Dads Grieve Too
Updated: Mar 21, 2021
There is a phenomenon that takes place when pregnancy gets complicated; a moment when all of the focus shifts to Mom and Dad is suddenly wrapped in a cloak of invisibility. Visits evolve from happy conversational check-ins with both Mom and Dad to serious medical one-on-ones with Mom as though Dad isn't in the room. Josh and I call this cruel happening: The Invisible Man.
Don't get me wrong, I completely understand the need to scale back on the warm and fuzzies when things get serious, it's just a difficult time for Dad too. Under these circumstances, the expectation is that the Father's role is simply to support Mom, but never forget that they are in it together. He is fearful and he feels helpless in this moment; all that he can do is be there to hold my hand as he holds his breath and hopes for a miracle. He couldn't take away any of the things I was feeling. He couldn't bleed for me. He couldn't have surgery in my place. He could only be there.
At our doctor's appointments, I am not sure that the doctor or nurses so much as glanced in his direction once we were aware that Lily was at risk. He remained in his corner, unseen and unheard. I am grateful to my husband for being open and vulnerable with me and feeling comfortable enough to let me know what he was feeling. I could see in his eyes whenever I would ask him what he was thinking, that there was something he wasn't saying. He worried that his feeling invisible was insensitive to me. But how could it be? She was ours and his feelings mattered every bit as much as mine did.
We spent weeks imagining her life, imagining ours. We had, on many occasions, spoken about my relationship with my father and how important it was to mirror that for our daughter. I remember getting into bed one evening after brushing my teeth to find him engrossed in an article he found about how to be a good father to a daughter. He spoke to me of his plans for regular father-daughter dates and all the things he wanted to teach her. He played her music on Sunday mornings in bed. He always kissed my belly and wished her a good day before leaving for work every morning. He would proclaim (and I mean PROCLAIM!) "I LOVE MY GIRLS!" on the regular. That would always put a smile on my face. He was every bit as invested in this life that we created as I was, and yet he felt pressure to quiet his hurt when things got difficult.
When I would ask him what he was feeling, his instinct was always to lead with something that identified me as the primary sufferer and minimize his feelings as secondary. While I may have been the one carrying our girl, while I may have been the one on the operating table and on the gurney in the delivery room, it never devalued his feelings in my mind. He is an extension of myself, and I don't prioritize my feelings over his in any circumstance.
This change was not unique to medical staff and manifested itself differently with friends and family. The shift in focus of the people closest to us affected him. The impact that this had was not intentional, it was instinctual — a manifestation of our predisposition to assume that, as the man of the house, he is less affected than I am. But we need to reframe that ideation.
When you lose a child, the most unbearable part of accepting it as your reality is uttering those words. So when we returned home we asked our parents to share the news of our loss with close friends and family, asking for some time grieve privately before reaching out. We needed to process this before we could have those difficult conversations. While family and friends did make an effort to respect our wishes, they would reach out to Josh sporadically to ask how I was doing. While they did also check in on him, it was secondary. These are the well-meaning gestures that can be painful for dad that I want you to recognize that.
We need to see that dads grieve too, but they so rarely are given the resources to cope with that. When we lost Lily there was an endless sea of resources available to me. There were groups online and in person, phone numbers to call, thousands of books and online resources and while there were some available there for us to look to as a couple, there was nothing for fathers. Men are raised to suck it up and bury it deep down because they aren't meant to cry or be emotive in any way. It's a really unhealthy way to go through life and it makes dealing with loss incredibly difficult.
When a father loses a child, they often return to work shortly thereafter, and in some cases the following day because it is what is expected of them. They struggle to focus and keep themselves together. They struggle to see their wives grieving. They struggle with their grief because they believe that it is not as important because they are made to feel that it isn't. For the most part, they've been neglected the tools that they will undoubtedly need in life. Death is a certainty. Death will touch our lives and we will lose people that we care about in our time on earth, that is inevitable. Expecting a man to instantaneously repair after loss and continue living is like expecting a man to swim with his hands and feet tied together — it's insane.
While I qualified for a short maternity leave given the length of my pregnancy, Josh was left wondering what to do. He needed time to grieve and we wanted to do that together. So he took a week off to be with me — just a week. A week is not a long time, but it's what we had. We talked a little, and we also said nothing a lot of the time. We decided to rewatch Game of Thrones in our basement and cuddle up under a pile of blankets. I know he wasn't ready to go back when he did, but fathers are simply not presumed to need more time. They worry that if they take the time they need they will be looked at in an unfavourable light. Like they are weak. It is a merciless double standard and it is also the reason why you don't think to worry about him like you worry for me.
I am working on creating some material and collecting existing resources to be shared with fathers. So if you are one half of a whole that is here reading this and you've suffered a loss, I want to give you something to help dad too. I want him to know that he is seen and his grief is valid. So know that those resources are coming. In the meantime, I have found a few helpful things online, in particular, there is a gentleman named Kelly Farley who has dedicated himself to providing men with the tools and resources they need to cope with pregnancy and infant loss after suffering two losses of his own. He is an author of a book called Grieving Dads To the Brink and Back Again. He also provides workshops and coaching online. If your partner is struggling to cope with their grief, I think he has done an exceptional job of capturing the difficulties of loss as a father.
But here are just a couple of things you can do now to better support dad.
Check-in with dad. Give each other a safe space to talk through the things that scare you. You are in this together.
Make sure he is seen and heard. Whether you are talking to a medical professional, family member or friend, take opportunities to subtly remind them of the man in the room. Replace I with we, take a beat to look to him when you sense that he may not feel seen and loop him into conversations when he is not being addressed. When you are going over concerns with your doctor, look to dad and ask him if there is anything he wants to know. Don't let him fade into the background.
FAMILY & FRIENDS
Recognize that we are two halves of a whole. Dad is focusing all of his energy on being strong for me, he can't be that for you too. When you look to him for answers with the assumption that he is struggling any less than I am, he feels as though he has to put on a brave face. He feels that his grief is invalidated or minimized, like he needs to "man-up" and speak for me, ignoring his pain. When you are checking in, make sure you acknowledge his frailty in this situation. If you want to be supportive, try to give us both the space we need when we ask for it. And when you do feel it appropriate to reach out, check-in with your point of contact first and then follow up with asking how their partner is doing. When you lead by asking them how their counterpart is doing, you are dismissing their pain as secondary.
I have seen the impacts that the absence of recognition can have for dad, and I wanted to bring this to light for both the couples that will struggle on their journey to parenthood and the people closest to them. Having this insight better prepares you to support the people you care about when they need it most.
Thank you to the people in our lives who were there for us when we needed you.
To my husband. Thank you for your strength and support. But most of all, thank you for your vulnerability and openness. These circumstances can weigh heavily on a couple. Without a genuinely open line of communication, it can be impossible to move forward in a healthy and sustainable way. Life has not been particularly kind to us, and with every challenge that we've faced, we have overcome. I know that no matter how treacherous the terrain, we will make it to the other side. I love you.