They say, of course, nothing is more awful than losing a child. Losing a parent, though, has to be a close second — and especially for men, losing their father. How do you cope? How do you put their death (and life) into perspective? And how do you go on without having him around as a sounding board — most of all, on matters of your own parenting? Below, three men tell us what it was like for them to lose their own father, and life without dad more generally.
Andrew*, 64, Orange County, California
I was on vacation in Hawaii, my first vacation with my son after my divorce. The second day, my father, who lived back on the East Coast, went in for a medical test and didn’t come out. Nobody expected him to die. So I didn’t get to say goodbye, although I can say that I said goodbye to him in increments because he was declining.
First he had cancer, but then he recovered, and they built him a new esophagus. Still, he started having diminished abilities to communicate — and live. He was kind of defeated by his problems. And my father was, like, immaculate. He always wore a coat and tie. He tucked his T-shirt into his underpants, and then he did this military fold with his shirt like they do in the Marines to get your shirt tight. Not to mention, he had a careful combover till the day he died. He’d never cut off the three long strands that, if he went into the pool, would hang to the other side.
My dad wanted to be a radio disc jockey, but his parents made him be a doctor — and it was a real struggle because he was horrible at math and science. Plus, he was a Jew, so they wouldn’t even let him into class at first. But he still had to be a doctor! He was hard on himself and very exacting, and as he started to decline, it was frustrating to him. My theory is he knew he had horrible artery blockage, but he wasn’t telling anyone. He’d just had it: Too many problems. He was a perfectionist, and so, as you diminish, you have to learn to be imperfect. Aging is diminishment, and it’s how you handle it that marks your mettle and that marks your quality of life.
As a son, after you reach a certain age, you realize your parents are never gonna get you. So you stop seeking their approval. At least I did. Because in contrast to my dad, everything I’ve done involved not following the rules and not following the prescribed path. Basically then, at around the age of 40, I started saying goodbye to my need for approval from my dad. He wasn’t like me.
That said, while I don’t think anything was left undone — like, I wish my dad had seen me do X, Y or Z — you miss their presence, and just knowing that you have parents. Because also at a certain point, they become almost like your other kids. For example, my mother nowadays is just like a teenager. She won’t tell me shit. She knows I’ll get mad, and she won’t listen. She’s just like a young person, where you have to give them their due even though they kind of don’t deserve it.
For the rest of the vacation after my dad died, I got up every morning really early, which is what you do when you’re hurt or upset. You wake up, and it’s like, there. So I wrote my father’s eulogy every morning. And cried. And spent the days with my son, which is what you’re supposed to do: Be a good dad. Give them support. That’s what my dad did. He might not have ever understood me, but he was generous and supportive.
At his funeral, I didn’t even try to read the eulogy. I gave it to my childhood friend to read — “Here, you read this!” Because I knew I wasn’t gonna get to the first line.
That was 10 years ago. What does it feel like now? It’s sort of as bad as it was then. It’s the same. Because my father ceased to be. And that never changes. On a day-to-day basis, I didn’t have any contact with him. He didn’t really get on the phone when you called, unless I had an important decision to make. But he was a beloved figure, and he remains a beloved figure.
In fact, for two years after he died, I called my mom every fucking day. For my own sanity, I had to stop calling her so much! I still, though, call her three times a week.
Brian Metzler, 49, Boulder, Colorado
My father died two and a half years ago. Essentially, it was time. He was 90 and getting really weak and having trouble walking around. He refused to go through physical therapy or get a walker — he just didn’t want to do that. He didn’t want to be in a wheelchair. He wound up falling one night and breaking part of his pelvis. In the ER, after surgery, he was in a lot of pain, and I think he sensed it was time to go.
He was pretty physically strong and mentally with it until he was probably 87 or 88, which is when we started to see him decline. Part of that was because he hiked a lot and walked a lot. He’d go on this walking routine around his condo and do pushups and everything else. He was this crazy-fit guy. He ran the Bolder Boulder until he was 83.
The last day of his life he was transferred to hospice because the doctor told him he had 24 to 48 hours to live. He got there at 6 p.m. When I got there, my brother was there, and I told him, “I’m gonna stay through the night — I’m not gonna leave dad alone.” He was heavily medicated. I had my wife and daughter come over, and I told my daughter, “This is gonna be the hardest thing you’ve ever done, but this is the last time you’re gonna see him.” She was able to tell him she was glad to see him and that she loved him. My dad wasn’t really talking, but he squeezed her hand.
I stayed all night with him and held his hand as he was in a good amount of pain from the surgery. Nurses kept coming in to give him more meds, but he was trying to refuse them. He was gripping my hand the whole night. He probably fell asleep at 3:30 or 4 in the morning, and I stayed there until about 6:30 a.m. My brother came back, and I started my day by going for a run and going to work. I was going to come back to the hospital and see him, but he passed away at 4:08 p.m. So I missed that part, but that was okay, because I spent the time I did with him beforehand.
