Monday, July 15, 2013

How A Father Grieves

Love's not time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
within his bending sickle's compass come;
love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
but bears it out even to the edge of doom...
William Shakespeare

You feel helpless. You’re the family provider. Why couldn’t I have stopped this from happening? I need to focus my energies on making things better, getting over this; I need to return to work to recover some normalcy, make sure we don’t lose our insurance coverage, protect my wife, provide, provide, provide! 

While these things are true, focusing on them to the exclusion of identifying your pain and grief will likely derail you from the healing process and the anger and sadness that accompany it, feelings often anathema to men.

However, if you are a man who doesn’t shy from expressing his feelings with words and tears, you may find that others become uncomfortable around you when you do open up and bare your heart and soul this way. This response may add injury to your pain and cause you to withdraw.

Taking care of the sad details of death are a burden. And watching your spouse suffer physically and emotionally may leave you feeling helpless and avoidant.

What About Bonding With the Baby?
Your grief experience will be quite different from the mother’s. You relied more on dreams, expectations, and maybe the joy of feeling the baby move through the taut layer of your wife’s belly. You imagined, while she really felt and experienced life. Or your feelings of loss may be driven more by what you see your wife experiencing. To you, the event may feel more like birth, and death, than any life at all. Your pain may even revolve around not ever having been able to experience you baby’s life as your wife did.

Or perhaps you did develop strong emotional and physical attachments through attending every doctor visit and checkup, watching live ultrasound scans, hearing the heartbeat at every visit, feeling the kicks, or being with your newborn at delivery and holding and caring for them throughout their short life after birth. This is how a woman named Ceclia explained their loss:

            “Mark was with the baby the whole nine hours of his life, when I couldn’t be. I had
             tremendous concern for him because he was so bonded with the baby. He isn't 
             someone who expresses his emotions easily. He wasn't hysterical or anything but I
             could just see it in his face." 1

Moving On~
Most men feel if something is broken they need to labor to fix it, return it to normal, and make that happen just as quickly as they are able. You need to work to keep sane, to keep from feeling the pain, to ignore your perceived failure. As long as you’re moving, doing, functioning, you believe it’s all right. Withdrawing from friends and social activities may give you a break from your suffering. You may even arrive at a point where you feel you’ve expended all the tears you can possibly expend, and your official grieving period can close. It may indeed truly be over, but beware that if it’s not, if you have closed it prematurely, your grief may reappear in disturbing behaviors and thoughts long after your baby’s death.

If your wife experienced a medical emergency requiring emergency surgery or delivery (like mine did), you, as the father, may have been faced with agonizing questions requiring quick decisions. Your system may have been on overload with responsibilities, to both your wife and your baby, along with fear of your wife’s possible death and the impending death of your child. As soon as that was over, you may have abruptly switched mental gears to set aside worrying about your baby and flipped to worrying about your wife and her recovery and state of mind. Burying or ignoring your feelings won’t make them slink away. If you worried about your wife’s health during this event, let her know! That way she won’t misread your expressed and obvious relief about her well being as a lack of caring about the baby or the loss.

I knew Chris was frightened the night I started hemorrhaging in our bathroom. I could see it in his panicked eyes. Then he choked out the words, “What do I do?” When the paramedic turned to look at him after shutting the ambulance door to say gravely and without fanfare, “I don’t know if we’re going to make it on time,” then quickly hopped into the cab and drove away with me, Chris stood in the driveway for some time, asking himself what he was going to do now and wondering if he would soon be a widower. He busied himself cleaning the blood puddles from our carpets before driving to the hospital. On the way there all that rolled around in his mind—like a repeating tape—was: What if she’s not alive when I get there?

I could see the deep sadness in his eyes as he leaned over the bed railing to grasp my hand the night the end came. He’d been abruptly stopped at my room’s doorway and asked by Dr. Gordon to make a decision. (For the details of that part of my story, see my February 4, 2013 blog post.) Waiting for the outcome must have seemed like an eternity of fear for him. And I could see the immense relief on his face when he strode into the recovery room to once again lean over my bedrail, clasp my hand and announce that we’d had a girl.

