Their unique perspective can help other couples support each other in their shared grief.
Even the fathers I’ve spoken to have been reluctant to take too much attention for themselves. They keep redirecting my attention back to their wives, reminding me, “My wife had it so much worse.” Still, suffering is not the kind of thing that ever needs to be compared. And when it comes to a grief so personal, there’s room for everybody’s voice to be heard.
These are the experiences of five of the fathers I spoke to — Jeremy, Stephen, Josh, Matt, and Chris. Their perspective, I hope, can help other couples walk with each other in their shared grief.
A father’s unique helplessness
The word comes up in conversation over and over. “My wife and I lost two last year,” Jeremy told me. “I just felt helpless. I’m charged with protecting my bride and there is literally nothing I can do.“
Stephen recalls the day “when my wife spent that agonizing time in the bathroom, myself waiting outside.” He is no stranger to fear: “I was in the Army. I was taught to handle fear, panic, every emotion that can cloud the mind.” But it didn’t make the day any less heart-wrenching: “I knew she was in pain, and I could do nothing to help her.”
“The hardest thing in the world, Josh said, “is to watch your spouse’s heart break and there is nothing you can do about it.”
Everyone who loses a child feels a suffocating sense of powerlessness. You wish more than anything that you had control, but you don’t. A father feels that powerlessness in a unique way, because of his love, not only for his child, but also for his wife.
Acknowledging a father’s grief
A world that has little enough room to acknowledge a mother’s grief has, predictably, even less support for fathers. Matt said, “My wife is pretty much the only one who did acknowledge it. A lot of the conversation stayed focus on her loss … but we dads do grieve over the loss, too.”
Chris, who hastens to add that he did have a lot of support from his parish and community, told me that still, “Most folks focused on my wife’s pain and experience. Other men who also experienced miscarriage best understood the situation.”
Josh remembers that there was plenty of “concern and support, mostly directed at my wife. A few people casually acknowledged my pain as well, but were quick to prioritize ‘Oh, it must be so hard for both of you, but it must be way harder on your wife.’”
That last thing any man wants to do is elbow his way into the conversation, with a “What about me?” kind of attitude. So generally, they stay silent. Still, Josh says, “I lost a child too, but that seems to be too uncomfortable for people to understand … that a man can be emotionally invested in his unborn children too.”
What does it mean to be strong?
At one point, Josh remembers, somebody told him that, “You just have to man up and get past it.”
“We clearly have different definitions of the term,” he remarks. That seems to be key. What does it mean to be a man, when it comes to grieving? A lot of men talked about their initial instinct to “go into caretaking mode,” to hold off grieving until they thought their wife could handle it.
“I pushed down my pain because I thought I needed to be strong for my wife,” Steven recounts. I didn’t think my pain was worth much, considering that she lost her child in a more intimate way than I could ever understand. Some men might have to do that for their spouses, forgo their grieving until their spouse is healed. Mine needed to know that I was in pain, too. By keeping my pain to myself, I actually hindered her healing.” She hadn’t wanted him to be strong after all, at least, not the way he had thought.
Couples and communities, grieving together
Chris and his wife counted on their priests and parish to help them grieve. He remembers finally breaking down and crying, “In the arms of our pastor, and another priest friend who offered the funeral Mass.” The Mass itself, he tells me, “was critical for me in the grieving process.”
Others spoke of how much mutual support they found in their marriage, about finding comfort in crying together. Josh remembers that his manager spontaneously checked on him at work.
Most fathers had stories of friends, even family members, who wanted to dismiss the loss as insignificant, but they kept coming back to the stories they had of support, too. Not just support from their wives, but from their friends, co-workers, and parishes.
Everybody needs to be supported in their grief. I’m grateful to these men for sharing their experiences, reminding us of how wall of us can reach out to both parents who’ve lost a child.