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Making Peace Father’s Death Is Hard On A Son, Especially If There Was A Rift Between Them

As the baby-boom generation moves into middle age, a growing number of men are facing an agonizing and life-altering event: the deaths of their fathers. For any man, such a death is usually followed by great anguish and upheaval. But for a man estranged from his father, the aftermath often is even more treacherous.

“The grief will always be there” when a father dies, says Joseph Ilardo, a Connecticut psychologist who specializes in working with men. “But for a son who has had a troubled relationship with his father, it will be compounded by guilt, shame and betrayal.”

Such was the case for James Houck, 52, a Michigan business consultant whose father died last June. The elder Houck had been an orphan, and then an alcoholic for much of his life. He had no idea how to express love toward his three children, his son says.

Father and son fought intensely when the younger Houck was a teenager, and when he moved out of his parents’ home at age 18, Houck didn’t look back. For the next quarter-century, the two men rarely spoke with each other.

Then, about five years ago, the younger Houck, pained by his estrangement, decided to reach out to his father. In an unprecedented display of openness, Houck sat down and expressed both his disappointment in his father and his love for him. “I was just sobbing, trying to get this out,” Houck recalls. “But he was not moved at all. When I was done, he looked at me and said: `You know, you really didn’t have it that bad.”’

Houck was disappointed but never gave up. Two weeks before his father’s death at the age of 76, Houck traveled to Florida to see him. Again, he told his father he loved him, and then tried to hug him. His father’s reaction: “He kind of pushed me away,” Houck says.

Since the death, Houck has felt anger and guilt mixed with his grief. The guilt comes when he questions whether he tried hard enough to connect with his dad. What bothers him most, however, is that “he’s gone and I’ll never, never reach a final peace with him,” Houck says. “I think there will always be a part of me that will cry out for that love and affection and closeness.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. Ed Zurawski, 50, a sales representative also from Michigan, had a strained relationship with his father, too. As a child, Zurawski felt that his father cared more about his work than he did about his children. And as a young adult, Zurawski had no interest in trying to heal the rift.

Seven years ago, however, at the urging of his wife, Zurawski approached his father during a Christmas celebration and for the first time in his life, he hugged the older man. “It was very awkward. He was like a two-by-four, very stiff,” Zurawski remembers. “But eventually he put his hands around my waist, and hugged me back.”

The two men never talked about their differences. But almost every time they saw each other after that, they hugged. “It was my way of telling him that I loved him, that I accepted him,” Zurawski says.

Five years ago, the elder Zurawski was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. And on New Year’s Day, 1994, he died of pneumonia at age 78.

Zurawski still grieves, but he says he feels resolved. In fact, it is the fond memories of his father that now prevail in his mind - and they’re helping him as he launches his own business. “I think of my father almost every day now,” he says. “I remember how dedicated he was. He had convictions and he stuck by them. That’s what I need in my own life.”

Ilardo, the psychologist, says that even men with strong ties to their fathers should expect months or years of recovery from a father’s death. The bonds between father and son are primal, he says, and a father’s death can create feelings of emptiness and aimlessness.

In addition, the responsibilities of the surviving son almost always increase. He often must care for his mother and other extended family. And he must begin to face his own mortality. For the first time, there is no giant of a man standing between him and the doors of death.

Expressing grief can take many forms. Some men cry. Others talk with friends, siblings or counselors. Still others turn the pain into inspiration, dedicating themselves to being the father to their kids that they wanted their own father to be.

That’s what happened in Houck’s case. Houck had a close relationship with his only daughter as she grew up, but they drifted apart after she graduated from high school and moved out of state 10 years ago. As his father’s death approached, Houck began to make the effort to see his daughter on a regular basis.

“We’ve had a lot of long, very personal conversations,” Houck says.

“I know for sure that I will not repeat my father’s mistakes.”

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