While many fathers may put on an outward display of strength, inside they are as heartbroken as any parent would be over the loss of a child. They experience the same stages of grief as anyone else, even if they do not always express it. However, society often focuses on the mother and meeting her needs, but fathers need support as well in order to heal from the loss of their child, and they need to be allowed to grieve on their terms.
How Men Grieve
While women are generally open with their emotions, men often keep theirs bottled up. A father may not outwardly show any sadness over the loss of his child, either because of societal pressure to be strong or the feeling that he must be there to support his wife.
Many men have been taught that they should not share their emotions or reach out for support. They are raised to be strong in times of trouble, thus they often grieve silently. This does not mean he is not grieving - it just means he is doing it differently.
Men often express their grief physically. A grieving father may throw himself into work or projects around the house, or he may take up a hobby to keep himself occupied and avoid dealing with his emotions. He may turn to physical activity, such as playing basketball or going to the gym, to get the anger out. He may avoid contact with his wife because he doesn't know how to deal with her emotions on top of his. Whatever form his grief takes, a father must be allowed to process his feelings in his own way.
Helping a Grieving Father
Society often neglects to care for the grieving father, showering all its support on the mother. Yet fathers need support as well, and he may not wish to turn to his wife for support, who is working through her grief. If you know a father who has recently lost a child, here are some suggestions for helping him work through his grief:
- Be supportive: He may need help with funeral arrangements, including driving him to the funeral home, picking out a casket or selecting flowers.
- Don't pressure him: If the father refuses to talk about his child's death, don't try to force the issue. Let him know that if he needs to talk, you'll be there to listen.
- Listen: When he is ready to start talking, just listen. Tell him how sorry you are for his loss. Use his child's name. Do not throw clichés at him, such as "Your child is in a better place", or "Now you have an angel to look after you". Not only are these not helpful, but it may make him feel that expressing his emotions is making you uncomfortable, which may cause him to stop talking about his grief.
- Help him with daily tasks: Find out what needs to be done, show up and just do it if you ask if he needs anything, he will likely say no. Tell him you will be at his house at a specific date and time to do the laundry or mow the lawn, or that you are dropping off dinner. If he has other children, offer to take them to the movies or the park to give him and his spouse some time alone.
- Invite him out: He may decline, but keep inviting him. Even if he never accepts, sometimes just knowing the invitation is there and that somebody cares is enough to get through a bad day. Often friends fade away after the loss of a child because they don't know what to say. He needs to know that you will not abandon him.
If you know someone who has lost a child, or if you are a father who has lost a child, take time to get some help. There are many organizations devoted to helping parents through the loss of a child, and many have local chapters with support groups for mothers, fathers, and both parents. Many of these organizations also have online forums specifically for fathers to go and talk about their grief with other men who have been through the same experience.
- Center for Loss in Multiple Birth (CLIMB) is an organization aimed at parents who have lost one, both or all children in a multiple birth, whether at birth or later in life. They have a page on fathers and grief.
- MISS Foundation is a volunteer-based organization that provides counseling, advocacy, research, and education services to families experiencing the death of a child. Their website has a page dedicated to fathers, as well as an online forum for dads called "Man of Courage."
Oftentimes the best comfort comes from reading about others who have been through the loss of their child and survived. Books written by fathers who have lost a child can help eliminate the feeling that nobody understands your pain. Look for these books at your local bookstore, library or at Amazon.com.
Books About Fathers & Loss
- A Grief Unveiled: One Father's Journey Through the Loss of a Child by Gregory Floyd shares the story of the author who lost his son when he was playing in the front yard and was hit by a vehicle. The author touches quite a bit on his religious faith, and how that kept him going through the pain.
- The Other Side of Suffering: The Father of JonBenet Ramsey Tells the Story of his Journey from Grief to Grace, by John Ramsey shows his emotional journey through not only the well-publicized death of JonBenet Ramsey, but also through the death of his oldest daughter and of his wife.
- Written in Tears: A Grieving Father's Journey Through Psalm 103, by Luke Veldt shares how one father turned to the Psalms for comfort after the loss of his child.
- A Father's Grief: A Collection of Poems, by Mahlon David Kellin shares the poems of the author written during the first month after his son's death. Raw and unpolished, his grief in the poetry is palpable.
- The Way Men Heal by Tom Golden explores the various ways men use to cope after the death of a child.
- Grieving Beyond Gender: Understanding the Ways Men and Women Mourn by Kenneth J. Doka may be helpful for women and men as they seek to understand their partner after the loss of a child. The authors say that gender is only one factor in how people grieve.
Path Towards Healing
There is no one way to grieve and no quick answer to the pain a parent feels after losing his child, regardless of the circumstances. Grief is a process, and it's important to let each individual experience that grief on their own terms. Grief counseling is often helpful for people who are struggling through the loss of a child as well.