This article is intended to help the family and friends of a bereaved dad to provide necessary emotional support in the shocking and reverberating wake of baby loss.
This is not easy.
Although men grieve baby loss absolutely, society does not affirm the depth of their suffering. As a result, many men report feeling extremely isolated.
Among them is acclaimed author Daniel Raeburn, author of Vessels: A Love Story. He acknowledges that men do not always express themselves as well as they might. In sudden baby loss, they can feel once removed, and less connected. Whereas their wives or partners labored, they themselves did not. They are at once deeply affected, and also untethered.
It is common to worry that asking too many questions of men will be seen as prying. Social convention is admittedly murky on the point of men and perinatal loss. Thankfully, this is evolving.
I throw down a challenge.
Consider how our familial roles have shifted. We live in a post-traditional society wherein men are expected to help with babies and children. Creating a safe space for their grief in loss is therefore essential.
Here are some concrete ways family and friends of bereaved dads can help:
Spell it out. Acknowledge that men have trouble talking about loss and grief. Having themselves not carried a baby, they may feel somewhat more distant from the experience. But they love so much. These concepts of loss and longing are beautifully rendered in Daniel Raeburn’s memoir, Vessels: A Love Story which is an essential gift. This book reflects complex understanding of male perinatal grief. It explains in gorgeous prose and complex terms, one fundamental truth. No, you are not alone.
Do something. Try not to offer advice intended to make a loss dad “feel better." Resist efforts to “cheer him up." Begin with an understanding that what you can do is limited – you can’t bring a baby back. However, the presence of a friend is deeply appreciated by lonely loss dads. Find things to do with him. A friend of my husband’s gave him a beer brewing kit and they brewed a batch. I don’t know if the beer was any good. I don’t know what they talked about. But I do know that my husband was less lonely that day. Invite him to get outside. Invite him on a camping trip. Encourage him to be active as he processes grief. Or take a bike ride. Getting out and away from the everyday – getting connected to the vastness of the outside — can rescale grief and bring some temporary relief from it’s powerful throes.
Deliver a pound of coffee. When you drop it off, ask to have a cup of coffee with him.
Encourage him to volunteer. Introspection and reflection is an essential part of the integration of grief. But so too is helping others. Encourage a grieving dad to engage a community project. Help identify a food pantry or a youth center that needs a fresh coat of paint. Purchase items for donation to the project of his choice and get started.
If a baby was cremated, consider male jewelry containing remains. Men don’t always feel connected to the physical baby they lost. Women carry the baby and they labor in loss. This lack of physical connection can obscure the actualization of loss. It can make grief a moving target. Some men report a powerful attachment to babies’ ashes, perhaps as a result. For these reasons, male jewelry containing remains can actually be very grounding for some dads. Funeral homes can coordinate facilitation of this.
I would reiterate that it is right and good to reach for dads in loss. You are not “reminding" them of their pain – you are affirming it. In so doing, you are helping them heal.
Vessels cover art courtesy of W.W. Norton & Co. Used with Permission.
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