October is National Pregnancy & Infant Loss Awareness month. This means lots of women we know are sharing their #1in4 stories, posting photos of their children and lighting candles on October 14th. But as hard as it is for many to talk about pregnancy loss, there’s one group that tends to be ignored: dads and their friends—many of whom may have no idea how to help support a grieving father.
We are here to help give you some ideas for how to help a dad through baby loss.
Although men grieve the loss of a baby, 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.
Raeburn was shattered by the loss of his daughter, Irene.
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 not carried a baby, they may feel somewhat more distant from the experience. But they also 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 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 every day—getting connected to the vastness of the outside—can rescale grief and bring some temporary relief from its 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.
Set up a Give InKind page for the family. Besides the usual meal dropoffs, think about what other chores you can take off of a family’s plate. Set up a calendar on Give InKind and think of things like taking out garbage cans, taking cars in for an oil change and keeping up on yard work. If your friend won’t let you do these things, offer to go along for company.
I would reiterate that it is right and good to reach out to dads during a loss. You are not “reminding” them of their pain—you are affirming it. In so doing, you are helping them heal.