The five year anniversary of my father’s passing occurred last month. His death ended a long and difficult battle with emphysema. He was diagnosed in 2003 and given two years to live. He lived an additional three which came as no surprise considering how stubborn he was. Those years brought a slow and steady decline in physical stature and capacity.
Living a state away, the cyclical visits were always jarring, each revealing a significant loss of ability, vitality and presence compared to the one before. As difficult as those moments were, none were more impactful than hearing the prognosis of his remaining time.
I had an internal reaction that was foreign to me. To this day I have no adequate words to describe the inner stirring that occurred. It was a unique mixture of sadness, confusion and anxiety never experienced before. Both of my grandfathers had passed on but the death of a parent, a father, landed with greater force; a force I did not understand.
I did not have the relationship with my father that every son deeply desires. I know he was extremely proud of me; sentiments freely expressed to those he knew. He also assumed his role as provider with great commitment often working multiple jobs and always willing to extend unsolicited financial assistance. For many reasons, and despite his presence in the home, a distance existed between us preventing the depth of connection that makes such a relationship so powerful.
In a conversation with one of my mentors about my inner stirring, he used the phrase “moving to the head of the tribe”. Though I did not ask for clarification, these words held significant meaning and brought clarity to the sadness, anxiety and confusion I felt.
The father/son relationship is a unique entity in and of itself. So is the archetypal role men have assumed in the tribe. To an extent, the loss of the father brings the loss of identity as son. Though we are always our father’s sons, his passing alters our place in the family. The son often assumes new roles and new responsibilities as a result. We see this depicted in movie scenes where a dying father may tell his young son that he will become the man of the house, instructing him on the new responsibilities he must assume.
The implications of moving to the head of the tribe are both immediate and historical. Consider for a moment your parents. Now consider your grandparents. Now consider your great grandparents, great great grandparents and so on. In your mind’s eye, see all the pairings of men and woman throughout history that culminated in your birth.
From the beginning of human history, men and women connected and produced offspring that led to each and every one of us. Our ancestral family is our tribe and at the head of that tribe are members of the oldest surviving generation. With the passing of each generation, the next steps to the head of the tribe bridging the descendants of the lineage to the ancestors of history.
The enormity of being passed a torch that has been handed down for thousands of years is an experience difficult to fathom. Entrusted with the responsibility of leading and guiding those who will eventually carry forward the family line, we step forward to carry out a sacred and sovereign duty.
Coping with the death of a parent is challenging for all the typical reasons associated with grief and loss. Unique dynamics are associated with the loss of a parent, particularly the loss of a father to a son. Archetypal forces may affect us in ways leaving us bewildered and confused, yet, it is the divine order of things; the evolutionary journey of family and the human species itself. Each successive generation inheriting and transcending all possessed by the previous in the great unfolding mystery of our existence.