The Grief of a Father
How Rob Delaney and Nick Cave are teaching us to talk about death
Newsletters encourage intimacy. You invite me into your inbox, a place reserved for connection, communication, and the 150 emails the school sends you every week. In writing about the ups and downs of fatherhood and my own struggles, it’s inevitable some will want to share their own highs and lows. I’m only a reply away.
In the three years I’ve been writing here, I’ve heard from all kinds of dads in every corner of the world. These emails can be split (roughly) into three categories:
General “thank you for doing this” emails. Folks who feel the same as I did before I started the newsletter—that there aren’t enough places out there for dads—who want to share their happiness on finding what they’d been longing for.
The flotsam and jetsam of running a newsletter: a scattershot of potential collaborations, trying-to-get-a-podcast-off-the-ground emails, “do you want to promote this thing” requests, or enquiries about whether they can buy ad space (no, you can’t).
Dads seeking solace: coming to terms with trauma from their childhood, struggling with their mental health after the birth of a child, or the many battles that arise in the course of fatherhood.
The toughest emails I get are from parents dealing with the loss of a child. I am sad to report I get these regularly. Many sit in my inbox for weeks, silently demanding a reply; I look at them with shame, unable to find the right thing to say, knowing no words could possibly fill that void. What can you possibly say to a man who has lost his son, fighting to make sense of what has happened to his family? I am woefully unequipped to respond to these dads, beyond small platitudes of love, care and empathy.
For the longest time, all I could offer was clichéd banalities: "I can't begin to imagine what you must be going through." That had always been the truth—I had no idea. But over the last year, I sought to rectify this. Two books helped me better understand the mind of a father who has lost a son. The first was Faith, Hope and Carnage, a series of conversations between Nick Cave and Sean O'Hagan. In 2015, Cave lost one son in a tragic accident. He lost another last summer. He talks eloquently about the inevitability of grief, and learning to carry on after the death of a child:
It seems to me, that if we love, we grieve. That’s the deal. Grief and love are forever intertwined. Grief is the terrible reminder of the depths of our love and, like love, grief is non-negotiable. There is a vastness to grief that overwhelms our minuscule selves. We are tiny trembling clusters of atoms subsumed within grief’s awesome presence. It occupies the core of our being and it extends through our fingers to the limits of the universe.
Arthur’s death transformed Cave and his wife, leading him to reorientate his life around helping others navigate their grief. This took the form of a series of gigs and his ongoing work on The Red Hand Files. Cave talks in the book about the transformative effect of grief, and how it forces parents who have lost a child to rebuild themselves.
In time they put themselves together piece by piece. And the thing is, when they do that, they often find that they are a different person, a changed, more complete, more realised, more clearly drawn person. I think that’s what it is to live, really—to die in a way and to be reborn. And sometimes it can happen many times over, that complex reordering of ourselves.
The passing of time and ongoing periods of reflection have allowed Cave to think about what this tragedy has given him rather than what it has taken away.
Sometimes I try to bring to mind what Arthur has given to me, not just when he was alive but in his absence, too, almost as a way of finding meaning in the hopelessness that descends from time to time. And, well, the truth of it is that Arthur's passing ultimately became a motivating force, so that, over the years, Susie and I have experienced some very beautiful, meaningful things in our lives, truly beautiful, meaningful things, and in many ways they lead like a powder trail directly back to Arthur's death. This is the secret, terrible beauty at the heart of loss, of grief. Of course, we would give it all back if we could see him again, but those cosmic deals are not to be made.
Another book that provided insight into a father’s loss was Rob Delaney’s A Heart That Works. Delaney rode the wave of Weird Twitter, making his name as a comedian before co-creating the TV series Catastrophe with Sharon Horgan. (Over four seasons, the show offered an eerily accurate and consistently hilarious portrayal of what it means to be a parent today. If you haven’t seen it, get it to the top of your list.) Delaney’s book covers the two years between his son Henry’s birth, his subsequent cancer diagnosis, and his tragic death. It is a loving tribute to his son, a catalogue of the scars Delaney bears, and a celebration of the time they were able to share.
Henry’s first hairs fell out and he was bald again, and I would hold his head and kiss it and feel the warmth of it. It was such a pleasure to do that. When he grew hair after the chemo, we didn’t cut it and, oh my God, it was so beautiful. I loved to put my fingers through it and comb it behind his ear and just … I get mad when I think about how beautiful he was. His hair, his face, his eyes that were such a bright blue. It makes me angry that people won’t get to look at them. Those eyes were two of the most glorious things I’ve ever seen and it offends me that they’re not there for people to gaze into.
Delaney’s book moved me from cackles to tears within paragraphs. He talks about his Spotify Wrapped from the year of his son’s diagnosis being almost entirely Elliott Smith, “the reddest of flags” or how “society only legalised men talking about their feelings in 2013.” After a laugh, you’re only a short ride from an emotional gut punch. Delaney’s prose compels us to experience the impact of his loss, noticing outward manifestations of internal suffering and holding tight onto pain as a reminder of love.
One thing that fucked me up badly was losing the callouses that built up on my fingers from operating his suction machine. After Henry died, those callouses began to fade away. I hated that. I hated it so much. Please let me have my little hard bumps on my fingers that I can rub and think of him. They reminded me of helping him breathe, which it was my privilege to do. I could touch them and know they were there because of him. They told me that I loved him and he needed me and that he was real.
Grief is another item on the long list of “things men don’t talk about.” These books are helping to break this taboo. I’ve recommended them to many. I once asked a friend if they enjoyed one of them, before immediately correcting myself; they’re not the type of books you enjoy, but ones you experience. They aren’t an easy read, but an essential one.
Nietzsche once wrote, “Happiness is continuing to desire what you already possess.” My children are happy, healthy, and well; these books remind me how lucky we are. I feel indebted to the bravery and vulnerability of Cave and Delaney who have shown their broken parts to the world and bared their souls in the service of others.
A Therapy Fund Reminder
A quick reminder: if you, or a loved one, are struggling after the loss of a child and feel you might benefit from mental health support, the therapy fund is open and available to any dad. You can find out more here.
If you’re not already emotionally exhausted …
… then here’s a relevant, kid-friendly, movie recommendation. Last year, whilst working on and off on this essay, I watched Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio with the kids. This version is a stunning piece of work, and places the loss of Gepetto’s son front and center in the narrative. This gives the creation of the wooden doll a deeper significance as a father’s attempt to work through his trauma: to breathe life into something that lacks it, to replace everything he has lost.
Cricket (expertly voiced by Ewan McGregor) tells Pinocchio: “It’s a great burden for a father to lose a child.”
“What’s a burden?” asks Pinocchio.
“It's something painful you must carry, even though it hurts you very much.”
A bit heavier than usual, but an essential topic. Let me know your thoughts. Your feedback helps make this newsletter better.