Many women who have suffered child loss say that they feel alone in their grief and have no one to turn to. This is even more of a problem among dads who have lost their babies. While most people tend to focus on supporting the mother, the father of the baby often finds himself sidelined and left to deal with his feelings himself. More often than not, a father’s grief turns out to be a lonely experience.
After baby loss, fathers have reported feeling hollow, overwhelming sadness, and utter despair. Their innate need to protect may leave them with feelings of guilt, wondering whether they could have done something to avert the tragedy. Some feel like they have failed and blame themselves for the loss of the baby. Researchers have found that following a stillbirth, men had elevated rates of anxiety and were at heightened risk for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, just like the women.
What makes the experience even more difficult for men is the lack of support and resources to provide them with care. In a medical setting, for example, even though most hospitals try to involve both parents fully after baby loss, more attention will be given to the mother. This reinforces the notion that men are necessarily peripheral to pregnancy. While the mothers are under the care of hospital staff, the father’s grief is cast aside and the men are often relegated to the tasks of making phone calls to family and friends, making arrangements, and generally ‘being supportive’.
While the pain they feel is real, the expectations that society has of them and that they have of themselves require men to ‘be strong’ during such difficult times. They are required to refrain from emotional display and instead focus all their attention on being there for their wives or partners. Many societal constructs are the reason a a father’s grief is not given as much attention. People believe that a woman becomes a mother when she learns that she is pregnant while a man only becomes a father when he holds the baby in his hands. The assumption therefore is that the father’s grief is less than the mother’s, and people immediately turn to the mother when offering their support. What’s worse is that the fathers cannot complain about this, cannot ask other people to support them as well, and end up grieving privately and in silence.
Fathers who have gone through such loss also try to avoid making it worse for their partners. They sometimes feel as though expressing their own pain may make it more difficult for their partners, so they would rather keep their feelings to themselves. Often, this does more harm than good because they then appear emotionally distant to their partners, making it worse for them in the process. A study found that 25% of men who had lost a baby did not share their feelings of grief with their partners. This could potentially strain the relationship between the mother and the father in the aftermath of such loss.
One factor that is frequently overlooked is that most men may not have the same kind of emotional support from their social networks as women do. Women’s friendships are often based on deep emotional connections, thereby allowing them to express themselves freely and lean on their friends as they grieve. Men on the other hand tend to look to their partners alone for emotional support. When they cannot get it from her during such a difficult time they may bottle up and struggle to get through the experience by themselves.
It is more common for dads to throw themselves into something to numb the pain. Women have reported that following their loss their partners developed some sort of obsessive hobby. Some throw themselves into a project such as redecorating the house, and others become workaholics, spending almost all their time at work. This is attributed to the tendency to want to distract themselves from the feelings of loss.
While women dwell on the topic of their loss, wanting to find out more and more about their feelings, most men prefer to turn away from the issue after a certain point, and fill up their time with busyness to occupy their attention. This may also end up driving a wedge in their relationships with their partners because it is a different way of grieving that their partners may not understand. Because men and women have different ways of dealing with loss, and because women’s methods of grieving are considered more conventional, men may find themselves accused of not grieving for their babies when the reality is that they simply handle the pain differently.
It is important to remember the father’s grief after the loss of a baby. In seeking out ways to better support them, we also need to follow their cues, just as we do with grieving mothers. Some men will want to talk about it while others will not. We should keep in mind that his pain is also valid and be mindful of it even as we offer comfort and support after the loss of a baby.