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Yes, Fathers Grieve, Too :

March 4, 2021

As someone who conducts research in the area of infant mortality, I often talk with parents who have lost an infant.

As someone who conducts research in the area of infant mortality, I often talk with parents who have lost an infant. While time does heal, I do not know a bereaved parent who is not, at some level, continuing to grieve. There is a quote that I often think about:

A wife who loses a husband is called a widow.
A husband who loses a wife is called a widower.
A child who loses his parents is called an orphan.
There is no word for a parent who loses a child.
That’s how awful the loss is.
Jay Neugeboren – An Orphan’s Tale – 1976

Maybe that is why this newly released Pediatrics article by Dr. Michael McNeil et al entitled “Grief and Bereavement in Fathers after the Death of a Child: A Systematic Review” spoke to me (10.1542/peds.2020-040386). Most of the research on parental grief has focused on mothers. Why is that? Is it because, in Western cultures (and some non-Western cultures as well), the societal expectation is that men are “strong,” and that to cry or show emotion indicates that you are somehow weaker?

Dr. McNeil and his colleagues conducted a systematic review to answer the question, “What are the grief and bereavement experiences of fathers following the death of a child?” The 21 studies that met inclusion criteria included fathers who had lost a child from different illnesses, including cancer, SIDS, trauma, infection, and congenital defects.

You will probably not be surprised that fathers experience grief differently from mothers. While there was some variability by culture, fathers in general coped by using strategies such as not talking about the death, returning to work, and keeping busy. Perhaps because these may not be optimal coping strategies for many, it is maybe not surprising that, while the intensity of mothers’ grief tends to decrease over time, this does not happen for many fathers.

There are many additional insights in this paper, but whether you work in a field in which you interact with bereaved parents frequently or rarely, just remember that, even if the father seems like he is doing okay after his child has died, he probably is not – and additional outreach or resources may be needed.

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