I’m taking a break from walking you all through our journey in order today to say thanks to Facebook.
Thanks a lot Thorntons.
Thanks a lot England Rugby.
Thanks very much Village Hotels and the Foundry Project (the free pint DOES sound good though).
Thanks a lot even the bloody Royal Horticultural Society (no offence intended, wonderful people of the RHS, you’re the finest horticultural society I’ve ever heard of).
And thanks very much Morrisons.
Thank you commercialism for reminding me (repeatedly) over the last few days and weeks that it’s Father’s Day today. Thanks for the constant heads-up about what I’m missing. Again.
This day gets me every year. Not so much the day itself – we don’t really ‘do’ Mother’s or Father’s Day in our house – but the build-up, the days and weeks leading up to Father’s Day when you can’t move for wave after wave of unrelenting adverts reminding you that this year (like last year, and next year), you won’t be getting a card or a gift from your son.
Trigger days are a hard thing to rationalise. This grief is not something you can escape from, it’s with you every day. Somehow though, specific days – like birthdays and Father’s Days – seem to just hit that little bit harder. It reminds me (not that I’d forgotten) that Henry should be three-and-a-bit now. He’d probably still be a little bit young to really appreciate the enormity of a Lions tour, but I’m sure he’d be cheering for red shirts over black shirts anyway (sorry Jason). In four years’ time when they hit South Africa he’d be seven. He’d be playing by then. Except he won’t be.
Grief as a bereaved father is hard to explain. Society seems to find it more acceptable for bereaved mothers to grieve openly and publicly. Dads, not so much. We’re meant to be STRONG, right? In our society, for some reason, that means suppressing your feelings and not showing emotion. All that does is reinforce the stereotype that fathers don’t NEED to grieve, and that tells society that if they’re not showing their grief then they’re okay and it doesn’t need to recognise or acknowledge their grief. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, a vicious circle.
Over the three (and a bit) years since Henry died – particularly in that first 12, maybe 18 months, I’ve become very used to dealing with the question “how’s Briony doing?”. Now, in fairness, she’s dealt with an aggressive form of breast cancer too – she’s indestructible, my wife. But I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times in that first couple of years that anyone actually thought to ask me “how are YOU doing?”. (The exception to this rule is other parents who’ve lost children, because they alone have walked in these shoes. They get it.)
This loss creates all sorts of emotions in fathers, not least guilt – we’re meant to be the strong ones who are protecting our families, but we couldn’t protect our babies that we’ve lost. In many ways it’s an entirely irrational guilt, but it’s there nonetheless. The tastecard email above hit my inbox with the subject “Dad always saves the day”.
And it hit me: I didn’t save the day. I didn’t save my son. I couldn’t.
A father’s grief is different – we didn’t carry our babies, we didn’t have that same physical connection with them in the womb. But let’s be VERY clear – a father’s grief is no less valid than a mother’s. In the fantastic documentary about stillbirth Still Loved, there are seven families whose journey of grief is followed through the film, and the film does an excellent job of demonstrating the journey of grief for the dads in these families. The couple I felt I connected with most when watching this film are Juliette and Matt, and Matt explains this father’s perspective beautifully:
“I feel like – I’m the man, I’m supposed to be big and strong. I’m supposed to just get on with it, go back to work two days later and not feel anything about it.
But it doesn’t work like that, and it hit us both really really hard, and I couldn’t go back to work, I couldn’t see my friends, I couldn’t do anything. I think I had a lot more anger. My fuse got shorter and shorter, because every other male I know has got children, hasn’t been through it, doesn’t understand.
Then you’ve got the work side of it, that a lot of the people think ‘well, he’s a policeman, so he should be able to deal with this, he should be able to just get back on the horse and go again’…
I’ve said a couple of things to a couple of people, I’ve said to the people who have got children that we, even with what we’re going through and all the pain that we feel, we still come and see your children, we still come and see them and play with them, and you know sometimes we have to put a front on to come and do that, but we do it, and how many of you even know where our son’s buried?”
My great friend David Monteith, whose daughter Grace was stillborn just a few hours after Henry in May 2014, wrote a fantastic poem explaining his experience and his grief (click on the link here to see him perform it – if you do nothing else on the back of this blog, make sure you watch him perform this poem), but he sums up a father’s struggle quite brilliantly. The conclusion captures the essence of a father’s grief perfectly for me:
“If my continued oration makes you want to sigh, then remember that over two thousand babies didn’t have to die. To all those grieving whose pain I lift up high, get ready, for here comes my battle cry.
I. AM. A. PARENT. And just like my daughter, I pause. And unlike my daughter, I breathe.”
Matt and David are both amazing warrior dads. They just do their parenting for Ben and Grace differently to most of you out there.
So if you’re a father to a child who’s no longer with you, my message to you today is that you ARE strong, regardless of whether you show your grief or not. The fact that you’re still going makes you strong, and it makes you a survivor. Some days just surviving is enough.
And my message to any of you that know dads who have children who are no longer with them is: Please don’t forget that these guys are grieving too, even if they don’t always show it. Please don’t forget that this can be a really hard day for them. Please take the time to drop them a quick line or check in with them to say you’re thinking of them. It’ll mean the world.
Happy Father’s Day to my fellow dads everywhere whose babies are not in their arms, but in their hearts.