For generations men have been taught not to share feelings, cry, or even reach out when in need of support. There is also evidence to suggest that men are genetically designed to detach from sensitive emotions. Many men feel that to openly grieve leaves them in a vulnerable position at a time when they need to be viewed as a pillar of strength. The thought of releasing emotion instills in them a fear that they will not be able to collect themselves afterward. A man may consider himself the protector and the provider in the relationship, and feel a sense of failure when he cannot console his partner. Stressful situations are often dealt with by trying to “fix” the situation, in an effort to take the burden off others. In the case of infant death, the grief cannot be fixed, but rather it must be worked through in a process. Powerlessness, helplessness, and an inability to express his feelings often cause a man to isolate himself or throw himself into tasks that he can “fix.” Distancing himself from his despairing partner not only provides some relief from the feeling that he has failed as a partner and a man, but makes it easier to suppress his own sorrow.
Unfortunately, this may appear to others as if he is coping well. His partner may feel as if he has already forgotten or simply doesn’t care. Moreover, those who do not understand the impact that losing a baby has on a man often express concern about how his partner is coping, but rarely inquire about his sorrow. Lacking outward signs, his grief can be perceived to have never existed or to have already been resolved. The natural tendencies of men to suppress the open expression of their emotions, paired with a lack of understanding that the loss may cause as much heartbreak for him as it does his partner, makes it nearly impossible for him to receive the support he desperately needs.
In general, women may express grief more openly than men, but that does not mean that women feel the loss more deeply. Please consider the following list of the many emotions and concerns a man experiences in the loss of his child. It is hoped that this will create an understanding and facilitate the communication which must occur between partners to effectively grieve the loss they both feel.
-An overwhelming emotion that men feel in connection with the death of their baby is a loss of control. They cannot bring back the baby they lost, fix the couple’s broken dreams, or change the anguish their partner is feeling. Often the man will engage in behaviors which give him a definite sense of direction. He may begin to immerse himself in activities to release the anger and frustration of “failing” in his role. Working longer hours and occupying all of his remaining time with tasks at home provides him with a sense of accomplishment while he is able to grieve privately. Or, it may simply provide distraction when he cannot clearly identify how to cope with his emotions. In our society, expression of emotional pain is the great emasculator. For men, it is a time when they feel completely stripped of their control.
-With the death of their baby, men may feel a sense of helplessness. This is a result of believing they have lost control over the situation. The feeling exists that there is nothing they can do to make their partner happy again. They want desperately to relieve her pain but feel powerless to take away her anguish. Men may even find themselves more distressed by their partner’s suffering than by the loss of their baby. As the protector, they often feel defeated in their responsibilities. Many men even feel frightened by the loss itself, thus exacerbating anxiety and the feeling of being helpless over the situation. They are simply at a loss for a solution.
-Just as a man feels he cannot openly express his grief, he also believes that his feelings of being out of control and helpless must remain hidden. The inability to “fix” the tragedy and make all of the heartbreak disappear may take on the form of anger and self-imposed pressure. The anger is often directed toward many different people. He may be angry at God, health care providers, his partner, and himself. The feeling of “Why did this happen to us?” can be overwhelming. The burden of remaining the protector and provider forces him back into the position of returning to work early.
While this may serve the purpose of suppressing his grief, it may result in an unexpected flood of grief later. He feels pressured to mend the family, with an enormous sense that things must be restored to normal. He wants her and their life back the way it was before the loss of their baby. He might even resent his partner for imposing her feelings on him and insisting that he grieve in the same manner as her. Often all of the blame toward others and the pressures of life are overshadowed by anger toward himself. He may feel that not only could he not protect his partner, but that he also failed at protecting their baby.
One of the most distinct differences between men and women in their coping strategies is that women must express emotions and feel they are heard, while men search for solutions, for reasons, and develop a plan to move their family through the grieving process. To succeed, he feels he simply must think hard enough or long enough - and often in isolation.
Men do hurt, grieve, blame, and feel lost just as women do. The loss of their baby strikes them just as strongly as it does their partner. The most important concept to understand is that the impact of losing a baby is often the same for both the father and the mother. The difference lies within their methods of coping. Men often grieve on the inside and cry alone.
Adapted from Coping Together. Info at www.copingtogether.com.