Thinking back on it, I was so busy trying to keep Victoria—and myself—alive that I neglected to consider just how much stress Chris was experiencing, just how much of a violent emotional and physical roller coaster he rode: First your wife’s bleeding to death, now she’s not (and maybe we have a chance); then she’s bleeding again and things don’t look good, to now everything’s gone downhill so rapidly that it’s likely we’ll lose both your baby and your wife. 

I should have recognized, and appreciated, that Chris had a far different perspective on the events than I did. No wonder he started telling people: “I think we got off easy.”

For a man who’s a sought-after expert in fixing complex, technical problems, it must have been agony to have to stand aside and watch from the sidelines, and not have a clue what to do.

Men are also wired to protect, so they may expend any energy reserves on protecting their wives—and themselves—from experiencing anymore hurt. And you may find yourself suppressing anger toward your wife for not “being able” to provide the child you wanted. Voiced expressions from her—about her “failure” and inabilities sometimes add to your anger—even if you know she is not to be faulted.

Avoiding the subject only makes the situation worse. Your communication breaks down, and she ends up thinking that you really didn’t care as much about the baby as she did, and that you aren’t grieving the loss. Sharing these thoughts can bring you closer together as you work through them and try to understand your pain. It is important that you share your sorrow together.

Society also assumes that the mother, not the father, is the one experiencing the loss. Consequently, little or no attention is paid to the father during the time of grieving; no concern is given to his grief and needs. This only adds to man’s feelings of having to control his emotions, be strong and protect. One woman remembered the following encounter:
            “One of my friends from work came by with her husband. She had a lost a baby
            the year before and her husband looked at my husband and said, ‘How are you 
            doing? Nobody asks about us!’ My husband never felt he had as many outlets  
            to talk about the loss as I had."2 

Because men tend to compartmentalize things more than women—like when they go to work, they’ll probably promptly forget the argument they had with their wives that morning, while the wife ruminates on and replays it in her mind all day until it gets revisited and settled that night—they often find work a blessed release and diversion from their loss, pain and grieving. Being busy and productive gives men some sense of healing. A woman’s experience will be different. When she returns to work, she’ll likely encounter constant reminders of her loss that add to her pain. Don’t assume that what’s healing for one is healing for all!

            “Karen Reed, a nurse who has researched the impact of pregnancy loss on fathers, 
            has pointed out that men not only feel this initial need to be "strong," but also they  
            are often so conditioned by their male roles that they cannot even let themselves
            cry. This expectation is reinforced if you are obliged to make practical 
            arrangements following your loss."3

Expect your outlook on life to change. This father expressed it poignantly:
           “I am more reserved in life about things that would have excited me before.
            The losses put a lid on things for me. the disappointment is overwhelming. I 
            lost my innocence."4

Unfinished Grief~
The demands placed on a father after his baby’s death may pre-empt recognition of emotions as well as a complete, healing grief process. Grieving may be abruptly curtailed by a return to a demanding work schedule. And through it all, you may still be assailed with feelings of jealousy, anger, and doubt about making future plans, feelings that shock and destabilize you. This is where talking to understanding friends, family, clergy and grief counselors can be so helpful. Verbalizing your feelings to other sympathetic men can be immensely helpful in the grieving process.

And when anniversaries, holidays and family gatherings occur, don’t be surprised when you’re flooded anew with these feelings. It’s okay. It’s normal, and you’re not weak!

Finally, considering setting aside a special time each week for you to recall your baby, write about your feelings (many men journal), or talk about your loss and grief with a friend or a support group. Be proactive about doing what you can to resolve your pain. It really isn’t going to disappear just because you hope or will it to.


NEXT WEEK: Grieving Together

Thanks for joining me.

Until next week!



1 A Silent Sorrow: Pregnancy Loss; Kohn and Moffitt (Dell Publishing, 1992) page 39
2 Ibid; page 43-44
3 Ibid; page 41
4 Ibid; page 44