Supporting Fathers After Stillbirth
Why we often deny men the chance to grieve and how we can change that
When I was 7 months pregnant and the doctor said he couldn't find my baby's heartbeat, the first call I had to make was to my husband Gavin. To tell him that our son Dylan had died.
"The baby is dead," I said, my voice teeming with panic. It was the first time I said it out loud.
A beat. An eternity.
"I'm coming," he said.
Much later, Gavin would confide in me that his friends and colleagues didn't know what to do in that moment. Should they have let him drive? Perhaps someone should have accompanied him? Instead, he walked to the car on his own and drove to me.
And then he got to work. He called people. He took care of our 2-year old. He did everything that I needed him to do. More than a decade has passed since our son was stillborn, and we have been blessed with more children since. But when I look back, I realize that Gavin never received what he needed during our loss. Few people ever asked Gavin what they could do for him.
I know I said some of the right things. I told him that he should cry. I remember encouraging him to go out with friends and make plans. And yet, when he tried to confide in me, I struggled to hear him. I struggled to watch him emote. It broke me to see him cry. I was not entirely conscious of the fact that what I expected from him was strength and support to do the things I could not. He met with the funeral director. He chose the vessel for the ashes. He was the one to fasten a heart-shaped pendant containing those ashes around my neck at our son's funeral.
This had nothing whatever to do with traditional gender roles or stereotypes about male strength. It was my own physical relationship to the loss that prevented me from showing up for him. In some ways, I felt personally responsible and had not figured out how to live with myself. Gavin's despair was a mirror to my own, and I had trouble looking at it.
This made me avoid Gavin. It probably made him avoid me too, though I'm not sure – we've still never really talked about it. Even ten years later, a part of our life and our marriage remains profoundly wounded by losing Dylan.
Our experience is common. In the chaos that comes after perinatal loss, men are often left to grieve alone.
"Men grieve differently than women," says William Petok, PhD, an expert on paternal reproductive mental health. The result is that "their partners can feel that they are out of sync with them at best, and uncaring at worst." When you combine that gap in understanding with the idea many men have that their only job is to support their wife, "you have a double bind." Men often worry that expressing their grief to their partner will only add to her anguish. But when they don't talk about how they feel, it can appear "cold and unfeeling."
It's true, agrees James Kocsis, founder of the tech start-up Give InKind, whose daughter Layla was stillborn, bereaved fathers can appear to be distant. "Men sometimes build impenetrable walls preventing others from reaching them on a personal level in times of need," says Kocsis. "We feel like we need to be strong for our wives and families."
And the rest of us generally confirm this belief. While uninvolved fathers now look like dated throwbacks and we expect more hands-on involvement in child rearing, we do little to support male grief when a pregnancy ends in loss.
"The idea is that baby loss is exclusively a woman's issue," says Kocsis. "The assumption that men aren't as affected may have validity, but this isn't a contest. Our hopes and dreams were crushed too." Or, as Daniel Raeburn wrote in Vessels: A Love Story, his beautiful memoir exploring the impact of stillbirth on fathers, "A lot of men try to hide their pain, to make it invisible to others and to themselves. But even when they succeed, the pain is still there."
I know this was true for Gavin, and I wish I (and our entire community) had that understanding back then. I can't change the past, but I can offer these tips for supporting bereaved fathers now:
Reach out. Text. Call. Email. Don't assume that this is something too private or that the couple should grieve together, alone. You are not overstepping your bounds.
Encourage physical release. I have heard from more than a few men that they wanted to be doing something while they grieved. Playing basketball, going for a bike ride, or taking a run. Some men even like going to a shooting range. Find any outlet that encourages him to express his emotions safely.
Start a memorial community project. Volunteer. Go buy paint together and visit a community center on National Service Day. Projects don't need to be baby-specific, and formal plaques aren't necessary. There is honor in simply remembering a lost baby through service to others.
Have a beer. One man I spoke to emphasized that a few beers in the right setting (with people and not in excess) can make it easier for a man to express his bottled-up emotions. Or offer to go out for coffee with him if that seems more appropriate.
Help him find a support group. James Kocsis found release in unorthodox places: "I'm talking fires, drums, and sweat lodges," says Kocsis. "There is nothing like surrounding yourself with guys who have dropped all of their barriers and know how to offer and ask for help. You'll be surprised how much help you become to others in the process as well. So powerful." Reach out to the bereavement coordinator at a local hospital or birth center for referrals to men's resource groups. It may also be helpful to contact the Miss Foundation or the Return To Zero Center for Healing.
My family has continued on. Our once 2-year old has been carried into adolescence. We have added other living, healthy children. And Gavin has largely tended to his own wounds. It can't have been easy for him. It pains me to speculate. Ernest Hemingway famously wrote, "[T]he world breaks everyone and afterwards some are stronger at the broken parts." That's Gavin – and that's me.