Here it comes again, one of the days I dread most every year. Father’s Day.
I’ve grown apart from my parents over the past couple of decades, so Father’s Day wasn’t ever really a day that featured massively on my radar. I sent a card of course, and made a phone call, and genuinely wished my father well, but it wasn’t that important a day in my calendar.
Then when I found out in late 2013 that I was going to be a father, Sunday 15th June 2014 became one of the biggest days in my calendar. Our son Henry would be six weeks old, and it would, without question, be one of the best days of my life.
But when the calendar came round to 15th June 2014, instead of being one of the best days of my life, it was instead one of the most conflicting. Six weeks earlier, on Sunday 4th May, we’d left the hospital two days after Henry’s birth. But we left without our son. He’d died two days before his birth. When we left hospital, we didn’t introduce Henry to the big wide world, we ventured back out into the world without him forever.
Father’s Day was one of the first big ‘milestones’ that we had to negotiate after his death. It was his mum’s birthday a couple of weeks after he was born, a hugely emotional day. Just under two weeks before Father’s Day, we held Henry’s funeral. There’s a weird point in the bereaved parent experience, where many people around you start to step back and go back to ‘normality’ – but after your child dies, ‘normality’ is a concept that will never quite mean the same thing again. Some friends step back after the funeral, others drift away at various points in the months and years that follow. Others step up, catch you when you’re falling, and help you put one foot in front of the other when you think you can’t go on. But outside of your circle, the world never steps away from its normality.
So in early June 2014, every trip to the supermarket, every advert break on television, every flick through a newspaper – all cut like a knife to remind me that yes, I was a father now but in the same breath, no, there’d be no celebrations, no cards handed to me by my son. Ever.
Processing that – and reprocessing it every single year – is always an emotional rollercoaster. Even if you go on to have other children, as we eventually did (though not without much without struggle), it’s still hugely challenging. Many bereaved parents who say goodbye to their first born aren’t lucky enough to go on to be blessed with living children. But other children aren’t replacements, they’re siblings. Having other children doesn’t take away your grief or sense of loss. The sense that a piece of you will always be missing never goes away. And this is the rub of fatherhood – of parenthood – when you’ve buried your child. No fatherhood memories of taking your son to mini-rugby, or his first day at school. In mid-June every year, no Father’s Day celebrations with your son. The incredible blessing that is our beautiful daughters mends my heart so much, but it’ll never be fully fixed.
This weekend is the seventh Father’s Day since I became a dad myself. My father died in January, so it’s my first Father’s Day as a son without a father as well as being my seventh as a father without a son, which gives another poignant edge to this year.
Father’s Day often feels a day of secondary significance for bereaved parents when compared with Mother’s Day. This is similar to how society sees the grief of bereaved fathers compared to bereaved mothers. Fathers are often seen as less affected by the death of our children, perhaps because we haven’t endured the same physical pain of childbirth, nor have we experienced the physical bonding with our children in the womb as their mothers have.
Pregnancy and childbirth – maternity – is often, not unreasonably – seen as a mother and baby experience, as is early parenting. Dads can sometimes be seen as a bit of a spare part. We can’t breastfeed, skin-to-skin isn’t routinely seen as a ‘dad’ thing, and paternity leave is routinely just two weeks. Our society historically positions mums as looking after babies and dads as providing for the family. This can leave the experience of a bereaved father so, so isolating. Blokes don’t generally empathise as well as women, I feel that’s fair to say. So our mates’ way of supporting us with this journey they don’t understand or can’t begin to comprehend is often to want to take us down the pub and watch sport with a beer. It’s hard for our male friends to find the words to support us, comprehend this overwhelming sense of loss, or grasp what’s going on in our heads when we have those days where we just want to keep the curtains drawn, pull the duvet back over our heads, and keep the world at arm’s length.
Men are discouraged by society from talking openly about our emotions, and grief is no different in this regard. Society’s refusal to encourage men to be open about our feelings and our mental health is a major factor in why so many bereaved fathers can find themselves becoming more withdrawn and more angry than before. We’re not good about talking about death as a society, especially about the death of a baby. Male concepts of the need to be ‘strong’ compound this. I know I found that my female friends were generally far more able to grasp my grief as a father than my male friends.
Like a lot of men, my natural instinct is to want to ‘fix’ or ‘do’ things, and I can be a bit of a control freak, which complicates paternal grief still further. It produces a string of experiences over which we have absolutely no control, waves that we simply just have to ride out rather than conquer. We couldn’t stop our babies from dying, we couldn’t take our partner’s pain or grief away, we couldn’t protect our family, we couldn’t grab a situation by the scruff of the neck and simply make it better through sheer force of will. In many ways, the death of your child can strike to the very heart of your masculinity – can leave you questioning life, your right to see yourself as a father (this isn’t unique to dads, that dichotomy is no different for mums), but also your role in your family unit.
Learning how to parent a child that isn’t here is equally challenging for both mums and dads. There’s no chapter on this in any of the parenting books, and there’s no ‘right’ way to do it. You just carve out your own path – you’ll get some things right, and other things wrong. The secondary impacts of this brutal loss extend out into all aspects of your life like the ripples from dropping a stone into a pond. It extends to your friendships, your work, your concentration, your relationship, every element of your very being. It’s brutal.
I’d love to say that there’s an easy way to negotiate it, but there isn’t. When you throw subsequent infertility struggles on top, it becomes even harder – and again, as a dad, these become Things Outside Of My Control.
I couldn’t magically make us fall pregnant again.
I couldn’t stop Briony from getting breast cancer.
I couldn’t make it go away.
I couldn’t control whether the treatment would work (it did, thankfully).
I couldn’t control the IVF.
Even when we fell pregnant again, I couldn’t control the outcome. I could pull all the strings I could, I could use all the contacts I’d made through my charity work to access the best rainbow pregnancy care I could find, but still feel utterly powerless.
When Robyn and Hallie arrived safely into the world in December 2019, I finally understood the full extent of how much my grief had built up inside me and destroyed me over the previous five and a half years. I realised that I had nothing left. I felt a shell of the man I’d been before, stronger than ever, yet somehow more broken too. Having finally got my head around parenting a child that wasn’t here, I simply couldn’t compute parenting children that were, and I broke all over again. The impact of Henry’s death carried through. I’ve got a lot of things wrong as a parent to my living children as well, but I hope I’ve got some things right too.
So my message to bereaved dads everywhere on this Father’s Day is this:
You don’t have to bottle things up or try to be ‘strong’. There are no prizes for heroism on this particular journey. Don’t try to take everything on alone. Don’t internalise. Find your releases. Talk, talk, and talk some more. Social media can help you find many other men who’ve been where you are, so form networks that will provide you with the support you need.
The truth is this: you will survive. Life will never be the same, but you will find your path – a rocky, bumpy, winding road with no set destination, but you will find it.
And remember this one thing – even when you feel more isolated than you’ve ever felt before, more lonely than you ever imagined possible, when you feel like your mates will never understand the hurt, the anger, the pain you feel inside: you’re not alone.
I see you.
Chris – Henry, Robyn & Hallie’s dad