Tim Nelson
Fathers and Grief

tim Nelson photo

Twenty-five years ago he and his wife experienced a full-term stillbirth of their daughter Kathleen, which he describes as an event that changed his life forever. Tim now writes and speaks on the grief of miscarriage, stillbirth, and early infant death.

In a culture that struggles to know how to respond to parents grieving the loss of a baby, Tim is helping to make space for their voices to be heard and for their pain to be recognized. In the interview below, I ask him about his writings and what he has learned from his own experience and the experiences of others.

First, tell us a bit about your blog, book and websites.

Shortly after our daughter’s death, I wrote a feature newspaper article about the experience of being the father of a stillborn child. A national nonprofit bereavement organization asked for permission to reprint “A Father’s Story” in booklet form because there was very little written for dads at that time.

About 10 years later, I wrote A Guide For Fathers: When A Baby Dies. Because the original “A Father’s Story” was not written to be a help book, but only my personal story, I wanted to create a book that dads could use both during the early hours and in the months following their loss. I designed the book to be pocket-sized because I recalled at the time of Kathleen’s death feeling very conspicuous reading a grief book in the hospital cafeteria. I also wrote the book in a concise style with bullet points that touch on a number of issues men face after a loss. I recalled how I was not interested in reading verbose descriptions about feelings and emotions, but simply wanted guidance from someone who had lived through the experience. It’s interesting to me how sometimes women are critical of the book because they can’t see how it could be helpful, but many men say it is exactly the kind of information they needed.

In late 2008, Sherokee Ilse, author of Empty Arms, and I wrote a book entitled Couple Communication After a Baby Dies: Differing Perspectives. Even though Sherokee and I are not a couple, we tried to draw on our personal reactions and communications as a man and a woman following our respective losses. We also drew on our experiences with our spouses in living through that difficult time of our lives.

I started "A Blog for Fathers When a Baby Dies" in early 2009 and it has slowly grown. I was not expecting a large number of followers, but hoped it could be an outlet for those who wanted it. I’ve been extremely moved by the stories and the sharing that has taken place. It feels good to know that Kathleen’s life continues to touch others.

In your first post you talked about eventually being able to see the gifts Kathleen’s short life brought you. What were some of those gifts and how did they change you?

I reached a point in my grief where I was simply sick of being sad and feeling hopeless. I wanted to smile again and feel like I was alive. It was very clear to me that was what Kathleen would have wanted for us. It was then that I was able to concentrate on the positive things that came from my experience.

While there were friends and family members who disappointed us in their reaction and the level of support they offered at the time of our loss, we also met many new people with whom we have remained close. In some instances, people who were merely acquaintances at that time, became very good friends. Then, because of my writing, volunteer work, and public speaking I started meeting couples from all over the world and was able to both offer them support as well as learn from their courage and perspectives.

As awful as the events were that got me to that point, what I learned about the fragility of life and the delicate balance of happiness I took for granted, greatly impacted how I approached my living children, my marriage, and nearly all of my personal and professional relationships.

On your blog you and several readers comment about how the death of a baby is a lonely grief journey. What are some helpful ways people can support those who have lost a newborn?

Probably the number one thing I felt at the time and consistently hear from other families is simply wishing people would mention the baby that died by name. One of the biggest concerns a mom and dad face after a loss is the underlying fear that no one will remember their child. It’s easy to feel that because of the baby’s short existence and the fact that few people were able to meet them, it will be as though they never existed. When family and friends fail to talk about the baby as a real person, they unknowingly greatly add to that fear.

Also, because of our societies’ universal discomfort with grief, especially when it is in regard to a child, family and friends tend to isolate bereaved moms and dads. They tell themselves that it’s because the grieving parents need time to be alone. When they do finally come in contact with the family they don’t want to mention the baby for fear the parent will become sad.

Certainly there are times when parents do want to be alone and may not want to talk, but the best thing to do is offer support and let the grieving family know that you will be respectful of their wishes. Sometimes even the simple gesture of reaching out is all that is needed to help the bereaved avoid feeling alone and empty.

Finally, family and friends need to be OK with not having any magic answers that will make the sadness disappear. There really are no perfect words, but a hug or a tear speak volumes.

From your experience and your work with other fathers, what seem to be some of the main issues they work through after the loss of their child? What recommendations do you have for men on this journey?

Certainly one issue is the realization that no matter how hard we work to be a good husband and father, we can’t necessarily prevent bad things from happening to our family. Some events are simply out of our control. I think, in part, it’s this realization that causes a lot of men to be angry -- at themselves, God, or the world. The burden of being overwhelmingly sad is definitely made worse when a sense of failure is attached.

