On Fatherhood and Grief: What My Four Fathers Taught

My father didn’t tell me how to live. He lived and let me watch him do it.” -Clarence Budington Kelland

I grew up with one father, but received fatherly life lessons from three additional male adults in my life:my godfather, step-father, and father-in-law. These are of whom I speak in this post. 

As Father’s Day is upon us, I was a little struck with how down I was feeling entering into the weekend. Grief has a funny way of always catching me by surprise. It took me some time to even identify I was feeling hooked inward by grief. With the non-stop cloudiness and rain, I figured I was feeling a seasonal affective slump.

This feels like a special Father’s Day this year. I am the proud father of an almost three and a half year old. My wife built me a wonderful desk and office space for my shift into the private practice world. I am reclaiming more “work/life” balance.  This is a start of a brand new journey for my career that has already been super exciting. Why the grief tidal wave?

I have spent the past eight years of my career as a medical social worker helping to usher countless people into the after-life and grieve with their families throughout the process. I have formal grief and bereavement training and have co-facilitiated a grief support group for caregivers of cancer patients. Shouldn’t I be a little less surprised with how grief shows up and be a little more versed in identifying it? That’s grief for you. Always humbling. 

I have lost two of the four fathers mentioned, and I am recognizing how much I am missing being able to connect with the other two in this world of COVID. You just can’t replace sharing meals and sharing space. In honor of my four-fathers and my grief I am going to lay out what I have learned from them and what I have internalized: 

  1. Showing our next generation how to live is infinitely more important than telling them. 

I have been fortunate enough to have very gentle voiced fathers in my life. I have received explicit life lessons throughout my upbringing, and had my fair share of difficult conversations on manhood, love, life, politics, spirituality, and how to be an adult and father. However, my four-fathers gentle voices are what resonate with me the most. I know I have internalized this and it comes out in my practice. My dad’s mother even tells me I have the same voice as my father, which I love that I am able to carry on. My dad was definitely on the quiet side and it was only when I starting entering my young adult life that I recognized how the way he carried himself made me pay that much more attention to what he was doing, not just what he was saying. 

  1. We Must Strive To Share in the Emotional Labor. 

If you are unfamiliar with what emotional labor means, please check out this article on the topic.

While I actually credit my wife with furthering my growth in this respect, I also noticed my willingness to be able to show up in this capacity started with my upbringing. My father would cook, grocery shop, be involved with talking finances in the household and would partner in decision making. I grew up seeing both of my parents as wielding equal power and voice in many things. I have no doubt that I found the partner I have had for almost 13 years because I saw attraction in partnering with a powerful woman, which was mirrored to me my whole life. 

  1. Laugh. A lot!

This one is pretty self explanatory, but definitely one of the most important things I have internalized. You know those kitschy “Live, Laugh, Love” pictures (Sorry if you are someone that has one, but I think we both know that it is kitschy.)? I actually don’t see those words as being separate. I grew up learning that to live and love, you must be able to laugh. At yourself, at each other, at humanity, and a lot of the absurdities in life. I mean honestly, platypuses?? A duck that is actually a semi-aquatic mammal that has venom and lays eggs?? Pick a lane, you real life Pokémon. 

  1. Show emotions, name them, and normalize them.

My fathers haven’t been afraid to show me the full range of emotion while rearing me. I remember seeing my dad cry multiple times throughout my life and back then it would always rattle me. Looking back though, I feel that he was the strongest when he was willing to show me his emotions. I never grew up thinking that emotions were bad or to be controlled. I never grew up thinking it wasn’t okay to be and feel however I was feeling. I grew up knowing that even men weep and do so because there are things that matter that much in life. I grew up knowing that this is what true connection is all about. Connection and love isn’t necessarily knowing someone. It is what they are willing to show you. 

  1. Be curious 

All of my fathers greatly encouraged and embodied curiosity. Two of my four-fathers were scientists (Microbiologist and Paleontologist) and the other two were teachers. Inherent in their makeup is encouraging and living a life filled with curiosity and wonderment. For the longest time, I figured I would fall into a science field. I guess I eventually did, I just didn’t realize it would be the social sciences. Let’s face it though, what makes a human’s psychology tick is infinitely more interesting and curious! Curiosity breeds openness, openness breeds understanding, understanding breeds knowledge, and knowledge breeds love. I am very indebted to my fathers for having ignited this passion inside of me and I hope that if anything, I can pass this same passion on to my daughter.

Happy Father’s Day everyone. If today you find yourself in the throes of grief, my advice is don’t fight it and try to push on without acknowledging it. There is a reason why grief shows up. It is an invitation to connect with your past, no matter how painful. It is not something to overcome or live despite it. It is something that reminds us how to live and what is most valuable to us. It is an enormous privilege being a grief counselor. There is pain, sadness, regret and loss that comes with this territory, but there is also life, love, and meaning. 

If you are in the state of Virginia and find yourself having difficulty managing waves of grief please feel free to reach out to me on my about page. I would be happy to get you connected to resources, or offer my own services.

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