Father Loss: Men Cope with Losing Their Fathers

By John Gregory | 06/17/15 11:10 AM

We all face the certainty that at some point Father’s Day will change from being a time to honor the dad who is present with us to a day to remember the man who has passed from our lives.

Whether the relationship was close or distant, cherished or conflicted, the death of a father is a turning point in the life of a child. For sons the transition can be especially profound.

In a fan-favorite edition of KET’s Kentucky Life Dave Shuffett explores the impact of the death of his own father, and talks with five other Kentucky men who have shared the experience. The program airs Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m. on KET.

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Shuffett’s father Billy was a star athlete in his youth. The St. Louis Cardinals had offered him a contract to play catcher when World War II intervened. Shuffett volunteered for the Army, served under General George S. Patton, and won a Bronze Star for his brave and meritorious service.

But a wound cost him the vision in one eye. No longer able to play baseball, Billy Shuffett returned to his hometown of Greensburg and became a merchant and the county’s Judge-Executive. He also raised three children.

Dave Shuffett says he was in Pennsylvania filming a KET special when he got the call that his father was dying. He rushed home, but his father was already unconscious. Dave was unable to say goodbye before he died.

“I was 49 years old when that happened,” Shuffett recalls. “I might as well have been 12.”

A Father’s Cry
“It changes the inner landscape of a man to lose his father, no matter what age,” says Neil Chethik, executive director of Lexington’s Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, and the author of “FatherLoss: How Sons of All Ages Come to Terms with the Deaths of Their Dads.”

Chethik says many sons view their fathers as invincible, which only makes their passing that much harder to comprehend. He says he was inspired to write his book after the death of his grandfather. One day he and his father were sorting his grandfather’s possessions when Chethik heard a strange, guttural sound.

“This was my father crying,” Chethik says. “He was 54 years old. I was 27 years old at the time, and this was the first time in my life that I had ever heard my father cry.”

A Range of Relationships
The program also features other Kentucky men who relate stories about their fathers. Lexington Herald-Leader editorial cartoonist Joel Pett and KET producer Frank Simkonis describe how their fathers helped guide them into their careers.

Kevin Skaggs of Franklin County was only 10 years old when his father died in a hunting accident. Now four decades later Skaggs says the smell of Old Spice aftershave still reminds him of his father.

Lexington Family Magazine editor John Lynch tells how his emotionally distant alcoholic dad would watch his Little League baseball games from his car parked beyond the right field fence.

And Ed Clement talks about his father, a geologist and mine operator from Crittenden County, and the night he died.

“I watched his lungs rise and fall,” Clement says, “and I just realized that as long as he was breathing… that in a way he was keeping the weight of the world off my shoulders.”

Regret and Grief
The men also bravely reveal their individual journeys through grief. Lynch says he found himself grieving two things when his father died.

“I was mourning Jack Lynch, my dad, the actual man that I knew. Even though he wasn’t there much, I still loved him and I missed him and I was sorry he was gone,” Lynch explains. “At the same time I was mourning the father I never had.”

Dave Shuffet admits he never was able to tell his dad about his love and gratitude for him. After his father’s death in 2007, Shuffett says he fell into a deep depression. He divorced, moved from a sprawling house to an efficiency apartment, and hit bottom.

Neil Chethik says is not uncommon for men to experience regret over things they didn’t say or do with their fathers. He cautions that regret can hinder what he calls “good grieving” but he says he’s found a simple preventative.

“One of the things that I learned and I take to heart myself as a man with a living father is to be sure that I have always said what needs to be said,” Chethik says.

Finding Peace
The men say that over time the grief yields to acceptance and even a measure of peace. John Lynch says his wife was a tremendous help to him through his emotional journey. He also says parenting his own son, who he named after his father, became a critical part of his healing process.

And Dave Shuffett says his life finally began to turn around after he stumbled on a rural cabin that he later bought. He believes it’s the kind of home his father always wanted for him.

“Now in this peaceful setting, instead of feeling sadness over my loss, I’m beginning to look back at what I’ve gained from having a great father,” Shuffett says.