Also, men often talk about feeling very unproductive at work in the weeks and months following their loss. They have a hard time staying motivated and focused and get frustrated that it takes twice as long as usual to do half as much.

One of the best things to do to deal with these and other issues is to find someone to talk to. If that happens to be their partner, that is great, but they should not beat themselves up if it is someone else – friend, pastor, counselor, or other bereaved dad. By having someone to share thoughts and frustrations with, it’s easier to see that these feelings are quite common and that with time and hard work, it will get better.

In one of your blog posts you talk about how hard it is for parents to return to work after the loss of a baby. How can co-workers be supportive of those in grief—beyond the first two days of offering condolences?

As I mentioned above, it is very common for someone to feel unproductive in the workplace for weeks or even months after a loss. That doesn’t mean they are unable to do their job, but it often takes a lot more energy to get things done. If at all possible, offering a flexible work schedule (not necessarily fewer hours) for a couple of weeks not only helps him transition back into his routine, but sends a strong message that the workplace is a supportive environment. Ironically, that will likely make it a place he feels good about being and there is a greater chance his productivity will be regained more quickly than if it is somewhere he dreads going.

Periodically checking in with the bereaved dad – not just to ask how his wife is doing, but how HE is doing – can mean a great deal and help lighten the load. While that does not need to be a daily or even weekly occurrence, it certainly means a lot when someone takes the time to do so. Asking the dad to go out for lunch, a walk, or a drink, are nice ways to let him know someone is there to listen privately if he cares to talk. Even if he doesn’t share much, I can almost guarantee it will be helpful.

Also, as I answered in another question, referring to the baby that died by name is one of the most meaningful gestures one can offer.

If I understood your blog correctly, you say that for men the grief is focused not so much on the newborn stage of the loss, but rather on all the dreams the father had for his child, such as playing baseball together. Can you tell us more about this?

I don’t pretend to have any scientific data to back up that statement, but I can say from my own experience, it is often more common for men to talk about their future dreams for their child, while a bereaved mom will speak of the emptiness of not having the child inside them or in their arms to cradle.

Sometimes when speaking to parent groups, we will have the moms and dads draw a picture of themselves with their child that died. It is much more common to have a mom draw a picture of herself rocking the baby while a dad will draw a picture of himself playing baseball with a child or walking his daughter down the aisle. I think that makes sense where women have physically carried that child inside them, while men, even before they knew there might be a problem, spend time thinking about their dreams of being a dad in the years ahead.

I have also had a number of men (myself included) who have found the “milestone” birthdays to be more difficult. Personally, I struggled more the year Kathleen would have turned 5 and started school because I had such vivid memories of taking her sister to school on that first day. I also found her 16th birthday to be hard, because of the rite of passage that somehow represented to me.

As you share your story through the blog or speaking engagements, what are the things you say that people regularly respond with an “I needed to hear someone say that?”

Parents have said it was helpful to hear:

  • That couples are often on different wavelengths in how they deal with their sadness, and it does not mean there is something inherently wrong with their relationship;
  • That while it is not the case, after a baby dies some men feel like they somehow failed to protect their family from harm;
  • That some men fear showing emotion at a support group and that is a major factor in their resistance to the idea of attending;
  • That there is a tendency for some men to bury themselves in their work or a hobby in an attempt to avoid their grief, but that tactic will not work long term;
  • That the fact that men are quiet and have difficulty showing their emotions does NOT mean they don’t care;
  • That it is both possible as well as OK to feel happiness once again, but that it’s much easier to reach that point if one deals with their grief.

You say that writing was your therapy, what advice do you have for people who may not be professional writers, but are looking for ways to write for their own healing? I highly recommend journal (or basic ruled tablet) writing as an effective means of expressing the love, anger, frustration, and fear associated with a loss. What is written does not need to be for anyone but the writer to see, and spelling and grammar are of no significance in making it an effective tool for weeding out emotions and sorting feelings.

Keeping the journal around and looking back at the early entries is a great way to see progress in the grief journey, even when it doesn’t seem like any advancement has been made. However, even if someone chooses to write something down when they feel the need and then destroy it immediately afterward, it still can be helpful.

Obviously writing is only one of many helpful outlets for expressing grief. Exercise, building, fixing, sewing, and mowing are just a few of the many activities people can do to help relieve stress. After Kathleen died, I desperately needed to have projects that had a very distinct beginning and ending. Mowing the lawn helped me feel in control and like I could accomplish something.

The bottom line is that the mode of delivery is not as important as learning to release pent up stress and emotions in constructive rather than destructive ways.

Find some ideas for grief journaling.

Share your grief journey at bereavement stories.

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