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How Dads React When a Baby Dies

Traditionally, society has conditioned boys to remain stoic in the face of tragedy. While crying and otherwise expressing emotions has been encouraged in women, men have been expected to keep a “stiff upper lip.”

Because of this, bereaved fathers generally exhibit a narrow range of emotions, seek and accept little support, and are not encouraged to cry and talk about their babies. A father’s grief is often perceived to be mild and brief, but that is partly due to the fact that men’s grief is more invisible.

Deborah L. Davis is a developmental psychiatrist who specializes in perinatal bereavement, parent education and child development as well as the author of Empty Cradle, Broken Heart. She cautions that a man’s grief may end up stored in his subconscious and will then find indirect expression in his behaviors, reactions and physical illness.

There are five common styles of filing grief away:

  • Silence – Many boys are shamed, rejected or reprimanded when they express needs so men learn not to say anything. Many fathers cannot acknowledge their feelings because the shame associated with “letting” themselves have those emotions is too painful. Avoiding the feelings avoids the shame. Since friends and family tend to only ask how the mother is doing, silence is reinforced.
  • Secrecy – Even if a boy’s family allows expression of feelings, he may notice that his peers are not so accepting or he may notice how other men in the family tend to keep feelings private. In this style, grief is expressed but only privately, meaning men miss out on the benefits of social support, recognition and validation.
  • Action – Some men jump into action, orchestrating all the funeral arrangements, mobilizing legal action, engaging in hard physical labor, or becoming deeply involved in a hobby, sport or project at work. Taking action helps push away the feelings of helplessness and re-establish feelings of competence. Diving into activities is a way of feeling in control.
  • Anger – Anger is a valid response to a baby’s death but when mismanaged, it can become hurtful to men and their loved ones. Anger turned inward can result in depression. As a coping style, anger is a way to avoid deeper feelings of grief, including sadness, hurt, fear and despair.
  • Addiction – Addiction is a way to keep the lid on emotions. Substance abuse, including alcohol, drugs and food, can alter emotions by altering brain chemistry. Behaviors such as gambling, adultery, ravenous sex, competitive sports and fervent religion can provide an emotional fix by immersing you in a drama that can distract from other parts of your life.

Davis, Deborah L.. (1996). Empty Cradle, Broken Heart. Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum Publishing.

Perinatal mood disorders are treatable. But first you have to ask for help.

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