Research shows the impact of losing a child has negative mental and physical effects on the well-being of parents, including higher risks of anxiety and depression. The grief and bereavement that fathers specifically face has been under-investigated, but historical data suggests fathers may have a briefer or less intense grief reaction, they may repress or avoid conversations related to their feelings on the loss, and they may be less likely than mothers to seek support. This could be explained by the cultural expectations of masculinity in Western culture, where men are expected to solve problems on their own and avoid expressing emotions. As these views have shifted over recent years and men have become more involved in all aspects of raising children, it’s important to focus on specific need areas in paternal grief to provide better care and support.
A recent systematic review (McNeil, M., Baker, J., Snyder, I., Rosenberg, A., & Kaye, E. (2021) Grief and Bereavement in Fathers After the Death of a Child: A Systematic Review. Pediatrics, 147(4). https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2020-040386) looked at the research surrounding parental grief which showed the following important themes. Fathers may grieve more in social isolation deliberately (in part to prioritize their partners suffering) but did acknowledge that conversation about their feelings towards the loss was helpful. Losing a child significantly impacted a father’s relationship with their partner, as different communication styles led to more frustration, but their partners were also a primary source of support. Fathers used goal-oriented tasks to cope with grief through their occupations and projects at home but did return to work soon after the death of their child. Fathers strived to actively remember their child, through rituals and legacy building activities, and most shared their biggest regret being a lack of time spent with their child. Engaging in religious activities was shown to be a protective factor for fathers, as it lowered symptoms of grief and depression. Even though depression in fathers decreased over time after the death of a child, it remained a factor 3-5 years after the death.
A key takeaway we can use to support grieving fathers – it’s important to recognize each one may grieve differently, and we must take an individualized approach by normalizing and validating reactions (such as difficulty in interpersonal relationships and increased symptoms of depression). We can also offer potentially helpful coping strategies: talking about the loss, actively finding ways to remember their child, and engaging in religious activities. We can all do this for the men in our lives, in social and cultural settings, within family structures, and professionally in treatment.