Boys don’t cry – Fatherhood and grief

I’m the Dad.  It’s my job to be strong for the family

I’m meant to protect my children

It’s one of the things I fell prey to despite having done all the reading, all the learning about grief and bereavement.  It shows how deeply ingrained the messages are around fathers, masculinity, and stiff upper lips.  Even if you understand the factors at play and reject that model, the structures exist elsewhere to put you back into the box.  Sometimes it will be your own actions that put you back into that box.

It’s clear we already have a cultural taboo around death and that taboo leads to people feeling It’s clear we already have a cultural taboo around death and that taboo leads to people feeling lonely, isolated and ashamed of their grief.  It prolongs the agony of an already agonising experience and twists the knife again and again.  The belief that men should suffer in silence is destructive and self-defeating.

Returning to work

I was lucky enough to be able to take 7 weeks off work following the death of our sons.  2 weeks paternity leave, a week compassionate leave and the rest was leave I had saved up to spend time with my twin sons.  I would have been in no fit state to return to work after two weeks.  My wife would have been in no fit state for me to return to work at that point either.

Others are not so lucky and do have to return, shell shocked to their jobs, to carry on working or at least maintaining the pretence of working all the while their mind is reeling from events that still seem unreal.

The expectation of being seen as the breadwinner and protector of the family can become crippling.  Whilst there may be an element of comfort in returning to the relative familiarity and normality of work it can become an unhealthy refuge creating distance between parents already struggling to cope with their new lives as the bereaved.

The pressure to be seen as fully functioning can lead to long hours and overcompensating rather than admit being unable to cope for fear of losing their reputation or even their job.

Being strong

The mantra of “I must be strong for my family” whilst well intentioned works to discourage sharing complex feelings of pain, loss, and confusion by encouraging misplaced stoicism that could be interpreted as hurtful and puzzling detachment.

I am concerned that what I know to be your inner firmness may be viewed by others as arrogance.

It also discourages fathers from seeking help when they need it most.  It’s not a realistic or sustainable position to expect to be strong all the time. Something must give and deferring it won’t work forever.  The desire to be strong so as not to burden their partner can lead to carrying it all alone at a time when they should be with their partner more than ever.

I’ve done this.  I made the mistake of believing that I shouldn’t look for help for my own mental health because I had to look after my family.  It took my wife to point out that if I didn’t take care of myself then I wouldn’t be able to look after our family.  My belief that I needed to protect my family blinded me to the fact that I wasn’t doing as good a job as I thought I was.

I wasn’t coping.  I was angry and upset and it was obvious to those around me that I wasn’t hiding it as well as I thought I was.  Grieving can be a team sport too!  It works best when we take it in turns to fall apart knowing that the other is able to help glue the pieces back together.

Differences in grieving

It’s different for us as our involvement is minimal in comparison to our partners. We watch as our partners carry our children but we don’t physically feel the same things they do. The subtle early movements, the somehow impossible shifting of organs to make room for the growing baby, the terrible nausea, the feeling of having a bladder being used as a punchbag or trampoline…

We hear about it and witness it but we don’t feel it in the same way.  We sympathise but we can’t truly empathise.  We are not Arnold Schwarzenegger in Junior.

Similarly, when our babies die we don’t feel the terrible stillness inside where before there had been flurries of kicks, we just see it on a glowing screen and in the downcast eyes of the sonographer.  We don’t feel that our bodies have let us down or that we were responsible for the death by not being strong enough.

Our partners do.  Ours is a feeling of helplessness.  The urge is to try and fix but there is nothing we can do to change things.  For me it is now the feeling that if I had pushed harder for staff to take us seriously then it could have been different.  That I would be listening out for their baby monitors rather than looking at their unchanging photos.  That I could be lighting candles on their birthday cake rather than on their memorial.

It goes both ways

The expectation that fathers have to be strong for the family goes both ways.  If we expect fathers to be strong, to protect their families then we need to provide them with the support to allow them to do that.  To allow them the space and permission to look for help when being strong isn’t an option anymore.  Sometimes strength is not about resisting feelings of sadness and weakness but facing it and being able to ask for help rather than silently struggling.

20 Comments Add yours

  1. You make a lot of very good points here and, I think, speak well for fathers, who face so much pressure to “be strong”. There is just no way that anyone can be consistently “strong” through something so awful. I agree it’s best to face and feel your feelings and get the help/support you need, which will then allow you to be that pillar of strength for your family. Thanks for highlighting all these very important points.

