The German poet Friedrich Ruckert once wrote: “O you, refuge of your father/light of joy/extinguished all too soon” in reference to the death of his child. Following the stillbirth of our son in 2005, my husband and I wandered around in deep states of grief unable (or unwilling) to fully discuss what had happened when our baby died. In a certain way, there was no more perfect mirror of the despair I felt then than Gavin, and I think he probably felt similarly; it may have caused us to avoid one another. I am not sure. We have never really discussed it.
Some very close and dear friends somehow managed to endure us during those early dark days and invited us to dinner regularly. One night, in the car on the way home from their house I turned to Gavin and asked how he could eat anything. I probably said this accusingly more than I meant to. I like to think I wasn’t that angry then, but maybe I was. Gavin looked over and said, in an unbearably sad way, “I don’t know. I just eat until I am kind of full and then I stop.” He looked bereft to me. I turned my face away and looked out into the barren winter moon-swept night and focused on the backlit clouds hanging on that moon.
With Father’s Day upon us, it is time to speak to the unacknowledged grief of men who suffer baby loss.
If women feel alone in grief following the loss of a pregnancy or infant, the solitude of the father is both palpable and largely unacknowledged. "Helping Men with the Trauma of Miscarriage," published in Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training in 2010, Mark Kiselica, Ph.D, and Martha Rinehart, PhD examined the issue of men following baby loss and concluded that the fathers' grief was often dismissed by others. In “Psychological Impact of Stillbirth on Fathers in the Subsequent Pregnancy and Puerperium,” researchers found that following a stillbirth, men had elevated rates of anxiety and were at heightened risk for PTSD, in much the same way as their female counterparts. Many fathers report wishing that they had had more and better access to care.
Speaking in broad generalities, there are a number of factors that may influence how men seek support in grief and which conspire against them. In a medical setting, for example, the health care is administered to the woman, reinforcing the outmoded notion that men are necessarily peripheral to pregnancy. Instead they are relegated to the distancing effect of phones, forced to make arrangements, and “be supportive.”
But wait. Men are now expected to be far more involved in the day-to-day of childrearing. The expectation that Dad will be absent from the delivery room, opting instead to hand out cigars in the waiting room like Don Draper, now seems patently ridiculous. The role of fathers has shifted over time. This raises the question: why not allow men emotional space in pregnancy, as well as companion grief in loss? While there is no one way to experience loss, and the spectrum of grief is complex, these men would do well to receive support as they navigate and define their own experience. It is a mistake to paint the masculine experience of loss with one broad stroke. This costs more than we know.
The assumption that men are peripheral to pregnancy may unravel rapidly, especially in situations of loss. We have all heard it said that a woman becomes a mother when she discovers she is pregnant and a man becomes a father when he holds his baby. I am not convinced that either one of these sayings is really all that true, but if it is said enough times one grows complacent and believes some version of this.
Until. In an instant everything is gone.
Writes Return To Zero writer/director Sean Hanish, whose son was stillborn in 2005, “As a husband, a partner, a man you are a passenger on the pregnancy express. You can look out the window and watch the scenery go by, her belly grow, her skin glow, and if you’re lucky, catch your baby’s elbow as it presses against her belly like the dorsal fin of some alien sea creature making it more real for you. But you’re not the engineer. When the crash comes you are struggling with your own emotions, grief and loss, desolation and depression, and watching as your wife, your partner, your life jumps the tracks. Twisting metal tumbling out of control in slow motion. Prepare for impact.”
I am reminded of a day several weeks or months after our loss when Gavin came home. He remarked that a lot of people were asking how I was. We always took this beautiful gesture of concern in the spirit it was given and were, in fact, deeply appreciative of these questions. But we did laugh ruefully (and just a little) at how frequently Gavin was inadvertently left out of the equation, the expressions of concern.
On our website, Reconceiving Loss (www.reconceivingloss.com) we collect the stories of loss for the Return To Zero Project. This archive reflects, in part, the lonely experience of men. Artist Louis Hemmings created a video, Goodbye, Au Revoir, Slan that shows the loss of his daughter decades ago through the eyes of his young son. Other fathers have lent their experience to the archive and their words reveal a well of sadness and loss.
As we approach Father’s Day, I call on women and men to support Baby Loss Dads (or dads who have lost babies). We can begin by acknowledging their grief and understanding its nuance. We can remember to ask how they are, not just about their wives or their partners. We can engage them in a dialogue that begins to bear out the idea that we want to know how they are, how it feels to them to be missing something so central. We can acknowledge the role of fathers in childrearing as post-traditional by re-enforcing that they share the loss. This is the dialogue that creates healthier, happier families. And for the future of the men that we love, this is what will be required.