On the Death of My Father

My father, Max Prager, died last week.

Here are some thoughts on the death of a parent.

1. Longevity

Parents who live long are very lucky. Not only for their longevity, and not only because they get to see their children grow into adulthood, and not only because they may see grandchildren, but for all those extra years to reconcile with their children. Had my father died when I was a teenager, we would not have had the decades since then to get closer.

2. Age at death

My father was born on July 18, 1918 and died on August 16, 2014. He was 96.

When people are told that someone’s parent has died, the first thing most ask — and nearly everyone wonders — is, “How was old was he/she?”

This is completely understandable. But it needs to be analyzed.

The age of the deceased matters only if one is assessing whether the death was a tragedy. Clearly, death at age 96 is not a tragedy. Moreover, my father was healthy for 93 of those years.

All that notwithstanding, however, the age at which a parent dies is irrelevant regarding the hole left. In fact, one might legitimately argue that the more years a person has had with his or her parent, the bigger the hole.

3. Impact and legacy

Just as children can be a source of pride or shame to parents, parents can be a source of pride or shame to their children. In some ways, even more so.

It was my parents who made me realize this. Whenever I introduced my parents to an audience or in private settings, I was proud of them. They carried themselves with dignity and grace.

Upon further reflection, I came to realize that as regards shame, bad parental behavior can actually have a greater impact on children — including adult children — than bad behavior of children has on parents. If a decent person’s son commits a terrible crime, we tend to have compassion for that parent. But if a decent person’s father commits a terrible crime, that crime, completely unfairly, reflects on the child. That is why one of the sons of Bernard Madoff, the man who stole billions of dollars, committed suicide. So did one of Charles Manson’s sons. It was as if they felt forever tainted. Yet we don’t hear about the parent of a child who engages in similar criminal behavior committing suicide.

If your parents bring you no shame, be very grateful. If you’re proud of them, celebrate.

4. What is more important than closeness.

My father loved my mother. He loved her more than anyone or anything in life. They were married for 69 years, together for 73. Growing up, my brother and I were largely emotional afterthoughts in my father’s life. Emotionally speaking, we were tenants in our parents’ house. That is why, as I said above, it was a blessing that our parents lived so long. They had all those years to express more love.

But I had something in my father more important than emotional closeness. I had a strong ethical/moral model. I have always worn an invisible but powerful bracelet with the letters: WWDD. What Would Dad Do?

The ideal for a son is to have an emotional bond with his father who is also a strong ethical model. But, if you can only have one, the latter is more important than the former.

5. No longer a child.

No matter how old you are, as long as a parent is alive, you are still a child. It is only after both die that you cease being a child. And then, all of a sudden, not only are you no longer a child, you are also next in line.

6. On writing an autobiography.

Late in his life, after five years of cajoling, I convinced my father to write an autobiography. He never stopped thanking me. You can read it at www.maxprager.com. My father, who among other things, was an Orthodox Jew who served as an officer in the U.S. Navy during World War II, told a compelling story. But everyone has a compelling story. An autobiography is one of the greatest gifts you can leave. Everyone should write one.

7. Where is my father now?

Has anyone ever lost a loved one and not wondered, where is he/she now?

This is the ultimate question. Is it really all over after the last breath? Was my father a vibrant, thinking, feeling, imbued-with-meaning human being one minute, and then a bunch of inanimate molecules — no different than his equal weight in sand — a minute later?

If there is nothing after death — absolutely nothing for eternity — we have to acknowledge that for the vast majority of human beings who have ever lived, life is a bad joke. And for many a horrific joke.

I have always recognized what is logically obvious: If there is a God, and God is just, there is an afterlife. And if there is no God, the material world is all there is. Both positions make sense. What does not make sense is that there is a God but no afterlife. To deny the afterlife, you have to be an atheist.

Therefore, because I find atheism logically untenable — Bach didn’t come from rocks — I assume that there is an afterlife. And that my father is therefore with my mother.

Goodbye, Dad. You did well.

Dennis Prager’s latest book, “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph,” was published April 24, 2013 by HarperCollins. He is a nationally syndicated radio show host and creator of PragerUniversity.com.


  • Marina

    Your comments about the shame a father can bring to his children is something not often written about – but very true. You left out the mentioning of the wife of that father and the burden she carries in marrying such a human being that brought that misery on her children. Only God can make that deep guilt bearable. You are even more fortunate than you know in that regard!

  • Skip in VA

    I am truly sorry for your loss and can empathize with you. My Father died in 1978 and my Mother died in 1996 and you are right about suddenly becoming an adult when both are gone. As the youngest of three children, I was always called, by my Mother, as her baby boy. That didn’t set well with me at the time; after all, I was over thirty and she still called me that. Oh, to hear those words again! I am basically an agnostic when it comes to an afterlife. What that means is that I don’t really believe in such but I still pray occasionally, just in case.

  • chuck.tatum

    Funny, every time I ask someone who tells me they believe in an afterlife and what does the afterlife consist of, they do not know. They believe in something they have no idea what it is, but are certain it is real.
    Talk about logically untenable.
    Even if your idea of eternity with your god is not one of constant worship of the master and singing praises to Him, but you think your eternity is a never ending golf course, or the never ending yacht party, do you really see your self enjoying that bliss FOREVER? It’s not another lifetime, or 1,000,000 years. We’re talking trillions and trillions of years times trillions of years, have at it.
    Stop fearing the reality of death that we will all must do. It is just like the non-existence we all did not experience before we were born. Don’t be scared of your non-existence, you will never know what you’re missing. Sadly, you will never know how wrong you were and the atheists were right.
    As Christopher Hitchens explained before his death facing his imminent death, it is not being told you must leave the party (of life). It is much worse, that the party will go on without you. But, he knew the absolute worst concept is being told you can never leave the next party.
    Give me liberty or give me death. Not, give me liberty or give me 72 virgins.
    If there was an afterlife, remember; Heaven for the climate, Hell for the friends.

  • Josh

    My condolences. And I agree that more time probably equates to more feeling and a deeper hole. My father got sick a few years back and didn’t think he’d make it to see his first grandchild. He’s now doing okay and close to seeing his second. At 64, I’m hoping he’s got another 30 in the tank. I hope we all do generally.

    Though I don’t think life is a joke without an afterlife. One thing the disbelief in an afterlife helps to promote is the fact that life is a process — an irrationally emotional one, but something that starts and ends. They’re arguably the two greatest emotional events: Seeing life come, being forced to watch it go. And it’s that balance that perhaps puts things into perspective irrespective of what else is out there, which we will all either find out or not eventually. And here’s hoping it’s much later rather than sooner.

  • PeterFitzwell

    Excellent Dennis.