Grief is a highly individualized experience, and no two people will experience loss and grief in the same way. Men and women grieve differently, not solely because they are different genders, but because they are different people with unique experiences, coping skills, and personalities.
It might be easy to assume that men are less emotional and more capable of compartmentalizing than women, particularly in grief. While this may be true in some, or even many circumstances, it is important to not generalize and dismiss the very real emotional toll grief and loss have on men.
What may appear to be compartmentalization, stoicism, or a lack of grief might actually be internal processing, coping, difficulty processing and/or communicating emotions, a sense of responsibility, or delayed grief.
A normal pregnancy and postpartum period can be stressful and overwhelming for fathers, and the number of men experiencing and talking about postpartum depression and other mood disorders is rising. If a normal, healthy pregnancy and transition into fatherhood can have that effect on men, imagine the toll that receiving a prenatal diagnosis of a life-limiting condition can take. There is an added level of grief for fathers because they are not only grieving the loss of their child. They are also supporting their significant other as she navigates pregnancy, delivery, and the knowledge of what is coming.
There is an overwhelming level of anticipatory grief for fathers following the diagnosis. They know what their significant other is about to put her body and mind through. They know what is being asked of them as fathers and significant others. They may also feel a bit on the outside of decision-making or involvement in the process since they are not the one carrying the child. The fact that men do not carry babies may seem to imply that they have less of a chance to know or bond with their child. It may seem that they should be less emotionally affected, or it may be easy to forget that they lost their child, too.
As a society, we tend to focus on the mother's grief when miscarriage, pregnancy loss, or infant death occurs. Since she carried the child, she must somehow be more devastated by the loss. This is not an accurate picture of child loss within a family. When we forget to honor a father's grief or when we turn to fathers only for advice on how to support their significant other without ever acknowledging their needs, we do a disservice to the family as a whole.
What fathers need is no different than what mothers need. They need acknowledgement, support, validation, and permission to express their feelings and share their experiences. They need to be seen, heard, and understood.
Father's Day honors the father himself as well as the impact fatherhood and paternal bonds have on personal relationships and society as a whole. For some, the day is about celebrating the men who raised them. For others, it is about celebrating the paternal figures who entered in and shaped their lives. As men start their own families, the day is about celebrating the role they play in their children's lives. For their significant others, it is about honoring the way fatherhood has grown and shaped the men they love. Yet, for many, the day is a reminder of the pain that accompanies infertility as well as pregnancy and infant loss.
At its core, Father's Day is a celebration of the men who sacrifice so much of themselves for their families. There is nothing easy about pregnancy continuation following a prenatal diagnosis of a life-limiting condition, and the supportive and sacrificial nature of fatherhood and the depths of a father's love are on full display. When he chooses to support his significant other as she carries and delivers their child, he does it out of love. Love for the woman sacrificing so much of herself, and love for the baby who made him a father whether for the first, second, or fifth time.
When the time comes, he will stand in a hospital room and hold his child for the first and last time. He will feel the weight of all that has happened, and he will watch, helplessly, as the woman he loves says goodbye to the baby she lovingly carried and nurtured. He will then, somehow, manage to lead his broken, devastated family through an unimaginable transition home without a baby.
There is no denying that he is a father. He may be a father with empty arms, but he is a father nonetheless. On Father's Day, fathers grieving the loss of their babies deserve to be seen and heard because the day is not just for fathers who get the privilege of raising their children. So, as the network of support walking alongside a grieving father, know that Father's Day is for him, too. Reach out and let him know that you see him.
Father's Day can be difficult to navigate for men facing a life-limiting prenatal diagnosis. In the weeks leading up to the day, these grieving fathers may experience a range of emotions and feel a heightened sense of grief. Father's Day can serve as a painful reminder of what these families are facing and the lifetime of grief they will carry. The holiday is more than just the third Sunday in June. It is an emotionally complicated holiday for many, especially fathers who know the pain of losing a child.
So, this Father's Day, remember the men in your life who are grieving. To help you know how to support a grieving father on Father's Day, I created the CARE model. CARE stands for consider, ask, recognize, and empower.
The communication that occurs most often between fathers and the network of support rallying around his family typically takes the form of checking in on the mother and baby. This is a logical point of conversation because as the closest person to the situation besides the mother, the father has the most insight into what his significant other needs during pregnancy and following the loss of their baby. In our blog post on how to communicate well with grieving parents, found here, I share insight into ways to be helpful and avoid being hurtful. That post is designed to help you be mindful of what you say and how you say, and I believe it is important to build on that foundation with a focus specifically on communicating with fathers.
I validate the instinct to ask a father how his significant other is doing throughout the carrying to term journey. That is not a triggering or harmful way of seeking advice on how to best offer support. What I encourage you to do when you do ask those questions is to make a point to check in on how the father is doing as well. You would likely be surprised to know how frequently fathers get asked about their significant other and baby and how infrequently they get asked about their own grief and experiences.
