Editor’s Note: October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. Our hearts go out to all parents who are grieving the loss of a child.
Fathers are forgotten. At least that is how it feels when it comes to bereavement and grief support. It should not be the case. However, for a variety of reasons it often remains our culture’s norm. We hear the words, “. . . and how is mom?”
But bereaved dad . . . how are you?
Can I level with you?
When I was asked to write an article for newly bereaved fathers, I was apprehensive. I am a bereaved mother. I have lots to share but a comfort exists in being seen, even in the pages of an article. I hope that today, you are seen.
Over the years my husband and I have met so many wonderful bereaved fathers, all with their own stories to tell. Four of them agreed to be part of this article. Each gave a short biography about the child/children that they lost and answered a series of questions. The admiration I have for these men is tremendous. Each of them is a different age, working in a different field or industry, and all with a different set of life circumstances.
I hope that the thoughts of this diverse group of dads will give you comfort and hope during this upcoming month of pregnancy and infant loss awareness.
How did you become a bereaved father?
Nathan B.: Our daughter, Natalie, was stillborn in November of 2009, at 37 weeks gestation. Natalie became entangled in her umbilical cord, which was later found to be wrapped around her neck at birth.
Hal Bush: Our son Daniel, the firstborn child with my wife, Hiroko, died June 15, 1999 at the age of 6. He was at a daycare facility and the people were not watching him, and he slipped into an Olympic-size pool and drowned, surrounded by other kids.
Frank: My wife and I had two first-trimester pregnancies that ended rapidly within one year of each other. The first we only knew about for a weekend. The second for roughly a month.
Josh B.: Our son Calvin, was diagnosed with Trisomy 18, a severe chromosomal abnormality at our 20-week ultrasound. The doctors described his condition as “not compatible with life.” We were fortunate to carry him to term until he died during labor, just prior to being delivered.
Will this affect my relationship with my partner?
Frank: I internalized my grief and tried to move forward. My spouse tried to discuss it with me, but it was a topic I wanted to avoid. Meanwhile, due to this and other pre-existing issues, she crumbled into depression. It was a major contributing factor to our divorce . . . I recommend going to counseling, both individually and as a couple. Though I am a Christian and do believe spiritual guidance on navigating grief and the concept of death is essential, a licensed and trained counselor who has studied counseling beyond applying scripture is extremely helpful. By seeking professional help, you and your spouse may receive the tools you need to navigate grief and preserve your marriage.
Nathan: Grief grew our love and faith stronger. My biggest struggle was seeing her go through so much sorrow/grief. I wanted to take that pain away. I devoted myself to being with her and my family.
Hal: In my book (I stress) the “caregiver” role of the parents—meaning, that one must care for the other, in times of duress and meltdown. Caregiving takes a toll, but our vows—“in sickness and in health”—are relevant here . . . take extra special care with each other as you grieve in different ways.
Should I connect with other bereaved fathers?
Nathan: I connected with other bereaved fathers after our loss . . . most had been friends for many years. Our stories were different, but the pain was the same. It strengthened our friendships. You are not alone. There are others who have dealt with the same anguish and sorrow and are willing to lend an ear or share stories. It is OK to open up and cry (let the pain out). Tell your story and your pain, it will help throughout the process. Do not bottle up your emotions.
Frank: I did connect with friends who had suffered loss, but arguably less than I should have. Death is a taboo subject. It shouldn’t be because we all face it. But I didn’t discuss it much until my marriage was failing.
Josh: As you struggle through your loss and all the corresponding feelings, reach out to others around you, and share your thoughts. Try to make sense of how evil in the world and death fit into your world view. I found tremendous help and aid through Jesus Christ and His death on the cross on my behalf. I have not found a better reasoning for why tragedy strikes and how it will one day be resolved than in orthodox Christian teaching. Seek truth.
What is a normal timeline for grief?
Hal: It’s OK and predictable to grieve for a very long time—basically, it will likely be a lifelong experience. You will get better at handling it, but a sense of “getting better” will likely take years to get to that point. Some people may tell you to let go and get on with your life ASAP, but that is bad advice and usually comes from people who have not lost a child. Bereaved parents typically feel bonds with the dead child for the rest of their lives, and that is not only clinically true but in fact predictable, normal, and healthy. Often, it is true that one of the parents suffers much more, right away, while the other “seems OK,” but later can fall into a steep decline—even 18 months later, or 2-3 years. So, the old cliché of one year of grief, then “get on with your life,” is not true to clinical experiences of bereaved parents. Models for grieving have largely been abandoned—they came out of older Freudian concepts that everyone grieves the same. They do not . . . some might expect mothers to grieve more emotionally than fathers, or to struggle more, or be more open . . . but in fact, fathers often grieve more openly.
How long until I should go back to work?
Nathan: It takes time to heal and do not go back to work until you feel that you are ready. I believe that I went back to work too soon due to the fact that I never allowed myself to grieve. I devoted all my time to taking care of my wife and not myself. I struggled through the grieving process after going back to work.
Josh: In my experience, there was a tremendous outpouring of love and support during the initial days and first few weeks surrounding our loss. Then, gradually, as time moved on others went on with their lives while (we were) left to pick up the pieces of (our) new broken life. When I went back to work, I felt like a different person. While life marched on all around me, I felt like (I was) at a standstill. I went through the motions at work seemingly in a daze. Yet, with each passing day, I regained a little more of myself—I found my new normal. It is true that time heals all wounds. The scars remain, yet the wound closes. My advice would be to take it slow, give yourself and others grace as you pursue your new normal with a loss as part of your story.
Dear bereaved father, thank you for the ways you love your family daily. Your strength holds us up.
Nathan: My biggest worry is that our daughter will be forgotten (to the outside world) because she never lived outside of the womb and is no longer with us. I love to celebrate her life and tell her story in memory of her. It keeps her spirit alive. Please know that others will not understand or always show empathy to your loss. However, there are others that do understand you and stand along with you to keep that spirit alive.