Honoring our Dads: Insight into the Grief of Fathers after SUDC
Grief is a natural process of emotions that occurs when someone dies. Grief integrates into normal routines at variable time frames for each person. It can be an intense, lonely, and personal experience. No two people, regardless of gender, will experience the death of a child the same way. A sudden, unexpected death of a child goes against the natural order of life and the death is incomprehensible.
And while significant research has pursued a better understanding of a Mother’s grief, far less has been achieved to better comprehend the grief of Fathers. In fact, three times the number of published references in the US National Library of Medicine focus on maternal grief compared to the grief of Fathers. So as Father’s Day approaches, and we pause to celebrate our Dads, let’s shine a light on those that are grieving and how we can best support them.
While reviewing research was helpful, my contact with SUDC-bereaved Dads, shared the most poignant insights to their pain, their resilience and their love.
What have you learned about grief from your experience of the sudden death of your child?>
“I think the biggest thing I learned about grief is that I really didn’t know what true grief was. Losing a child is something that I never thought I would have to go through. It has brought me more pain than I have ever could have imagined. I didn’t know how to cope with my grief at first. I thought I could meet with a counselor, join some support groups and things would just naturally start to get better. I was hoping to find something that could magically make it all better. What I found out as time went on was that there are no magic solutions out there. There was nothing I could do to make the grief go away. The grief of losing a child was always going to stay with me. I had to learn how to live with that grief. This is something that even five years later after losing my son I am still learning how to live with. It will be something that I will have to learn how to deal with the rest of my life. “– Dave, Dad of Colin Roberts
“I have learned that grief is an ever-evolving creature that mutates like a virus and strikes different people differently. It recurs when it will, on its own timetable, although it becomes softer over time.” – John, Daddy of Claire
“A therapist used a picture to show me the stages of grief. She explained how you don’t move through the “stages” but rather bounce around. Having that understanding was helpful in helping me understand my feelings and my spouse’s feelings. And, In the first year of your loss- what was your most help coping skill or how did others best support you? I learned that distraction and staying busy was an acceptable way to grieve. This worked naturally with my personality. We went to church, the gym and traveled. Avoiding reality as much as possible.”
“Grief is very hard; it’s not something you get over, but something that will always be with you. Grief changes over time. There’s lots of unpredictable triggers out there, and that’s difficult. Give yourself grace to disengage with a triggering situation. It’s okay to be angry, but it’s also important to have healthy ways to release that anger. I have been blessed with supportive family and a few close friends who I can talk to about my grief without feeling the need to “hold back” what I’m really feeling. It’s helpful to have a place to process over time—it’s way better than a friend or coworker asking, “How are you doing?” once a year (how should I respond to that? the short answer or the long one?).” – Nate, Dad of Emerson
“There have been many lessons I’ve learned since Karahan’s passing over 18 years ago, so it would be difficult to pinpoint specifics. In general, I guess the biggest thing I’ve learned is that those who have experienced this tragedy ultimately live a new normal, while the lives of those around us seemingly continue course. That’s not to say that we’re stuck … only that our lives are on new and unexpected paths. -Kraig, Kalahan’s Dad
“I don’t think I fully understood what grief was and how heavily it impacts your life until we lost Nora. I had lost a grandfather back in high school, and although it was difficult at the time, it wasn’t life altering. The life I live now doesn’t feel like my own. It has all been adapting to this new life, without the child I loved so much that words couldn’t even begin to describe it. Some people seem to not understand that there is no timeline on grief. After a year, you don’t pick yourself up by the boot straps and “move on” like in the movies. Every day is still different, and I still go to bed every night, lay there and think about Nora and tell her how much I miss her. It does start to get easier, though, and it makes me really happy when I can look at pictures and laugh and tell everyone the stories about my crazy little girl. All those memories come with the sting of knowing Nora isn’t here, but I could barely even look at a picture for almost a year after we lost Nora. I guess the second thing I learned about grief is that you have to count even the smallest things as victories. Being able to tell a story, look at a picture, watch a video, are all things that most parents take for granted, but for me, each one of those things was a milestone in my “grief journey.” – Dad of Nora Shuman
Grief is unique for each person, regardless of their gender, and exclusive to the relationship of the person who has died and the survivor that remains. When a child dies, parents grieve the loss of their hopes and dreams they had for their child. Many parents wonder if they will be able to tolerate the pain, to survive it and be able to feel that life has meaning again. Grief does not come in orderly steps but in a wild crazy roller coaster ride with twists and unexpected turns, that sometimes decides to go in reverse when you least expect it. Intense reactions often return on specific dates (birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, etc.), or in connection with milestone events the child did not reach, and others may not recognize- like a school graduation, moving from the home where the child died, the growth of a subsequent sibling beyond the age of the child that died, or a son or daughter’s wedding. There are too many to name- but Father’s Day deserves a pause.
If you know a Dad grieving- be there for them. Don’t shy away- so many people fear saying the wrong thing and default to saying nothing at all. Take a cue from our Dads that have “been there” and “are there”. Be there for the bereaved dads in your life. Engage them in an activity they might enjoy this Sunday. Remember their child in some way. Do something kind in their child’s name and let them know about it. Speak their name. Remember that you are not making them sad- they are sad- and they will be grateful to you for remembering the child they fear will be forgotten. Remembering their child on this Father’s Day, the child who earned them the title of “Dad”- is a wonderful and heartfelt gift.
In grateful thanks to Colin’s Dad, Emerson’s Dad, Claire’s Dad, Kalahan’s Dad and Nora’s Dad for their help with this article.