Father’s Day is typically a time to honor our fathers. A time of giving thanks to those men that have raised us, hopefully, with love and care. Many of us reflect on fathers who have passed.
There’s another side of Father’s Day for men, like me. Fathers who have lost a child. My 29-year-old son, Tim, died from a heroin overdose on January 21, 2016. For men like me, Father’s Day is a day I reflect on lost potential and opportunities. The day is one of bittersweet memories, sadness, and often regret and guilt.
Besides being a father of two sons, I have been a professional psychotherapist and psychopharmacologist for 30 years. I’ve worked with many bereaved fathers and have come to understand some common themes and reactions.
My initial reaction to my son Tim’s overdose was dissociation. I recall the opening scene in the movie “Saving Private Ryan” as Captain Miller (Tom Hanks), temporarily deafened by an explosion, watched the horror unfold around him in an eerie silent detachment. As in that Hollywood scene, I watched my unresponsive son on the gurney in the emergency room, knowing he wouldn’t live, and as if observing from afar. My brother, Mike, was the first person to meet us in the emergency room and I remember saying to him “I don’t know how to do this.” There was an odd sense of things moving in slow motion and moving too fast simultaneously.
In my cloud of shock, I continued to think of what needed to be done. There were calls to family and friends to let them know about Tim. I needed to attend to my wife and younger son while canceling my upcoming client appointments. I needed to keep busy to retain control whenever possible. Aren’t fathers supposed to take care of our families when a crisis occurs?
Ultimately, I couldn’t save Tim, nor could I protect my other son and wife from the most gut-wrenching, unbelievable emotional pain. I felt helpless and ineffective. Within 36 hours, we made the decision to turn off life support. Tim died a few minutes later. I will forever live with that decision. I felt helpless and ineffective as a father and a husband.
Unfortunately, this feeling was familiar. I’d been worrying about Tim for 13 years since he started suffering from depression and panic attacks. I took him to psychiatric specialists for various treatments, but nothing seemed to help. I felt inadequate as a father. Why couldn’t I help my son and find the answer? When, at the urging of his therapist, Tim revealed that he was, for months, using opiate pills to deaden his emotional pain, I was shocked and felt initially paralyzed. Soon, however, I sprang into action and found an inpatient rehab program and then an intensive outpatient program. I thought that we’d developed a good plan and his addiction problem was solvable.
Tim’s struggle with addiction continued to be a challenging battle, and he eventually switched to intravenous heroin use because it was cheaper and easier to get. He continued with periods of abstinence between treatment programs. Life with Tim was difficult and his struggles led to much strife and conflict at home.
I was unclear about what the “right” approach was. I tried both “Tough Love” and a more nurturing and compassionate approach, but neither was successful. I doubted myself often, and felt ineffective as a father. I tried hard not to succumb to the common societal belief that inadequate parenting was the root of my son’s struggles.
I knew, intellectually, that this wasn’t the case but would mentally review my past behavior as a father, looking for explanations for Tim’s dilemma. How could I let this happen to someone I love so dearly? Why had I not seen where he was headed and prevented this outcome?
Many men who have lost a child have common reactions as I’ve described. Feelings of self-doubt, regret, and inadequacy abound. While experiencing these reactions, we’re still trying to keep our family together and function as a source of strength and stability. Men often grieve in private. We need to keep up a “show of strength” as an example to those we care about and be a “model” of coping with pain and adversity. Some men are influenced by the traditional belief that showing emotion is weakness. Family and friends ask about how Mom is coping but fewer inquire about Dad. Men’s grief can be overlooked even when people mean well.
It’s not unusual for men to suffer in silence, but that isn’t healthy. We need to support each other openly and with compassion. This can be done by initiating conversation with fathers about their child who has passed.
Ask them to talk about their child. Ask how they are coping. Are they eating well? Are they sleeping? Ask how they are getting the support they need.
We need to assure fathers that much in life is out of our control and that pain happens to those we love despite our best efforts. Some will benefit from professional or social support programs. Others, like myself, turn to activism as a way of trying to make a positive outcome from our child’s demise. I’ve devoted my life to an organization called Today I Matter, Inc. (T.I.M.). We work to reduce the shame and stigma of mental illness and addiction through education, advocacy, and support. This work keeps Tim always at the forefront of my heart and efforts. I know that this doesn’t make up for my lack of ability to save Tim’s life, but I hope that his death, and our response, will result in saving another family from a similar tragedy.
This Father’s Day will be one of mixed emotions for me. I’ll spend it with my wife and younger son. They will try hard to help me enjoy my time with them. I’ll try just as hard to show my appreciation for them, but I’ll also reflect on how I might have been different as a father for Tim. I’ll probably always question whether I could have done something different or better that might have saved him.
I’ll never know for sure. I’ll find a way to live with this question and the uncertainty. I have no choice.
As men, need to find a way to accept that we don’t have total control over the safety of our loved ones. Terrible things may happen despite our best efforts. In addition, we need to reach out and support each other and recognize that it’s a sign of our humanity that we experience emotional pain and that this kind of suffering can be eased by allowing others to assist us. Often just talking to others about our inner experience can reduce the intensity of our distressing emotions. Suffering in silence is not a sign of strength, but instead keeps us isolated and stuck in despair.
On any day of the year and particularly on Father’s Day, reach out to those dads that may be struggling, even if they don’t ask for help.