Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Bereaved fathers - a forgotten group?

Seven years ago when our daughter died, one of my Professors wrote that he particularly wanted to comfort my husband since people often consider the death of a young child as being the mother's loss. He wrote from experience, since twenty years prior, his firstborn child had died suddenly at six weeks of age. He remarked that he struggled very much as others would be quick to comfort his wife, whereas he felt invisible.

Two days ago I was discussing grief with a friend whose father died last year. I commented that it had been easier in some ways to contextualise our daughter's death as at that time we lived in a city where every second mother had a child who died under the age of five. My husband asked why I did not say 'every second family' or 'every second father'. It made me think. In part, it was a culturally relevant comment: in that society only women would attend the funeral of a newborn, and it would indeed be seen as the woman's loss (additionally, it was a matrilinear society with high rates of non-paternity). But the point was there - I had unconsciously fallen into the same stereotype of considering the death of a child to be primarily the mother's loss.

Today, I have received many messages of comfort and encouragement. Some have said little, simply, 'thinking of you today', whereas others, who actually knew my daughter, have said more. Some people have contacted my husband also, but it is more likely that they will email or text me. Why is that? In part, it is because I tend to be the one who sends out emails and updates regarding our family's travels and prayer requests. In part, it might be because I choose to put a photo of her on my Facebook 'wall' on anniversaries, to help other people remember her (and also to send the very strong signal that I want people to remember, I want them to talk about her, I want them to feel able to recall the challenges that there were to their faith, and that God proved Himself faithful even through the trials.) But still, there is often the assumption that fathers somehow just get on with it, whereas a mother might have lasting grief.

There have been a few articles drawing attention to this recently in the blogosphere. In fact, there is even a Bereaved Father's Day! Organisations such as SANDS (the UK Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Society) have developed some resources aimed at fathers. But it does often seem as though the father can be a bit of an afterthought, and often he is expected to support his grieving wife rather than have needs of his own.

Watching my husband face the severe illness, disability and inevitable death of my daughter was the hardest part of the whole process. It is a significant life even that changes you forever. Some of the change is good - we long for heaven. Our children have a worldview where they know they have a sister already in heaven and that it is a very real place. We can be more compassionate towards others (although I think we need to take care at times, not to be dismissive of things that seem a little trivial to us). From my experience, I know I don't worry about the small things any more - perhaps too much so at times, I'm really not all that bothered by day to day things, or material possessions. Our faith was truly proven genuine as it was refined as if by fire (cf 1 Peter 1). But there is also an ongoing sense of loss. It is difficult to fully put into words. For me, it is a removal of that fresh innocent hope which comes with your first baby. Sometimes there is just an intangible sadness. It is difficult also to say what we really miss - our daughter lived with us for nine healthy weeks, was in hospital for six, and then was gone. We have had guests stay for longer than that. It was the hopes and dreams for the future perhaps. And just another reminder that this world is fallen, tarnished, longing for the day when Christ returns and all things are made new.

If you have friends who have a child die, let me encourage you to ask the father how he is. Ask him like you really mean it, and give him the time to answer. Let him talk. Don't assume that because he does not say much that he is coping perfectly fine. (And how does one define 'coping' anyway? Somebody may be coping in that they continue to function, to discharge all their ongoing responsibilities and not to show outward emotions. But that does not mean they do not feel loss). It might be that a bereaved father seems withdrawn or irritable - but even if somebody is not the easiest to draw alongside, that might simply be a reflection of the pain he is feeling. Sometimes, the hardest thing of all can be when people say nothing, and try to act as though it never happened. Don't be afraid to talk about the child who has died. By doing this you will not stir up painful memories, I promise you that! Having spent a reasonable amount of time talking with bereaved parents, it seems to be a misconception that we might have forgotten about them at a certain time, or forgotten their birthday or anniversary or some other significant occasion. As time goes on, it is even more precious to me when people do remember, and when they take the time to tell me so.


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