Coming to Terms With Loss

When a father loses a son, and then his daughters. How to deal with loss.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published September 7, 2007 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

My fiancé is a 45-year-old with a doctorate in education administration, and he is well respected in his field. He lost his son 16 years ago to leukemia and also lost touch with his daughters, not knowing why. He turns to alcohol and admittedly drinks to numb or relax the anxieties. Help is needed but his intelligence sometimes reasons out those who cannot relate to his IQ. He has too much to offer and too much to lose. Suggestions?

Your fiancé has experienced more than his share of loss and as he gets older the pain will only grow worse, as will his reliance on alcohol to dull it. At least alcohol won't desert him, as his surviving children apparently have, for whatever reason. Counting on a high intelligence to enable him to automatically handle all of life's experiences is equivalent to expecting that a well-designed car will automatically navigate every road hazard. It represents a misunderstanding about how humans function. Most of our experiences have some emotion attached to them, and probably none more so than loss. Loss is felt, often so much so that the feelings are beyond words. Intelligence can help one cope with loss, help one design ways of dealing with it and filling up the holes in one's life, but the loss itself has to first be fully felt at the emotional level.

Your fiancé may be one of those people—often, successful males—who fear that if they open themselves to any emotion, they will fall into a bottomless pit where they will drown in sadness and lose their ability to function. Emotions don't work like that; they are not a hydraulic system. Not facing the feelings of loss becomes the bottomless pit, the endless drag on one's soul. Losing a son to leukemia is a profoundly sad event for a parent. Your fiancé probably has many feelings of loss associated with that loss; perhaps he envisioned sharing many things with his son as the boy grew older.

Your fiancé should be encouraged to open himself to his grief. It's going to be hard. All the pain he has been avoiding will come crashing down on him. Your job is to be there for him; this is a time for your needs to take a back seat to his, so be a grownup about this. A good start might be a trip to the cemetery where his son is buried; cemeteries are places we designate for remembrance and tears. At the gravesite, your fiancé can begin to tell his son how much he misses him, how many hopes died with him, and to tell his son all those things he would have wanted him to know. These are the things people do, often silently, when visiting the burial site of a loved one. It would help your fiancé if he could feel free to talk out loud. Your role is to be the driver, perhaps to encourage your fiancé to talk to his son ("tell him how much you have thought about him since he died") and to otherwise stay in the background.

It isn't clear how or why your fiancé lost touch with his daughters, but that is another huge loss—for him and for them. Presumably he was divorced and not the custodial parent. Even if an ex-spouse actively encouraged the girls not to have contact with their father, they are now at an age where they deserve to decide for themselves whether or not to have a relationship with their father. It won't be easy reestablishing one, and it may take many efforts to start one, but an unstinting effort is necessary. Again, it begins with an admission of how much he has thought about them in the years since they last were together. It is now very easy to find people with the help of the Internet; there is no excuse not to. It won't bring back his son, but it will give him a sense of family, which may well remedy the biggest loss of his life.