Nurture Information Hub
Every year, millions of families worldwide experience the loss of their baby before or shortly after birth. In Australia, one in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage, six babies per day are stillborn and up to 1000 babies lose their fight for life in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) each year.
The death of a baby during the neonatal period is a devastating experience for mothers, fathers and families to endure.
While everyone experiences grief differently, research shows that mothers and fathers may express their grief in different ways, and may face unique challenges in having their grief recognised and acknowledged by others.
In a on fathers’ experiences of grief after neonatal death, men described their grief as “all-consuming”. Their baby’s death was compounded by the already overwhelming and difficult experience of having a premature or sick newborn in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). These fathers reported struggling to process information and experienced a range of immediate reactions including shock, feeling numb, and a sense of injustice and anger. For some fathers, grief also presented as physical symptoms like difficulties sleeping, nightmares, and body aches and pains.
“It’s all a bit of a blur to be honest. I remember someone telling me just to focus on surviving and that’s pretty much all we did; we just did what we had to do to get through that day and get to the next day where we could just start again. Nothing really mattered other than that.”
“…I remember distinctly, going down to the local supermarket and thinking that I would be fine but […] I had to go home, because I just felt overwhelmed by all the people there […] There’s also this feeling of like, you know, how can everybody be just going around, doing their normal daily lives? When really, it felt to me like it’s the end of the world, you know? Like the world has changed, and how come everyone else can just go around and just be the same as they were, you know, a week or so ago?”
Although some fathers openly express their grief through tears and talking to family/friends, others keep their emotions hidden and focus on distractions like going back to work, or practical tasks like supporting their partner and family.
Many fathers have reported feeling pressure to ‘be strong’ and a lack of recognition for their grief from others. Due to stigma surrounding infant death, you may find that although well-intentioned, others say unhelpful things in an attempt to make you feel better, or avoid talking about your baby. Fathers have described that these expectations and lack of acknowledgement can lead to difficulties in balancing a need to express their grief and also ‘keep it together’ for their partner and family.
“…your friends don’t want to mention it because they’re worried that they’re going to upset you and of course, often they get that feedback because they mention it and then you are upset. But the more upsetting part is when people don’t mention your child and don’t acknowledge that you’ve had a child and that you’ve lost a child. Sometimes you feel like they’re almost denying the existence of your child, which is heartbreaking really”
While there is no ‘right’ way to grieve, it’s important to try and find a balance between involving yourself in distractions or life tasks, and ways to express the emotional impact of your grief. Some fathers have described feeling more comfortable expressing their grief in private, and that’s okay. Remember people often grieve differently. If you and your partner are coping with your grief in different ways, this is okay. It’s important to try and talk about this and communicate your needs so you can support each other.
Fathers who find themselves consumed by practical responsibilities, or taking on a supporter role, may also have a ‘delayed’ grief reaction, only feeling the emotional impact of their loss once their partner and family have been ‘looked after’. Remember that it’s never too late to reach out for help and support, even if you need it months after your baby has died.
While for many fathers the grief from losing their baby had a long-term and lasting impact, distress usually lessens with time. Some have reported experiencing changes in who they are or how they see the world. One father described that while his grief continues to come in waves over time, it serves as an important reminder of his babies’ lives. Another said:
“…as time goes on, a lot of the time it still feels like a weird dream [...] Deep down you know it is real, [your baby] did die and he’s not coming back. That’s just something you learn to live with, but it’s definitely gotten easier to talk about. I don’t get quite as upset as I used to when I talk about him for the first time with people and it’s easier to celebrate him now. We light a candle every night for him […] we find ways to celebrate him more as time goes on.”
If you are struggling with grief or need support, help is available: