Fathers’ Stories

One way we can try to help each other is to share our stories. Readers may recognize some of the experiences and feelings described here. But familiar or not, they’re all real, and the unvarnished truth.

Doug’s Story:

Driving to Maine last weekend for a memorial service brought me back to vacations there when my kids were young and our family was joyous and whole. Singing in the car, stopping for ice cream and fried clams, all the things that “normal” families do. It all came back to me, like flashbacks in a bad TV movie. The love was beautiful. Blissfully unaware we were headed for a cliff.

David’s Story:

Nothing in my life prepared me for my daughter’s death.

What helped me survive it initially were my then-5-year-old son, Harrison; Rabbi Harold Kushner’s profound little book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People; the wisdom of our pastor; the loving support of those family members and friends who weren’t scared away; and the kindness of several strangers. 

When Natasha died — suddenly and unexpectedly of an undiagnosed congenital condition at age 8-1/2 — it hit me physically, emotionally and spiritually.  The physical part, though intermittently severe, was the least of it.  Afterwards I remember thinking my initial physical reaction must be what a heart attack feels like – tightness in my chest, spreading to all my muscles, making it hard to breathe or focus or move. 

The emotional part was the worst of it: numbness, alternating with the deepest, most intense, sobbing sadness I’ve ever known.  I remember the outside world disappearing, or at least becoming irrelevant, for a period of time.  We didn’t turn on a TV or radio, or look at a newspaper or magazine, for weeks.  We lived in a bubble.  The first anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks passed without notice in our home, because we were totally consumed by our own tragedy; Natasha’s funeral was held 9/10/02. 

Fortunately my wife, Annie, and I were referred immediately to a grief counselor, who helped us to understand that while we shared this tragedy as a couple, in many ways we experienced it alone.  The counselor told us our reactions and responses to the “trauma” of Natasha’s death were individual and unique, and she advised us time and again not to be judgmental about how each of us was dealing with it.  She said everything in between total denial and suicide was within the range of “normal”, from a psychological perspective.  Still, I found Annie’s deep despair the hardest thing to deal with; I tried to comfort her but could not. 

The spiritual part of surviving Natasha’s death was cathartic for me.  I only began developing a sense of religious faith about five years before Natasha died; that’s when we began attending church as a family, marking the first time in my life I’d ever done so.  I remember having a God experience at Natasha’s funeral.  A powerful, palpable feeling of peace swept through me as I sat in our church listening to the pastor and others speak.  For a variety of reasons, I didn’t (and still don’t) blame God for Natasha’s death.  In fact, I wasn’t angry at all, just incredibly sad.

A friend suggested to me shortly after Natasha’s death that perhaps I’d go on to live a life without fear; after all, having experienced every parent’s worst nightmare, what was there left to fear?  But I haven’t found that to be the case.  I still fear being separated from my wife or my son through death or divorce.  I fear losing my memories of Natasha, as time passes and they grow dimmer.  But I no longer fear my own death, because I believe that’s when I’ll be reunited with Natasha — however, wherever and whenever that occurs.

Howard’s Story: Losing My Religion While Gaining My Faith

When the opportunity presented itself to give a Sunday Sermon, I have to admit it satisfied the “wanna-be” Rabbi in me. When I woke up the next morning, I felt alittle like I was facing the monster in Young Frankenstein, shouting “don’t you know a joke when you hear one? I was just kidding! Let me out of here” I have a much greater appreciation for what Nathan produces each week.

As stated in our first reading:

To the living, I am gone.
To the sorrowful, I will never return.
To the angry, I was cheated,
But to the happy, I am at peace,
And to the faithful, I have never left.

Faith. What does it mean to have faith? When someone says “I’ve lost my faith”, what are they saying? Faith and prayer were my ways to give back, to show gratitude for all the good that has come my way, and to protect me and those I love from harm.

As many of you know, our youngest son Andrew died 2 years ago. The diagnosis was SIDS or sudden infant death syndrome. That simply meant after an exhaustive evaluation, there was no explanation for his death. It happened at this time of year, one week before Thanksgiving. After losing Andrew, our faith was shattered into a thousand pieces.

With any death, life takes a pause, Life stops when you lose a child. We have language to describe the phases one goes through after losing a loved one– denial, anger, depression, – labels to describe a most complicated process called grief.

Did I not practice my faith sufficiently or did I not pray hard enough? Was I being punished for some reason? Worse, was I somehow responsible for his death? These are just some of the thoughts that went through my mind in the first 6 months.

During these early months, incredible acts of kindness came our way. People brought food every day for weeks at a time. We were checked on daily by family and friends. The day of Drew’s funeral, it felt as if the entire town of Ashland showed up at the Church, with police and fire trucks later escorting the procession to the cemetery. We were being carried by a larger community that we didn’t even know existed.

At the same time, the act of living became very mechanical in those first six months, while trying to resolve a most irresolvable question. How could this have happened to us?
And then as is necessary, the food came less, the visits and calls decreased, and we were left with having to learn how to put our lives back together. We were a broken, fragile family.

Thankfully, Pam and I had enough sense to treat getting help as a necessity and not a choice. We attended parent support group meetings through the Boston Area SIDS Center, couples grief counseling, and took the children to play therapy. The SIDS meetings allowed us to connect with other parents struggling with the same questions. Grief counseling gave us a place to learn how to stay connected with each other while allowing the other person to be where they’re at (Angry, indifferent, depressed, and even happy). Play therapy for the kids sounded better than anything we could come up with on our own. We had much to learn from others.

One particular SIDS meeting, a father, who lost his son to SIDS 18 years earlier, was approaching the anniversary of his son’s death. After all those years, he expressed “There was nothing more comforting than knowing it was the first Tuesday of the month and the SIDS meeting was here.”

And we were just two months out. Listening to him, it was inconceivable how one comes to learn to live with this versus merely trying getting better. It was at this point that we discovered how we were just touching the surface of what it means to not get over our loss, but to make it part of our lives.

And then this Church showed up. Pam knew of this place from Jen Brown, a member of this congregation. Back in 2003, after having our third son Andrew, we still had not resolved what would be the formal faith our children would participate in.
Being Jewish, I was holding out for the “perfect temple”, one with just the right amount of Judaism to satisfy my needs, while allowing for a genuine appreciation of our interfaith family circumstances. Pam was in her own process, having been raised Catholic, also with a strong faith in God. She was searching for a place we could practice our beliefs as a family. Needless to say, we were ripe for the UU experience. We just didn’t know it.

Then Andrew died, and the need to set aside family time for these big questions came front and center. The morning of Drew’s death, the hospital clergy phoned a good friend of ours who is a minister from Chestnut Hill. Fourteen years earlier, Reverend Basset helped Pam and me write our wedding vows. We remained in touch over the years and wanted him with us that morning in the emergency room. Over the next few weeks, he visited our home regularly and we started attending his Unitarian service in Chestnut Hill. Being around him helped us just be with each other and our loss.

As we approached Christmas, he suggested that his Church may not be able to provide the community that we needed. He suggested that we consider the Unitarian Church in Sherborn, a place he called a “Meeting House”, presumably for my Jewish filtered listening.
Our first time here was the Christmas Eve service, a month after Andrew died. Reverent Basset informed Nathan of our circumstances, and we were greeted warmly. After that first service, we decided to come back the following Sunday, then the week after, and the week after that.

During one particular Sunday service, I leaned over to Pam and gave her the Elaine push from Seinfeld, you know the one where Elaine says “Get Outta here!” around something she can’t believe. I was saying to Pam “I love this place”, and would push her the way Elaine pushed Jerry. I often felt this way when watching our two boys leave us to sit on the floor to hear the children’s message, then go to their classrooms.

Finding a place we could turn our children over to others was more than we could ever ask. We joined the congregation shortly after that.
We are members of this church in part because we lost a child. Is it possible that something positive can come out of his death? One day, Pam and Max walked to the cemetery from our house. Max noticed Pam crying and said to her “Mom, everything happens for a reason. We wouldn’t have our church, we wouldn’t have taken some of the trips we’ve taken if Drew hadn’t die. I’d give them all up to get him back, but that can’t happen.” What an uncomplicated, straight way to look at the world.

We do feel like we’ve been living in two different worlds, on the one side in private despair and coming out of a sustained period of shock, and the other, learning to deal with, to be honest “People”.

There is an understandable, yet difficult perception of loss in this culture. It feels alittle like “Are they better yet?” No one wants to see those they love in pain, but for us, it has become not about getting better, but finding ways to make Andrew’s life and death part of us. That must have been hard for others to watch and be a part of, but many did stick with us through it, and are even with us this morning. Thanks for all you’ve done.

Sometimes we’d leave a neighbors house and feel like we should be singing the Adams family theme, but The Teibel Family instead. We can be abit dark sometimes.
This church has grown on me and some remarkable things have happened here. One particular Sunday Pam couldn’t bring herself to get out of bed so I came alone with the children. I sat in that corner Pew and during a quiet portion of the service, a ray of light shone through the blinds, basking me in a warm feeling. I felt Andrew’s presence and tears came down my face. Unlike therapy, which is intended to get you back on your feet, this became a place to grow into and not out of. Our healing took shape each Sunday; sitting, listening, crying, holding each other and singing hymns. As Carol Kerrissey said to me a few weeks back “There’s nothing so whole as a broken heart.” We felt whole each Sunday sitting in those pews.

Life is different now – Whereas a fog shrouded us every day, every hour for many months at a time, it now comes less frequently, and in unexpected ways. At the risk of having people humming REM’s song, I titled this sermon “Losing My Religion While Gaining My Faith”. The title is accurate. I did lose my religion. A matter a fact, I’ve been losing my religion for years, searching instead for a place WE, our family, could say we share. Not hers, not mine, but ours.

And in this shared place, we’re learning what faith is. If Andrew’s death has taught me anything, it’s that we’re not alone. When he died, prayer took on a quality that I had never experienced and that is, being profoundly angry with God, and questioning the unfairness of life. But in another way, our loss connected us to a bigger reality in our communities, country and world.

When the Tsunami hit Southeast Asia, it affected me in an unexpected way. I remember standing in a bookstore looking at a photograph of a man wailing while holding his child. I couldn’t even look at the picture. It hurt at a level I had never experienced before. It was if a string was tied between me and this father, a man I would never know personally but could feel his pain. Our loss is part of a global experience that I feel both detached from and also personally connected to.

Have I lost my faith? Yes, but not in the faith I was aspiring to. I have a connection to a tested faith, to losing faith and having to find it in myself with the help of others. I have borrowed strength from watching Pam and it has been a privilege being in her life. I could not have come this far without her, and she has led me, the children, family and friends down a brutally honest, difficult path. Most remarkably, while staying in all of our lives.

Max, Philip and I owe her a debt of gratitude that she loves so strongly, and was able to come back from the depths of despair.

Last Tuesday, I woke up at 11 pm and changed the channel, fell back asleep, then woke up again 45 minutes later. In a groggy state, I realized I was watching Ted Coppel’s interview with Morrie Schwartz. It was a week earlier that I was eagerly looking for a reading for today’s service and finally thought maybe I’d find something in the attic. The only book I found was “Tuesdays with Morrie”. So now it’s a week later, I’m half asleep listening to my reading come alive. I woke Pam and said “that’s Morrie.” We watched him talk about losing his body and how the spirit of living lives in a different place.

At a commercial, Pam turned to me and said this is Andrew’s way of telling you “You’re on the right track”. I was already thinking this before she said it. I’m sorry, this was no coincidence.

As Morrie stated “Death ends a life, not a relationship”.

We take this relationship with Andrew into our future. My faith is whole.