Opinion: Silently, fathers also grieve loss of child

Published 11:36 am Monday, May 28, 2012

As Memorial Day ceremonies were held throughout the nation this morning, many fine words were spoken in sincere attempts to honor those who have given their lives for our country. Some of the most profound thoughts went unexpressed, because they are too deeply embedded in souls and too painful to utter — these were hoarded within the hearts of fathers.

Two years ago I wrote here of mothers and the loss of their sons and daughters. I recounted that the most frequent and characteristic cry I have heard at military funerals and upon delivering death notifications was “My baby!”

Mothers are like this; father are not. Just as no one can understand a mother’s cry as well as other mothers, it takes a father to understand and feel the silent cry of fathers.

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While I was delivering death notifications, fathers typically stood by and let the message be delivered to the mother. They often grabbed their wife’s hand or received her into their arms and held her close. Silently.

It was rather much the same at the funerals. I kept my eye on the father, being prepared to go to his side and put my arm around his shoulders. I never dared say, “I understand” or even “I understand; I’m a father, too.” There is a level of truth in this, because I could project myself into his position and sense a measure of understanding. But not enough.

I did say, “I have a son, too,” and left it with the fathers to accept as ever they wished. The most articulate fathers seemed to be was to weep, “He was my boy.”

But I think I can give some expression, however inadequately, to what I think is in the minds and hearts of most fathers. We feel responsible for this. Somehow, however irrational, we feel our sons are dead because of something we did. More, even, than something we did not do. We like to think we made a man of our sons, and we know our son died as a man — the man we made him.

Then one day, I faced this as a very real possibility for our younger son specifically, my little boy. When we heard on the news that his armor division had gone into combat (he as a tank platoon leader going after Saddam Hussein’s armored forces), I held a crying mother and crying grandmother in my arms. I prayed aloud, but all I could utter was: “Lord,… Stephen!”

(Now, I must pause in empathy and respect for those parents who have lost a daughter in war. I’m trying to understand my feelings about a son; I don’t even want to think about losing a daughter.)

Not only had I “made him a man” (to whatever measure this might be), I was very much responsible for his being a soldier. For twenty years he watched me put on my uniform, and I took him with me to many army events and activities. I was proud of him in uniform. I felt he had made a soldier of himself sooner than I had. He was a very fine soldier and a very fine officer.

There were some understandings left unspoken between his mother and me. When he went to jump school and she worried about him, I explained all the safety measures the army takes. She asked, “Are you just saying this so I don’t worry?” Fully aware of what can still go wrong, I summoned the courage to be honest. “Yes.” Then she sealed it: “Okay.” This is, I think, how we felt about his being in combat.

I wondered about me. If a death notification team showed up at our door, how would I react? I would feel responsible. Strange, I would want to feel responsible. Fathers are like this. But what could I say to his mother?

Ann would not, but I have heard mothers in their grief turn on their husbands: “This is all your fault!” Every time, the father took it. That was his job; that’s what it means to be a father. There was a certain irony about the timing of that war. I was assigned as a chaplain in the Military District of Washington, and among my duties was to conduct funerals at Arlington.

Stephen did come back, by the grace of God and nothing he or we merited. But thereafter when I said “I have a son, too,” I think fathers felt something in me more than just this.