About three months later, my brother and I went back to Chicago, where my dad was from, and we did a tour of his life. We saw his childhood home and went to our own childhood home, which was going to be remodeled and was standing vacant. We went to parks, restaurants, coffee shops — places we used to go to with my dad — and reminisced quite a bit. It was great closure. We had a blast, and we still talk about that trip.
The biggest thing my dad and I shared was a love of trains. As a kid, he’d photograph trains with an old Kodak Brownie camera. When I got my first camera at eight or nine, we started photographing trains together. After my mom passed away and dad moved out here to Colorado, we got into that again. On weekends, we’d hike to certain places in the mountains and wait for trains to come by. The last few years we’d drive to spots where I knew he could see the trains. Sometimes we’d be waiting for a train and he’d fall asleep, but I know he enjoyed those moments.
Two weeks after he died, I was in Oregon for work. I had a ticket to fly to San Diego for another work trip when it was over. But at the last minute, when I realized I could get there by train instead, I was like, “Oh hell yes! I’m doing that!” While I was on the train, his loss was still so fresh that many times I’d think, I can’t wait to tell him about this, before catching myself and remembering that I couldn’t actually tell him. But like the visit back to Chicago, the trip was a good moment of clarity and closure. I kind of unplugged from everything and was on a train for 30 hours. What better way to celebrate his life and his passion than to do that?
Even now, every time I hear a train whistle, I stop and think about my dad. I could be driving around town, on a run or asleep in the middle of the night, and if I hear a train-whistle blowing in the distance, I can’t help but smile. It’s like, “Hey, dad!”
Craig*, 68, Portland, Oregon
My dad passed away nine days ago. He was 97 years old. Up until a couple of months ago, my parents had been living in their own home without any help besides a weekly maid service and a guy who mowed their lawn.
I’d never thought too much about what life would be like after he passed away. But for the past five years, I did kind of rehearse what I’d say as a eulogy. I didn’t write it down or anything, but every once in a while, as I brushed my teeth or whatever I’d think, Okay, I’m gonna need to do this. What am I gonna say? That always crosses your mind when you’ve got a parent that old. But dad was always alert and Mr. Curiosity. He had this desire to learn and to know more all the time, and as long as he was doing that, I figured he had a healthy mind. His body was kind of weak, but I didn’t worry too much about it.
Then, about two months ago, dad fell out of bed and couldn’t get up. At the hospital, they found a broken cerebral blood vessel. They got it to stop, but he no longer was in charge of his thinking. You could tell he was still there, but he wasn’t communicating well. I think it really frustrated him. He couldn’t get out what he wanted to say. But they also found a bacteria in his artificial heart valve. Between all of these sudden changes and discoveries — and faced with more medical treatment and living the rest of his life in a wheelchair — I think he’d just had enough. He didn’t even want to eat. Faced with his options, he told the doctor and us that he just wanted to go.
That was hard to hear, and I asked him about it on different days because he’d been changing his mind about other things. But he was basically on his back and couldn’t talk very well, and that’s not who he wanted to be. He was a World War II veteran, a small-town banker and active in nearly every one of his town’s community organizations for decades. He worked so hard all his life at wanting to sound scholarly. He used big words. And if he couldn’t be that way, that was it. He’d done everything he wanted, and I felt good for him! I was proud of him for hanging in there, because you look at what my parents were doing every day at home and it wasn’t very much. He’d do crossword puzzles and read. They never watched much TV, and they didn’t eat a lot. They kind of lived for the days when I or somebody else would visit them.
Since he was going to be in hospice care rather than in a hospital, we were able to get him a room in the nursing home right next to my mom. She spent most of every day and evening in his room, taking care of him, feeding him, until he’d nap or go to sleep. Their bedrooms were on either side of the same wall, their heads not far apart as they slept. When I was there, we just talked about the regular stuff — family vacations, hikes and all that. The last week or two, we’d have beer together — he’d drink beer out of a straw. He was a trooper, but he just wanted to die. He couldn’t figure out why it was taking so long.
In all, he died 61 days after he went to the hospital.
I came up on a Saturday morning because I just had this feeling that I had to be there that day. I was going to leave later, but decided to leave in the morning. I got there at 10 a.m., and he died at 12:15 p.m. He wasn’t even ever really conscious. He was breathing really, really, really deep. Sometimes he’d go for eight to 10 seconds without taking a breath. You could tell that his body was shutting down. Every time he’d have a pause in his breath, I’d look at my mom and we’d wonder whether that was gonna be the last one.
When it finally was, we sat there and talked to each other. We talked to dad even though he was dead. That lasted about 20 minutes. Then the hospice took care of everything. I didn’t need to do anything except take care of my mom — and call people. The whole arrangement was so nice. It couldn’t have been better.
Do I miss him? Sure, I miss him a lot, but he had a great life and he was ready to go. He did everything he wanted to do — there wasn’t much in life he didn’t get done. Not many people can say that.
* Names changed upon request.