Dad provided model of grief and grieving that helped through hardest time

JUNE 25, 2023 7:00 AM

Many men describe their grief experiences as feeling devoid of emotion and lacking tears. My father, Lou, was not like other men. He shared his loss and his grief openly, showing tears and savoring memories of when he lost my mother and my stepmother. Little did I know that he offered me a lesson and model of grief and grieving.

Six months later as I returned from a business trip, I opened the door of our shared family home to find my father crying while decorating a Christmas tree. He quickly set my suitcase down, and we remembered Mom while finishing decorating the tree, which Dad believed would make Mom happy. Two hours later in the middle of the night, I answered a phone call. It was one of those moments when a late phone call causes the heart to race and adrenaline to flow freely. On the other end of the line was a U.S. military officer who shared the news that no parent wishes to hear. My son, Nicholas P. Berrena, was killed in a military accident at Fort Oglethorpe located in North Georgia. Hoping I was dreaming, I handed the phone to Dad, who’d heard me talking and crying and quickly appeared by my side. It was not a dream.

Within a few days, Dad and I flew to Georgia to bring Nick home to State College. Nick’s mother and I made the necessary preparations while trying to care for ourselves and our four daughters. Within days, I was trying to make sense of what made no sense to me. Friends and family members did their best to support me and to help, and their kindness was immeasurable. Yet, they could not relieve what seems like the most unbearable loss — the death of a child. It is not supposed to happen in that order … a parent is supposed to reach old age and pass, first.

I was lucky to be living with my father, Lou. During my grief journey, I turned to supports that I thought could help — alcohol, sleep, some friends and family members who did not know how to deal with me and my wish to talk about Nick. Ultimately, the grief process is an inside job. It never goes away, but it changes, just like life. The constant in my life was my father and my young daughters. Both brought me joy, love and support.

My father died on Feb. 21 at the age of 99. He lived a rich life that included more life experiences than most of us will ever imagine as our own. As I write this, I’m preparing for the first Father’s Day without him and without Nick. While I do not have specific expectations or plans, I do know that I will honor Dad and Nick in a manner that would bring them joy.

Mike Berrena has lived in the State College area since he was a toddler. He is a son, brother, father, grandfather, husband, friend and mentor. He tries to follow in his father’s footsteps as best he can. This column is coordinated by, whose mission is to create educational and conversational opportunities for meaningful intergenerational exchanges on loss, grief, growth and transformation.

Read more at: