Couples therapy can help mothers and fathers grieve the loss of their baby together.
Parents who lose a child experience tremendous grief and pain. It doesn’t matter how old that baby is, or even if it had yet to be born. In pregnancy loss, it’s usually only the mother’s pain that’s acknowledged—but fathers grieve the loss of a baby, too.
If you’re a father who recently lost a baby, whether that baby was a few weeks’ gestation or many months’, that loss might feel like someone knocked the wind out of you, or worse. It might feel like you were plunged into a deep black cave.
You lost a member of your family. You won’t get to hear those baby giggles and feel her tiny fingers wrap around yours. You won’t get to teach him all the things a father knows best.
You are grieving.
Just like your partner did, you also imagined your life with the new baby. You imagined your new (or expanded) role and identity as a parent—a father. You had dreams and hopes for your family that were shattered with the loss of this baby.
But when we talk about pregnancy loss, the focus remains in the realm of women’s issues.
At the hospital and in grief support groups, you may end up feeling ignored or overlooked (Obst, 2020, p. 11). In the workplace, your coworkers might not have even known you were expecting.
So how do you make it through this terrible, lonely time when no one seems to acknowledge that you might be feeling pain?
Couples therapy can help you and your partner grieve the loss of your baby together. It can help you find the support and comfort you need, and the strength to pull through one of the most challenging times of your life.
Talk to someone who knows and understands that fathers grieve the loss of a baby, too.
What do we know about fathers after the loss of a baby?
1. It’s a significant life event
The loss of a baby is an event that changes the course of your life. It has the emotional power to knock you off course at work, in your relationship, and in your hobbies. It can make you question yourself and feel torn in your identity, especially new fathers who’re not sure whether to claim the title after a pregnancy loss.
And of course, you’ll never forget the pain and grief you’re experiencing in this moment.
2. Your attachment to the baby affects your grief
There are differences in how men participate in their partner’s pregnancy. Some enjoy tracking the size of the baby in an app, attending ultrasounds, or piping music into their partner’s belly and feeling the baby kick. Others feel less connected in physical ways but imagine what they’ll do together when their child is older.
However you grew attached to your baby, it is admittedly a different kind and intensity of attachment than your partner had while pregnant with the baby. According to a review of ten studies comparing men’s and women’s grief after pregnancy loss, men’s grief reactions were overall less intense than women’s (Obst et al., 2020, p. 8). This is likely due to the constant physical connection a woman has with the child growing inside her, as well as hormonal influences, but it doesn’t diminish the fact that you are also attached in your own way.
And regardless of how you feel the attachment to your baby, it plays into how you’re feeling now while you grieve the loss.
3. Personality factors contribute to how fathers grieve the loss
If you’re already prone to feeling guilt and shame, these feelings may persist longer for you according to two studies (Obst, 2020, p.8). Additionally, the same studies found that people who had a tendency toward self-criticism reported higher levels of grief and difficulty coping.
4. Faith helps fathers grieve the loss
If you’re religious, you may find comfort in your spiritual beliefs and in your faith community. One study found that involvement in religious practices helped fathers through the grief of pregnancy loss (Obst, 2020, p. 9).
5. Grieving fathers feel ignored by society
Seven different studies from around the globe brought specific attention to the fact that fathers feel ignored by society in their grief (Obst, 2020, p. 10).
It’s taboo in many cultures to talk about pregnancy loss, or death in general, which may leave you feeling alone and unseen.
In many cultures there are also societal expectations for how men should grieve. You may feel trapped by the expectations of how you’re supposed to act around your friends, colleagues, or even your family.
6. Fathers are “supposed to be” the strong caregiver-supporter
Men often feel they should, or are in fact expected to, suppress their reaction to a pregnancy loss. Instead, they must be the strong caregivers and supporters of their partners.
You may find yourself ignoring your own grief for the sake of supporting your partner. Or you may find yourself wishing that someone would recognize the hurt that’s pouring over you like an unexpected thunderstorm on what was supposed to be the river trip of a lifetime.
7. Friends and family can help
It may sound obvious to say that your friends and family can help. Or it may sound impossible, depending on your family. But numerous studies around grief support for men found the support of friends and family to be a positive influence (Obst, 2020, pg10).
In those same studies, men also reported feeling forgotten or that people avoided talking to them about their grief. Those that reported an overall lack of support from friends and family also reported worse experiences with grief.
8. Fathers may avoid formal counseling
Some of those same societal expectations around how men are supposed to act and express their feelings keep men from seeking formal counseling.
If you’ve been told not to talk about it, or to shove down unpleasant feelings, why would you want to go to counseling to dredge them back up? If you’re not supposed to display sadness or anger, how can you be expected to work through your grief?
9. Healthcare professionals and services are focused on women
At prenatal visits and at the maternity ward of the hospital, there are dedicated mental health services for expectant and new mothers.
The focus is all on the woman becoming a mother, but often you, her partner, are right there with her. You’re going through a life-changing experience, too. And when you lose a baby, you’re still there.
You might feel marginalized and unimportant when none of the healthcare professionals are asking how you’re holding up at the next visit. You might feel like telling them, “Fathers grieve, too!”
10. Men don’t have bereavement leave
You’ve just endured one of the most painful experiences of your life. You’re grieving, but you still have to go to work. You, like many men, may not feel comfortable or have the option of taking bereavement leave after pregnancy loss.
Relationships Help Grieving Fathers
Throughout all experiences in life, but especially painful ones like pregnancy loss, your partner is a major source of support. You need to be fully heard and seen in order to grieve your loss, and your partner can do that for you.
It takes courage to go against cultural norms and an upbringing that expects you to be tough, to tap into that dark and vulnerable place of pain and loss and turn to your partner and share it. But when you do—you ‘ll feel seen by her, and she’ll feel close to you.
Your bond will strengthen because you know you can be there for each other at times of great pain.
While incongruent grieving styles can lead to conflict, there are effective ways to reconnect and solidify your relationship—even in grief. Studies show that the quality of your relationship directly affects your experience (Obst, 2020, p.9), so it’s worth investing in the connection with your partner.
If you’re experiencing this loss during the pandemic, that adds another layer of grief and stress to your struggle. Fortunately, connected couples weather all kinds of crisis better.
Couples Therapy Can Help
If you and your partner need help finding or strengthening your connection during this difficult time, working with a professional couples therapist can help. It can be reassuring and supportive to have guidance from a professional who has helped numerous couples like you survive the grief of pregnancy loss together.
About Dr. Irena
Dr. Irena offers online therapy for couples in Texas and New York who have experienced pregnancy loss. She uses research proven Emotionally Focused Therapy to help couples support each other through miscarriage, giving special attention to how fathers grieve the loss of the baby too. She has helped highly distressed couples be available and responsive to each other, access their resiliency, and strengthen their relationships.
Call Dr. Irena for a FREE 10-minute phone consultation at (281)267-1742 or email her [email protected]