After our son Dylan was stillborn in 2005, my husband and I wandered around in a state of deep grief unable (or unwilling) to fully discuss what had happened when our baby died. Some very close friends managed to endure us during those dark days and invited us to dinner regularly. One night on the way home, I turned to Gavin and asked how he could eat anything. I probably said this more accusingly than I meant to. He 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. I turned my face away and looked out into the barren, moon-swept winter night.
This Father's Day, I want to bring attention to the unacknowledged grief of men who suffer the loss of an infant or their partner's pregnancy.
Research shows that a father's grief after such a loss is often dismissed. It also shows that men have elevated rates of anxiety and are at heightened risk for PTSD after baby loss, just as their female partners are. Many fathers report wishing that they had had more and better access to care and support after losing their child.
A number of factors may influence how men seek support in grief and whether (or not) they are supported in it. In a medical setting, for example, healthcare is administered to the woman, reinforcing the outmoded notion that men are peripheral to pregnancy. Instead they are relegated to "making arrangements," and "being supportive."
Return to Zero writer and director Sean Hanish, whose son was stillborn in 2005, has described this phenomenon (and the damage it can cause) like this: "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."
Several weeks or months after our loss, Gavin came home one day as usual and remarked that a lot of people were asking how I was. We took these gestures of concern in the spirit they were given and were deeply appreciative of the question. But that day we did laugh ruefully (and only a little) at how infrequently Gavin was included in the expressions of concern.
Men are now expected to be far more involved in day-to-day childrearing. These days, the idea that a dad would be absent from the delivery room – handing out cigars in the waiting room like Don Draper – seems patently ridiculous. The role of fathers has shifted, which raises the question: Why aren't they given equal space to grieve? Although there is no one way to experience loss, and the spectrum of grief is complex, men also deserve 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.
On our website Reconceiving Loss, we collect 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 shared their experiences in 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 dads who have lost babies. We can begin by acknowledging their grief and working to understand it. We can remember to ask how they are, not just how their wives or partners are coping. 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 reinforcing 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 we need to do.
A version of this piece was originally published on Psychology Today and is reprinted here with permission from the author.