Death of the father: birth of the man?

Saturday morning on an Adventure weekend is always a time and place where thoughts naturally turn to our ancestors. Creating a sacred space in which to do our work makes it easy to imagine that the ancestors are present in the room with us, and the sense of connection between our time and those who have gone before can be profound. Conversation often centres on our fathers and grandfathers, on how they lived, and how they died, and the gifts they have left us. It's a healing space in which men can express their joy and their grief. I know this because I've seen it happen for other men, and it happened to me this March (not for the first time!) as I passed through the ongoing journey of expressing the grief around my father's death in May 2010.

All of the practical things that have to be done after death may stop a man from grieving fully, so that he continues to carry not only the wound of his absent father, but also the unexpressed longing for a relationship that never was. I could see that coming for me, because when I looked back on my childhood in the early days of my personal work, it seemed like there was a void where my father should have been.

Of course for some men this is literally true - they really don’t have a father in their lives. But my father was physically present: it's just that the void I sensed represented the emotional space he never filled, a sign of his lack of real involvement where it mattered - giving blessing to his son, the blessing that tells a boy he really does have a right to occupy the space that he lives in, and that it's OK for him to achieve his full potential.

Knowing how hard it would be for me to live with my father's passing, I set out six months before his death to build - perhaps for the first time in our lives - a real relationship with him. Orphaned even before he’d entered his adolescence, my father just did not know how to father me, nor indeed perhaps how to have a deep relationship with anyone.

But I sensed the craving in him for connection, and his approaching death was all too clearly advancing on us. His communication was limited after a stroke many years before, but with time and patience, and perhaps also with compassion and love, it was possible to communicate ideas and evoke memories and opinions of times gone by from him.

Much of what we did together was not at the level of verbal communication; it was a silent connection, the one that father and son feel for each other when they simply sit in the same space and by some magical process tune into each other.

Maybe you know those sacred moments from your own boyhood, sharing time with your father in an activity where you felt the joy of sharing that connection.

Sure, it's not quite the same when your father's 88 and you’re 52, but for the little boy in all of us, I believe, time stands still in these things - our sense of connection with father goes beyond age.

We looked back together on the family history, the old photo albums, and so I came to understand more of what made us who we were, and I found myself more understanding of him. Perhaps, for the first time, I found out who he really was.

My anger at his absence during my boyhood and adolescence seemed much less important than the grief at the loss of what he might have given me, but by sharing time in this way, the edges, the rough edges of my grief, were smoothed.

He spent his life designing and building stained-glass windows, and one of the most rewarding things we were able to do together was to go around and look at these windows which he had conceived, designed, built, and installed in sacred spaces around the town (and far beyond, although we weren't able to travel to see these, but they form a memorial which lives on after him).

And then the call came: “Your father is in hospital, he’s had another stroke.”

I travelled up, arriving the next day, went straight to the hospital, where his first words in the moments of clarity and lucidity between the confusion and hallucination were: “I thought I'd never see you again.”

In one brief instant the intensity of the look between us, perhaps the most intense moment of my life, was like the exchange of a lifetime's relationship between father and son, touching a level of understanding that went far beyond any words, and forming an acknowledgement that this was the last time we would see each other for who we were.

He knew, I have no doubt, that he was going to die, and the intensity of that moment somehow completed the circle of birth and death. It took him three weeks to die, and each day there was less of him present; he took his death with such grace, such calmness, such easy acceptance…..

At least that's how I saw it. To this day I believe his spirit began to leave his body the moment he said goodbye to me, and the passing of his body meant nothing.

And how precious was the relationship I built with him before he died, putting aside my anger, putting aside the consequences of all the unfulfilled commitments that a father implicitly makes to his son just by the act of creating a child; how important to see the man for who he was with an open heart, and, if not to celebrate his death, at least to watch his passing with a sense of release and relief - for both him and me.

And how it eased the grief, oh, how it eased the grief, to have known, if only for a short time, something of what it meant to have a father……

And yes, the process of grieving is a long one. Perhaps it goes on to the end of one's own life, and perhaps it's something that can only be expressed in a safe space with supportive men……such as the space in which we’re closest to our ancestors. The space where we make talismans to honour men initiated by their brothers, for example.

I don't think any son is ever the same after his father has died: a warrior brother told me the story of how he'd had experienced a strange sensation days after his father died - something along the lines of an all-consuming awareness of taking the place of his father, telling his father to move aside, that he was the man at the head of the family now. The words which came to his mind were: “Move aside old man, it’s my place now. Now I can become the man I was meant to be, and stop looking for the things you were never able to give me.”

Rod B