What we don't understand about dads who grieve



Discussing the importance of male mental health...


Daniel Raeburn is a father and husband who sadly lost his daughter, Irene to stillbirth in 2004. He wrote a book, Vessels: A True Story  in which he detailed his experience of becoming a father to a stillborn baby and how his marriage was tested. He writes about his experience of grief and emphasises the struggle to share his feelings with those closest to him.


Daniel’s experience is sadly not unique to him and society can be unsupportive to men who are grieving. So, with Father’s Day approaching, I wanted to highlight the importance of understanding male mental health, in particular when grieving the loss of a child and the need for more emotional and communicative support.


What don't we understand about the way men grieve?


It's hard to generalise, although I think when it comes to losing a baby, society still tends to assume that a man has fewer emotions than a woman. This is fuelled by the fact that most men may not want to talk about their emotions or feel like that they have to step up to be ‘the strong one’ at the time.


I often see parents in my clinic where dads will openly say that they had to be strong for their partner as they did not have the ‘right’ to feel the same sense of loss as they didn’t give birth.


In Daniel Raeburn’s book, he writes how his wife’s memories of their daughter’s death are different to his. She remembers being surrounded by family and friends whereas he remembers feeling completely alone.


I spoke to one mum recently who told me that when her baby died, she remembered wanting others to help her husband because she didn’t feel like she could.


For men, sometimes their feelings of loss can mirror how they feel in pregnancy. They have to be strong for their partner because she is the one carrying the child and going through the physical pain, whereas the father isn’t. In Daniel Raeburn’s book, he explains that after his daughter died, he was in shock and that to an extent, his daughter was still an idea, but for his wife, it was a literal and very real loss because she had gone through the physical pain of pregnancy and labour.


How can others help?


We must be really mindful that grief affects everyone differently. For many people there is nothing that we can do to make the raw feeling of grief any easier in that moment and trying too hard can often make the problem worse.


Last week, one dad told me that family and friends tried to help him cope with his grief and their efforts helped to an extent. Yet it felt less helpful when people tried to ‘cheer him up’ as it became more apparent that they were just trying to manage their own sadness.


Therefore, we need to show that we are there to listen, help and support when needed.


  • Don’t allow dad to feel abandoned, make a point of asking how he is as well as the mum.


  • Have the information of what services and support can help. In some cultures, mourning the loss of a baby is not accepted. In the UK, we do not have any statutory services or mandatory systems in place to help men manage grief, therefore specialist baby loss counselling is rarely recommended and often difficult to find. Having the knowledge that there is support out there is incredibly important.


  • Involving dads in funeral arrangements and making memories together can help dads to process and recognise the loss of a baby a little more.


  • Sometimes, it can really help to do something good for someone else either as an individual or a couple. Engaging with the outside world to spread happiness for others is a wonderful way of helping to heal from within.


I would encourage all men to seek some kind of emotional support, with or without their partners after losing a baby. I have had great conversations with dads when their wives and partners weren't around; mainly because they can talk about their deepest emotions without hurting their partner’s feelings. This can be really helpful in discovering who they have become after such a life changing experience.


If you or someone you know has been affected by the loss of a baby, please do not struggle on alone. I can offer you a free 15 minute, no obligation telephone call to answer any questions you may have about male mental health and to see if I could help you. Naomi@lifecarecounselling.com