For those looking in, the role a bereaved father takes in grieving for their baby may seem to them an afterthought; a supporting role, so to speak. We see the bereaved mother’s emotion, we see pictures of the beautiful babies gone to soon: but for those of us that have experienced the death of baby, or have witness those close to us be affected, we know the picture in its wider and truer form.
Physically a mother has been through a singular experience, but emotionally both the mother and father have experienced a common grief; they have both lost a child. The father’s life has been just as devastated by the experience and his reality just as broken. His need for understanding and support at this time is just as real.
The impact and quality of the bereavement support the father receives can directly affect his ability to process the experience, and provide a safe support for his grieving partner (1). Having a mutual respect for each other grieving styles (2) can be essential for cohesion and emotional bonding between the parents following the loss of a baby. By acknowledging the male perspective and offering appropriate support we can help in validating a father’s right to grieve for their child (4)
Experiencing the death of your baby can change the very definition of parenthood, and for fathers it can be coupled with the historic view that they should supress their grief. But we know this should not be the case.
A Fathers needs are not an afterthought, they are real and important. We cannot minimise or downplay their need for them to grieve the death of their baby.
The grief of a father is not a passive grief, it is as active and embedded as the mothers. Those intense emotions of grief may differ in expression than the mother’s, however they are no less raw and lasting.
A father’s grief sits alongside the mother’s, and should never to be pushed to the background or minimised. The need to acknowledge dad’s grief should be supported as it facilitates the grieving process, for the individual, as well as the family unit.
Grief in practice
Fathers can also be expected to return to workplace environment without an extended period to mourn. Often this can feel like being forced back into a professional environment when emotions are still quite raw.
In my families experience, my husband flew back up to work within days of our daughter’s funeral, only to arrive on site, then have to fly home again. The pressure to return to routine and interact with co-workers who may or may not know what had happened was exacerbated by the pressure he felt to ‘explain’ what had occurred to his daughter. Every interaction what mitigated with an inevitable awkward back and forth. This environment was not a distraction from the pain but only served as a magnification of it in that initial grieving period.
We were lucky that his workplace was able to accommodate bereavement leave for him. He was ready to return to work not to long after, much more able to concentrate and apply the focus he needed.
Another instance was when we were leaving the hospital after our daughter’s stillbirth. In the car, my husband was notably more upset then he had been that morning. He revealed that in his eyes, leaving the hospital felt as if he was leaving our daughter there, laying in the morgue. His fear and guilt played on him as if he were abandoning her. He felt he needed to be near her to protect her, even after death.
For a father to know that these are common and normal reactions to the experience can help us all be aware and understand the emotional needs of the grieving father.
What Still Aware are doing to help Support our Dads
For bereaved fathers providing an informal, relaxed and neutral setting to connect with other dads can prove to be better and more natural way of support. Sometimes it can be difficult for fathers to feel connected to the formalities of traditional group support.
By taking the focus off having to talk about loss, we can let the atmosphere of the event dictate to conversations. Everyone already knows they are supported and acknowledged and the pressure is off to “have to talk about your loss”. It is natural for conversations to develop organically at events such as Still Aware Barefoot Bowls for Bereaved Dads that are catered specifically to the support needs of our bereaved dads.
By offering an event where the focus is on activities and shared communication, we can support remembering through a more relaxed and dynamic atmosphere.
.et al, 2009. Shared or discordant grief in couples 2-6 years after the death of their premature baby: effects on suffering and posttraumatic growth. Psychosomatics, 50 (2) 123-130
Cacciatore, DeFrain, Jones, K., & Jones, H., 2008. Stillbirth and the couple: A gender based Exploration. Journal of Family Social Work, 11 (4), 351-372. Retrieved 02/08/17
Martin & Doka, 2000. Men don’t cry, women do: Transcending gender stereotypes of grief. Philadelphia: Brunner/Mazel.
McCreight, B. 2004. A grief ignored: Narratives of pregnancy loss from a male perspective. Sociology of Health & Illness. 26 (3) 326-350. Retrieved 02/08/17