Strength Found in Solitude
By Pat Schwiebert, R.N.
As another Father’s day approaches I think back and remember the amazing parade of men that I have observed over the past 40 years in our support groups for bereaved parents. The assumption of many was that men would not want to take advantage of this type of support—that it would be way out of their comfort zone. My experience over the past 40 years of facilitating support groups for bereaved parents does not match those assumptions. Men’s reasons for attending support groups may be different from those of women. They may actually be willing to go beyond their comfort zone in order to help their partner. That’s not a bad reason.
I recall the dad who came to a group with his wife just to check it out and make sure it wasn’t too weird for his wife to attend. Another accompanied his wife assuming he was there just to support her, only to realize that he too was benefitting greatly from connecting with other bereaved fathers. One commented he couldn’t imagine sitting through 2 hours of a meeting only to admit at the end of the night wanting it to go longer. And a very common statement I have heard from fathers is “Wow, I thought my wife was just overreacting and now I see she’s just like all the other women who come to this group.” That validation can sometimes save a marriage.
Occasionally a father will come alone to the support group. One guy reported that his wife led him to the door about a year after their child had died and said, “You need help. Get into the support group. You are driving me crazy. I’ve been doing my grief work. Now it’s time for you to deal with Jamie’s death.”
Another father, Richard, comes once every year around the anniversary of his child’s death. It’s been 15 years, and he still he comes—to remember, yes, but also to reach out and offer hope to others. His grief story didn’t have a happy ending. His marriage didn’t survive after the death of their child. But he admits to the group that things were already bad before his son died. He had been drinking and using before his son’s death and then continued to soothe his pain with even more drinking and drugging, which prevented him from being able to heal and grow after this huge loss. He is now clean and sober and in touch with his feelings. His life is good now. His recovery was the gift he gave his son. Or was it the gift his son gave to him? He’s the best show and tell that any support group could have.
Some men are quiet and don’t offer much about their journey through grief unless asked. Others are quite demonstrative speaking eloquently of the powerless feelings and anger that controls their thoughts. I see nods in agreement from other men in the room. Many speak of the lack of support in other settings. But they also admit they rarely ask for it.
The fear of yet another loss, i.e. the marriage, that comes on the heels of a child’s death is a common concern reported by couples. Many well meaning friends will caution the parents about the discouraging statistics that point to the near inevitability of a divorce following the loss of a child. This information can be misinterpreted, however. For, as Richard acknowledged, it was not his dead child that ended the marriage. It was his own behavior.
The impact of grief on a marriage is huge and not to be minimized. And because parents, though grieving the loss of the same child, will grieve differently, this grief will be stressful on their relationship. Most couples admit they don’t have the energy to care for another’s needs. Men are conditioned to believe they are the protector, comforter and fixer in the family. That is a set up for failure. It can be a huge blow to his self-esteem to not have been able to prevent this tragedy and now not be able to make everything better.
Many couples indeed become closer through this shared grief experience, but it’s not easy and they will have to go through a dark valley of aloneness before they get to a place where they are renewed and see their partner, and themselves, in a new light.
I came across a new resource at a conference this past weekend. It is a book entitled Men, Grief and Solitude-a Different Perspective, by Daniel Duggan. It speaks of the need for men to seek a period of solitude during their grieving time. Typically friends and family worry when they see their grieving male friend or loved one isolating. They think he’s not dealing with his grief or seems indifferent to what has happened. But indeed he may be doing precisely what men tend to want and need to do by their very nature. They find themselves wanting to move inward in order to cope. They go into their cave. They seek a quiet space where they can find healing for their wounds and figure out their next steps. Solitude is not necessarily isolation. Rather it is a place inside where men, including grieving fathers, tend to go to find themselves. Mothers may go there also but not as quickly and easily as do fathers.
At some point solitude will call us to go beyond ourselves to be there for others. We bring the wisdom we have gathered from solitude out of the cave and into the light to then be a part of helping others heal themselves.