Many men struggle to know how to communicate with the people around them who genuinely want to support them. They may not know how to initiate the conversation. They may be worried about how their emotions will be perceived. They may question decisions they have made or how they have handle situations along the way, causing shame and further isolation. They may not how to ask for the advice and support they need.
It is very natural and common for fathers to take a "head down and run" approach to carrying to term. What I mean by that is the idea that when suffering hits their family in such a devastating and overwhelming way, the coping mechanism many default to is handling whatever they can and shouldering as much of the burden as they can to allow their significant other the freedom and space to grieve, process, and focus solely on the pregnancy. There is often very little rest for fathers in the "head down and run" season of this journey because they have taken on the role of strength, provider, supporter, researcher, and sounding board. They are being asked to run an emotional, logistical, and physical marathon that provides little room for pause, self-care, or even taking their eyes off the path.
This marathon does not have the finish line you might expect. Delivery day is not the finish line. To be fully honest, there really is no finish line, at least not in the way that allows men to run through the ribbon and stop running altogether. Rather, there are seasons where they walk, jog, and sprint, but like grieving mothers, they always stay on the same path laid out for them on diagnosis day: grief and loss. The closest thing a grieving father gets to a finish line is knowing that he is equipped and able to communicate his feelings and experiences well with his significant other, his children, and the people he interacts with throughout his life. When he feels as though he has a voice worth being heard, he can find rest and support.
So, network of support, what does that mean for you?
It means that you consider him, his grief, and his experiences as valuable and worthy of being known. It means that you communicate with him in a meaningful and personal way. It means that you take a genuine interest in what he has to say about his fatherhood, his significant other, and his precious baby. It means that you pursue him and see him as a unique individual wholly and profoundly affected by the diagnosis, the pregnancy, the delivery, the time with his child, the death of his child, and life after loss.
I could talk to you for hours about my thoughts on this, but I am a mother, not a father. So, I think it is best to leave you with quotes from fathers who know this reality firsthand:
"We all just want to feel loved, and that's hard when you are living the fog of grief. Don't pretend like nothing happened and avoid conversation about their loss. I really wanted to talk about it. I wasn't sure how, but if I had guys pursuing me, I know I would have gotten better at expressing those emotions." -Andy Schoonover, grieving father to Grace
"My advice to family and friends about supporting dads is to be there for them. Dads are going through and grieving a loss as well. We are sometimes forgotten in the conversations. We should never overshadow our wives or child, that's not what I'm saying, but, pulling us aside and asking, 'how are you doing,' will go a very long way." -Shawn Sourgose, grieving father to Ha'ani
"I'm an internal processor. It did not come naturally to me to reach out and ask for support or to talk with other guys following the loss of my daughters and son. I barely knew how to do that well with my wife. I realize that I needed and wanted to talk about Bridget, Vivian, and Liam the way I now get to talk about my living daughter. Friends and family, make a point to check in with dads. We need that kind of relationship and support, too." -Will Garvey, grieving father to Bridget, Vivian, and Liam
Asking a father what he needs and how he is doing is the practical application of consider. This may seem like a simple way to support fathers, almost as though it is not enough on your part, but that is the beauty of it. It is so simple to do, and it has such a profound impact on grieving fathers.
So, when you ask a man how his significant other is doing, ask him, too. When you ask what his significant other needs, ask what he needs, too. When you seek advice about what gift or keepsake item you can and should give to his significant other, ask what would be meaningful to him, too. Ask what would make him feel supported, loved, and seen on Father's Day, hard days, birthdays, and anniversaries.
Fathers often adopt one of the most selfless postures in a carrying to term journey. We all know the selfless love and physical suffering the mother willingly endures, but I wonder how often we stop and think about the sacrifice that fathers make. They sacrifice their comfort when they take on more of life's responsibilities. They sacrifice self-care as they pour themselves into their family. They sacrifice their own needs to ensure that those of their family are met. They even sacrifice a lot of the precious time they have with their child after birth, so that their significant other can hold, nurture, and soak in their child for as long as she needs to. They sacrifice the free expression of their grief to prioritize and support their significant other's grief.
That is sacrificial love. That is selflessness. It deserves to be recognized and honored.
My words can never do this experience justice, so here is more wisdom from incredible fathers:
"I would advise friends and family to continue to pursue grieving dads. Ask if they would like to come over for dinner, have a drink out on the deck, or go do their favorite activity. They will probably turn you down, but continue to ask. Once you get them out, give them space to process if they want to, and if they don’t want to, be ok with that also. All you can do is pursue them. Ask them how they are feeling. Ask them how their wives are doing, and tell them that you love them and are there any time to process." -Andy Schooonover, grieving father to Grace
"I honestly don't know what I would have said to people who asked what I needed. My focus was entirely on my wife and babies that I lost sight of my own needs for a long time. I love that our community checked in with me about Sarah and her grief. It felt like another way I could support her, but I wonder how much better at supporting her I would have been if people's questions had caused me to stop and consider what I needed in terms of self-care, processing, and just comprehending all that we have been through." -Will Garvey, grieving father to Bridget, Vivian, and Liam
Recognition is a powerful thing. We all like to be recognized for our hard work, accomplishments, and the things that make us us. For grieving parents, recognizing that they are, in fact, still parents is tremendously profound and supportive. Raising a child is not what makes someone a mother or a father. Men and women who give life and then say goodbye too soon to their child have earned the title of parent. They may not get to put it into action everyday like other parents do, but in the moments that matter during the pregnancy, following the birth, and in the legacy they create for their child, they are parenting.
As the network of support rallying around a family, I encourage you to recognize a father for exactly who he is: a father. His fatherhood has value, and I can imagine the level of support and comfort that comes with having that recognized and validated. Father's Day is about that very thing: recognizing fathers.
So, take a moment and think of how you might approach recognizing the grieving fathers in your life this year. Maybe you offer to take him to do something fun like play golf, catch a movie, or have dinner or drinks out somewhere. It can also be something as simple as a text that says, "I am thinking of you and [baby's name] today. You are an incredible father, and it has been a privilege to know you through this experience."
I believe these fathers say it best when they share about the power of recognition:
"My network of support honor my fatherhood every time they acknowledge Ha'ani, like my friend Frank who nearly always greets me as 'Ha'ani's dad'. Nothing is more satisfying when her name is said and memory witnessed by others." -Shawn Sourgose, grieving father to Ha'ani
"It wasn't until my wife and I had a daughter--that we got to take home and now get to raise-- that I understood what it means to identify daily as a father. The love I have for our babies has not faded, but it took me a long time to realize that I am every bit their father as I am a father to my daughter. When people acknowledge that, it means the world to me. It means they have not forgotten any of my children, and they see my fatherhood in its entirety." -Will Garvey, grieving father to Bridget, Vivian, and Liam
Empowering someone else has profound impact, and one of the best gifts you can give to a grieving father on Father's Day is empowerment. Simply put, empowerment is the authority given to someone to do something. It is about giving a grieving father the permission, encouragement, and support to grow confident in their voice, control, and rights in the midst of grief. Never underestimate the power of permission and empowerment. Here is how you can empower a grieving father on Father's Day:
- Encourage him to speak about his baby, experience, and feelings. His story has a place in this world, and he has every right to give words to his experience. There is tremendous power in sharing stories, both for the grieving father and for all the other grieving fathers looking for connection. To read more about the power of sharing stories, please read our post found here.
- Empower him to ask for help and support as he needs it. Let him know that you are willing and informed about how to support him as a parent carrying to term. Let him know that it is okay if he needs help in the form of professional support like counseling and support groups. Give him permission to not be strong every minute of every day. Remind him that there are people who want to enter in and that there are resources available to him.
- Encourage him to practice self-care. Whether that is getting enough sleep, exercising, eating well, or not throwing himself into work, self-care is critical. Remind him that self-care is not a sign of weakness. Remind him that, when he is feeling overwhelmed by the weight of his responsibilities and grief, there are still people by his side when he is ready to lean on them.
- Empower him to advocate for his significant other and baby following diagnosis, throughout pregnancy, during delivery, and in life after loss. Connect him with resources like Carrying To Term, so that we can ensure that he is fully informed and equip him with tools like our birth plan.
- Encourage him to see himself as a father, no matter the circumstances. Validate his experience, and remind him that he is, in fact, a father.
- Empower him by giving him permission to grieve. Give him the freedom to grieve how he needs to for as long as he needs to. Impose no expectations or timelines on his grief. Support him as he carves out a legacy in honor of his precious baby.
One of the greatest privileges of my professional--and personal--life was getting the chance to talk with three fathers and hear how they have navigated their experiences. These men graciously answered some deep and personal questions about their experiences with the losses of their babies. I learned so much, and I was deeply moved by their wisdom, willingness to share it with other fathers, and the limitless love they carry for their children.
You have seen their words woven throughout this post, and I want to leave you with two final quotes to further highlight the wisdom an empowered father has to share:
"Steph and I lost Grace within the first year of marriage, and it was clear that I was a broken human being. I thought I was patient. I thought that the outcome of my life was in my hands. I thought my faith in God was impenetrable. I thought that I was an awesome husband. All of those things turned out to be false. I’m impatient, my faith was weak, and I was a self-centered husband. Just as the physiological pain of stepping on a nail highlights that something is wrong, for me the emotional pain of losing Grace shed light on some gaping holes. I have tried my best to take the steps necessary to fill those holes, but it is surely a journey." -Andy Schoonover, grieving father to Grace
"Embrace each day with gratitude, however it is going, good or bad. [I try] to be a light of hope for my wife and kids and aware of my effect on them in how I carry myself in all aspects of life." -Shawn Sourgose, grieving father to Ha'ani