As our first official Father’s Day flitted by in a haze of early morning snuggles, a baby entranced by empty watchband boxes, and a quick trip to the doctor for a bad case of diaper rash, I was reminded that this day was yet another milestone for our family. Our first Father’s day was one of joy and remembrance as we celebrated my husband and the boys who made him a dad, and a time of reflection as we mourned the memories that we had hoped to make as a family of four.
Sitting on the couch, watching the lake water reflect through the window of our summer cabin, I asked my husband about his experience with grief. As he paused for a moment to think, I was struck by the sudden realization that for the past year, he has had to carry an extra heavy burden. As husband and father, his shoulders have borne the weight of both his pain and mine. He has stood tall as protector, provider and supporter for our family during an uncertain time, and he has emerged from the other side stronger but still scarred.
My husband starts by telling me of the moment he first held our stillborn son. Looking down at the silent infant in his arms, he felt powerless in his desire to fix an unsolvable problem. Wishing to shelter his family from this searing pain, his protective nature screamed for a way to undo the loss, to glue these fractured promises back together. But there was nothing that could be done. He felt utterly helpless.
As the family provider, my husband returned to work shortly after our baby’s funeral, ready or not. As protector and supporter, he spent the evenings at the hospital with our survivor, and nights waking up every three hours to help me clean breast pump parts. He cared for me during my postpartum recovery, came home early from work on my “bad days,” and still managed to provide for us. Five months later, exhausted and emotionally drained, he felt worn down, having lacked the time to fully process his grief. Recognizing this, he was able to take four weeks off work to regroup and spend time with family. This was key to our family’s grieving process as a whole, but unfortunately, a luxury that not all mourning parents get to have.
Now, reflecting back on all of this, my husband points out the inconsistencies between a father and a mother’s grief. In a society that struggles to appropriately deal with the pain of a loss, we sometimes forget to acknowledge that fathers need support too. There is more grace for the grieving mother’s emotions than for the bereft father’s.
After an infant loss, society tends to focus on the mother’s heartache and often overlooks the simultaneous grieving process of the father. While differences in grieving styles between men and women may seem to indicate that fathers do not feel the loss of a child as acutely as the mother, this is not true. When the words “be a man” are synonymous with shutting down emotions and being “strong”, there can be a subconscious pressure for fathers to avoid tears or a genuine discussion of feelings. But just because a father grieves differently than his wife, doesn’t mean that he does not grieve.
As a mother, sharing my story has released a flood of similar experiences and commonly shared grief from the women around me. We find comfort as we discuss, rant, cry and grow stronger together. Even in online support groups, I have found an abundance of support and advice from genuine women with whom I share a common bond of loss.
My husband has not found that. When asked why, he shrugged and said, “Maybe there aren’t people who are grieving as I am.”
It’s easy to see why he feels this way. When sharing his story of loss with other men, my husband tells me that the conversation is constantly redirected to lighter, more positive topics. Rarely does anyone ask how he’s truly doing; rarely does anyone nod and tell him that they’ve “been there”.
My husband shifts on the couch and I am once again reminded of how blessed I am to have a spouse who’s willing to be open and transparent about his grief. This is what I’ve needed over the past year: someone to talk with, lean on and cry with. Side by side, we’ve rode this roller-coaster of emotions together, both of us dealing with the loss in our own ways. And while my husband’s tears dried quicker than mine, it did not mean that his grief was any less, simply that his grief was most commonly expressed through different outlets.
So what can we do to help grieving fathers? Don’t ignore the fact that their grief exists. Ask him how he’s doing and be open to taking the conversation beyond surface skimming topics. Life is messy and these conversations can be difficult, but in a world where fathers take an ever increasing role throughout the pregnancy, labour, and child rearing process, it’s important to acknowledge that they too have experienced a loss.
Because if there’s one thing that I know for certain, infant loss affects fathers too.