Our Bereaved Parent Support Coordinator Dave Park reflects on the early days of grieving the loss of his son, Ben.
Our holiday in the French Alps turned to a nightmare in an instant, when Ben, our eleven-year-old middle child, fell to his death on a family walk.
I don’t like being helpless, but I was unable to do anything to make it better. The day became a blur as the paramedics arrived. We were taken to the police station, identified Ben’s body and began the awful process of telling friends and family. When your child is born, no-one gives you a job description, but surely keeping your child alive would be first on the list? On that basis I felt I had failed, both as a father and as a husband. I had been unable to protect my son from falling and unable to protect my family from pain. I was overwhelmed not only with my own grief but also with feelings of guilt and helplessness. I tried ‘to be strong’, but my strength just disappeared in the whirlwind of emotions.
We returned to the UK and each member of our family dealt with their emotions in their own way. My wife, Jane, talked and talked over endless cups of tea and cake. My eight-year-old daughter bounced in and out of grief as though she were jumping in puddles, while my eldest son, just entering his teenage years, simply withdrew into himself and wouldn’t be reached. I responded by keeping myself busy, first with the funeral and practical details and later with a myriad of projects. I must have given the impression of managing my emotions well because a few weeks after the funeral, one of the ladies at church pulled me aside and asked, ‘I can see that you’re OK, but how is Jane?’ Inside I wanted to scream, ‘I’m not OK, my world has fallen apart and I don’t think I’ll ever be OK again’.
I wish I’d known then what I know now. That my experiences were typical of many bereaved fathers – men do generally find it harder to reach out and ask for help. We see this at Care for the Family through our telephone befriending service. Only 28% of the ongoing relationships are with men, and they tend to reach a conclusion much sooner that the support taken up by women. Research into men’s grief consistently shows that men have a tendency to grieve in isolation and look for tasks to complete as a coping mechanism. Perhaps it is not so surprising then that while grief intensity is higher in mothers immediately after the death, PTSD and intense grief reactions diminish in time for mothers but can persist in fathers.
A key moment for me came when a very close friend sat me down after a burst of activity and dared to ask the question, ‘And that will make it better will it?’ The absurdity of his question shocked me into a realisation that my priorities were upside down. My family didn’t want me running around organising things, they needed me to sit with them quietly, to listen, to talk – they needed me to be present. I also recognised that I had been trying to manage on my own and made the decision to allow others to get close to me. I learned not to be ashamed of tears or afraid of making myself vulnerable. There is no shame in seeking professional help. Here at Care for the Family, we offer additional support such as online support events and telephone befriending – a chance to talk with another bereaved parent.
Of course, we all experience grief differently because we are all unique, and although it does take courage to make ourselves vulnerable, it is an important step to take. It may be only a couple of conversations, it may be enough just to know that there is someone available or it may develop into a lasting and mutual friendship as we all try to find our way forward.
And as for those feelings of guilt, well they have been described as ‘perfectly normal but rarely justified’. I have learned to forgive myself over time and have become better at sharing my vulnerability and pain with the people I trust. I’ve found comfort and strength when I’ve chosen to allow people to walk alongside me. I hope that others will find the same.
Find out more about the support offered by our Bereaved Parent Support team.
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