    Like

    1. 18-7-2 says:

      Thanks Christine. What’s really surprised me is that after 4 years I thought I was there in terms of being strong enough and all it took was a nudge to show me how illusionary that was!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. ljdove23 says:

    This was heartbreaking to read as I identify with so much of what you write. My ex husband tried very hard to be the strong one, to support me as I fell to pieces and to keep it together for the sake of our son. Ultimately he crumbled, albeit a year down the line, and as a result our marriage crumbled in turn. Looking back I see that he needed to grieve just as much as I did, that his grief was no less than my own, that just because I carried Joseph did not mean that my loss was greater. Thank for so much for sharing. #anythinggoes

    Liked by 1 person

  3. OneDizzyBee says:

    As always, you make me feel so much when I read your posts. I often feel as if there’s no comment I can leave to convey this – I think I may have mentioned this before! I find that with this post, my most powerful reaction came to with the very last sentence. It’s something that I understand, and can relate to on a personal level. Someone very close to me believed that his strength was in never showing the depth of his feelings, and when it all finally became too much, it nearly consumed him. Ultimately, being able to admit he needed help is what saved him. Thank you, as always, for a compelling read.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. John Adams says:

    A very powerful post. Interesting you mention the shared parental leave thing. I am glad that has bout some measure of equality in the event of an infant passing away. I simply can’t imagine what it is like, although it did happen to my sister and her husband and they were in pieces. I’m also really glad to see you tackling the mental health issue. The lack of support for men is, frankly, a travesty. #BrilliantBlogPosts

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ShoeboxofM says:

      Thank you John. I blogged on a similar subject http://wp.me/p6SLXs-aZ. It’s not that we as Dads are looking for special treatment but to be part of the process, listened to and respected rather than being seen as a hapless, stumbling punchline.

      It annoyed me to see that there was no mention of fathers in the recent blog on the forthcoming NHS Maternity Review report!

      Like

  5. The Anxious Dragon says:

    Another really powerful post here. I believe from talking to friends that have gone through this, the father is hit by a range of culteral expectations that prevent them expressing their grief. The stiff upper lip/men dont cry thing and also (in their experience) the view that its not really as bad for the dad as they hadnt actually met their child yet, there was no bond there yet.
    #coolmumclub

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ShoeboxofM says:

      It’s so horrible but done with the best of intentions. It’s why I wrote the post, to highlight that this pointless tradition and taboo does far morre damage than good.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Your blog really resonates with me, having been through a loss and a still birth. I don’t think my husband received the help he should of in the days weeks months or years that followed. Thank you for doing a brave thing, and raising awareness for fathers who are grieving.
    #cooldadclub

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ShoeboxofM says:

      Thanks for reading and your kind comment. I’m sorry for your losses and hope you both have the support you need. It took me a while to get help (see previous posts) but even 4 years on it did help me to uncomplicate the grief.

      Like

      1. Thank you… I did have counselling via the NHS and work, but the husband declined the offers. I think in hindsight it might have helped him. X

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I agree that so much more needs to be done to help the males in circumstances like these. We have been told we cannot have children and I have to have a hysterectomy, and while I see my Hubby suffering, it seems everyone else focuses their sympathy on me. I appreciate the sympathy for me, but want to shout out – he is suffering too! There is no help, all the books are focused on women. I am so sorry for your loss. It is unbelievable that some companies would expect you back at work after 2 weeks! I hope that more help and awareness happens soon. Thank you for writing this very difficult and emotional post.
    Amanda. #kcacols

    Liked by 1 person

  8. ljdove23 says:

    I absolutely agree with all of this, and I was hugely guilty of shutting my husband out when we lost Joseph, of feeling so caught up in my own grief that I failed to notice his. As a result, just two years later we divorced and it was only then that I realised just how hard it had been for him at that time too. The focus DOES seem to be more on the mother, I think society in general focuses more on the mother, the thought that we have to give birth, that we feel we failed, that it happened to us, in our body, I guess far too often the men are forgotten and I cant imagine how hard that must be. My ex husband said that he struggled with the fact that his friends didn’t really talk about it, that he had nobody to cry to – torn between having to be strong for me and needing to cry on my shoulder. #KCACOLS

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Suburban Mum says:

    A really powerful post and I completely agree that there should definitely be more support for fathers out there I don’t know why but society tends to focus on the mother in these situations and this needs to change.

    Thank you for linking up to #KCACOLS and I hope to see you back again next week

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ShoeboxofM says:

      Thank you. Dads are often seen as a parenting punchline and that doesn’t translate well to grieving dads.

      Like

  10. baddadu says:

    When my wife miscarried I had a very sharp short period of grief but as she because she was suffering the physical trauma as well then anything I was feeling emotionally paled into insignificance. It sort of helped me be stronger #KCACOLS

    Like

    1. ShoeboxofM says:

      I’m glad you found strength to support your wife.

      Like

  11. Silly Mummy says:

    I think that this is a very important issue to talk about and to recognise. I wonder if we have created something of a dichotomy for men in modern times, in which it has become increasingly expected and normal that they are not distant from their children and the emotional aspects of family life in the way that they were once expected to be, but then when it comes to the tough emotional aspects – grief, fear, sadness – it is not yet accepted that fathers, being just as attached and involved with their children as the mothers, will feel the same emotions and need the same support.

    I assume that even SPL would probably not particularly help fathers following stillbirth because it has to be split, doesn’t it? If both parents cannot take the time off together, but have to switch with each other, I would imagine that is not very helpful to grieving parents either, who need the time together. #KCACOLS

    Liked by 1 person

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