Men go through all kinds of identity changes when they experience the loss of a child, especially a child who is older and has lived long enough to create established memories with his or her father.
A man identifies himself by mainly two things: the job he has and the family he has. When a child is taken away by death, a man suddenly loses the largest, most important part of his identity. A real crises situation has been created, not just for the father, but also for role the father plays with the family. Fathers love to feel needed, and they love to feel like they are the one responsible for the happiness of the entire family.
Men are far less verbal than women by nature, and it makes it much more difficult for family members and friends to understand the changes that are taking place with a father loses a child. He often feels like a failure because he was unable to prevent the death or to fix the death once it took place. This is especially true if the child’s life was lost due to an illness.
Fathers often believe their role is to fix things that are broken or in need of repair, and when they cannot fix their child’s illness and the end result is death, a father goes through a deep grieving period of feeling tremendous guilt and failure.
A father who loses a child also loses such a large part of his dreams. Fathers don’t always openly talk about their dreams of hunting and fishing with their children, or of taking bike rides together, going to ball games together or of tossing a ball in the backyard, but they think about these events all of the time.
Fathers of girls daydream about walking their daughter down the aisle and dancing that first dance at the wedding. They dream about taking care of all of their child’s hurts, wiping their tears away, and being called “hero” for all of the ways they show their strength to their son or daughter.
Child loss, in a father’s eyes, often represents weakness. Men believe fathers are to be strong and in charge, not at a loss for knowing what to do when death turns life upside down. Child loss is such a helpless feeling, and often this is a foreign emotion for fathers who have been a tower of strength for their children.
What is a father to do? How can a father go on and feel whole once again?
It takes time to work through the pain of loss. It takes a long time to build back a feeling of belonging as a father. It will often take years for a father to be able to reclaim his identity of a father. It will take lots of working through feelings of failure and loss to feel like a man who can always proudly wear the name father.
Take it a day at a time, a step at a time. Begin by telling yourself over and over that you will always be a father. Nothing can change that–not even death. Remind yourself often that some things cannot be fixed by you. Remember often that lost dreams are part of the pain every parent feels when a child dies. It takes a lot of tears and years to work past the milestone markers of such things as dreams of your child playing ball, driving a car, dating, getting married, and having children.
These are not easy dreams to release, but with time you will be able to more vividly remember the times you had with your child than to sorrow over the time you never had. Be patient with yourself. Be kind to yourself. And, when you fall into the emotional pain of feeling like a failure, remind yourself that you will always be a father and nothing can take away that badge of honor, not even death.