriate response, and exercise self control. Getting violent, going on a drinking binge, taking drugs, and similar negative actions won’t help anyone involved.
And fourth, stay engaged. Just a final word of encouragement to all dads: As a father, you’re in a position of leadership, so make the most of every opportunity to listen, encourage, give a hug or give space … to love your family members in ways that are meaningful to them. Grief is never easy, particularly when family members are all going through it at once. But stay involved and depend on each other, and you can all make it through—and possibly even grow stronger because of it.
I definitely don’t have all the answers on this. What other advice would you add to help dads and their families after losing a loved one? Share your insights and connect with other dads on our Facebook page.