Daniel is 10. When his dad died recently, felled by an aggressive form of brain cancer, he was told at the funeral by one of his father’s dear friends that he is now “the man of the house.”
He is not.
I think the words were meant to comfort and encourage him somehow, but I’m afraid I don’t quite get it.
He is a 10-year-old child who is bereft at the loss of his father. He is at an age when he understands death enough to know that he won’t see his father again in this life and that makes him heartsick. He tries not to cry, but sometimes, he can’t help it.
I didn’t know his dad well, but learned more about him from a close mutual friend. She said she admired the way he handled his illness and how tender he was with Daniel and his little sister.
Father and son talked quite a bit about what might happen as he got sicker, the language and detail tempered because Daniel is a child.
He told the little boy to be good for his mom, but he never told him he would be expected to grow up too fast and put his childhood behind him so he could be “the man of the house.”
That’s a burden we’ve been placing on boys for a very long time.
When my own grandfather died in 1920, my dad was barely 7. Family friends told him he was the man of the house and would have to step up.
What my dad’s dad actually said to him was quite different: Before the horse cart hauled him off to the train station to be transported to a hospital across the state line, Frank Collins Sr. told his son that he didn’t think he’d make it home again. He died at the hospital soon after he arrived.
But in the yard before he left, he held my dad’s hand and said he loved him and was proud of him. He told him to play ball and study hard and mind his mom. And not to take on too much. My dad said grandpa specifically told him to be a little boy. “That’s your job, son. You’re a child and you’re going to be okay if I don’t make it back.”
Yet we persistently put on boys the duty to be older than they are, to be more in charge than they should, to be burdened beyond what their years can bear. When moms die, I don’t think we put a similar burden on girls.
I was pondering it this week as I read an excellent feature published this summer by the Cincinnati Enquirer about a grief support group at a Catholic school for boys. In “The Rules of Grieving: They Are Still Boys,” each participant had lost a parent.
One of the boys in the story says he’s expected to take charge, but is not ready to be the man of the house. Writes John Faherty, one of the grief group leaders, Sheila Munafo-Kanoza, "stops him cold. This, she says, is not true. And it makes her a little crazy. A boy does not become the man of the house when his father dies. It is not fair, it is not right, and she hears it all the time. She asks the boys who lost their father if they had heard that now they were the man of the house. They all raise their hands, sheepishly, as if it was they who did something wrong.”
It is a huge burden to place on a child at a time when the weight of grief is already so cumbersome. If we don’t actually mean it, we should swallow it, unspoken. And if we do mean it, we should rethink it.
It is entirely too much to ask.
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