“Dads Grieve Too”: 5 Ways to Acknowledge and Support Grieving Fathers in the Aftermath of Pregnancy and Infant Loss

By Shakima “Kima” Tozay, LICSW, PMH-C, CCM, CDP©

The Silent Experiences of Grieving Pregnancy Loss

Families impacted by pregnancy loss (i.e., miscarriage, stillbirth, neonatal loss, or  SIDS death) face stigma, disenfranchised grief, and isolation. For instance, the emotional impact on grieving fathers is rarely discussed. Historically, their experiences with pregnancy loss have been left in the shadows. 

A quarter of all pregnancies are miscarried, and 24,000 babies are born stillborn every year. In 2020 alone, the Centers for Disease Control reported 21,000 stillbirths in the United States. However, despite these shocking figures, we still don’t talk about the particular kind of grief that comes with this loss and its devastating effects.

Recently, how pregnancy loss emotionally affects families, specifically fathers, has grown more visible. In September 2020, singer John Legend and his wife, Chrissy Teigen, shared their grief with the world through intimate online photos as they mourned the death of their son Jack at just 20 weeks gestation. 

Just a year earlier, Corde, the son of infamous rapper Snoop Doggy Dog, openly shared his pain in a social media post about losing his son Kai Love just ten days after birth. We all witnessed how the emotional pain of infant loss transcended family generations— touching both father and grandfather.

 The courage and strength of these families, particularly these fathers, inspired me to believe that our culture could finally start to pay attention.

How We Understand Grief and Pregnancy Loss

Grief is a complex emotion that everyone experiences differently. Attitudes, gender bias, and cultural beliefs related to grief contribute to the shame and stigma of pregnancy loss. For example, the focus is typically on the mother’s experience when pregnancies end in miscarriage or stillbirth. Society often overlooks the emotional impacts on fathers and their role within a grieving family. 

a woman rests her head on another person's shoulder

By neglecting to acknowledge the impact of pregnancy loss on fathers, we ignore their sorrows and bereavement struggles. We also stereotype how fathers react based on our limited knowledge and understanding.

To gain a deeper understanding of how to support bereaved fathers better, it is vital to explore questions such as: What do fathers experience when they lose a child? What is their role with the family in the wake of tragedy? Are there differences between how men and women grieve? How can we involve fathers in discussions about pregnancy loss?

Unique Challenges Faced by Fathers After Pregnancy Loss

Fathers often provide physical and emotional support to mothers and other relatives while grieving the loss of their child. In his book Holding On to Love After You’ve Lost a Baby: The 5 Love Languages for Grieving Parents, Gary Chapman notes that fathers tend to shift to melancholy, anger, and shutdown as they try to cope with grief. This emotional roller coaster may last weeks to months, but not daily or for as long as their partner’s. This reaction makes their partners believe they have emotionally moved on from the loss. However, Chapman states that fathers tend to put their grief “in a box on the shelf” to focus on and prioritize their partner’s and family’s needs, further affirming that it’s too risky to open that box of emotions.

 a person lighting a candle on a table with a teddy bear

In Still Here: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Triumph After Stillbirth, this father shared how he coped with the stillbirth of his son DJ: “During my grieving process, I wanted to be active to help escape and get my mind off the loss. So, I played video games, went to the gym for some quick workouts, and after about a week removed from the loss, went back to work to regain normalcy” (p.139).

Other unique experiences faced by fathers include psychological and social factors, which include the way they were raised as children and how society responds to their grief:

Psychological Factors:

  • Postpartum depression affects 10-25% of fathers, regardless of if the baby lives. 
  • Studies have shown that experiencing perinatal loss, especially later in pregnancy, puts maternal and paternal mental health at risk of increased anxiety and depression, further complicating grief reactions. 
  • After a traumatic birth or other challenging experience, men and their partners have an equal chance of developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). 
  • One study revealed that fathers feel anxious about a new pregnancy after a perinatal loss and may respond by exhibiting strength and support for their partners and family.

Social Factors: 

  • Black and Hispanic fathers have other risk factors that compound their depression, including community and interpersonal factors such as racism and discrimination, lack of access to housing, transportation and healthcare, and relationship distress.  
  • A man’s upbringing and society’s reaction to his emotions as a child influence how openly he expresses grief as an adult. 
  • Men’s gender roles are challenged during a miscarriage, making it difficult to express emotions and reach out for help while maintaining masculinity.

We must acknowledge how pregnancy loss affects fathers so they can access safe, inclusive spaces to process their grief, experience connection with others, and receive appropriate support.

5 Ways to Support Grieving Fathers

For mental health professionals, healthcare providers, advocates, and family members who care for parents dealing with pregnancy loss, here are five ways to inclusively support fathers:

1. Acknowledge and validate their feelings: 

Studies have indicated that healthcare providers often overlook men’s feelings of grief. To support bereaved fathers, it’s essential to recognize and validate their feelings. Acknowledge their emotions as normal. Ask them how they’re coping with their loss and what you can do, practically and emotionally, to aid them and their partners. Provide non-judgmental support, and most importantly, listen attentively whenever they choose to talk about it. 

Acknowledge them on Father’s Day and International Bereaved Father’s International Bereaved Father’s Day (the last Sunday in August every year) in unique ways. 

2. Encourage storytelling to process grief, decrease isolation, and break the silence:

Speaking about grief and loss can significantly impact both the speaker and those listening. It takes strength to talk openly about issues relating to pregnancy loss, which are often surrounded by stigma and secrecy.

This was evident in an article where John Legend opened up about losing his son: “We found out how many other families have gone through this. It was a powerful and brave thing that Chrissy did to share that because it made so many people feel like they were seen and that they weren’t alone.” Legend hopes creating music from his experience will also be healing for him and others.

Similarly, NFL player Ryan Kelly posted a heartfelt tribute on Instagram to his daughter, Mary Katherine Kelly, after her death, stating: “Nothing made me happier than being your Dad. You gave your mom and I that gift. You were simply a miracle and always will be”. 

Fathers can also privately express their grief through other avenues, too. These stories show how fathers have used their voices to express their grief and raise awareness about pregnancy loss, which can be healing.

3. Recognize the unique experiences and needs of fathers in the grieving process:

Studies have shown that grieving fathers felt isolated and ignored when healthcare providers focused more on their partners after pregnancy loss. They also felt dissatisfied with the support they received. Furthermore, fathers needed time with their babies to cope with their grief and understand what happened. 

Don’t make assumptions about what fathers need or want in the aftermath of loss. Ask for their input, and educate yourself about grief and gender differences, the psychological impacts of loss on families, and societal influences that shape how grieving fathers seek assistance. 

4. Include fathers in the planning and decision-making process:

Making choices amid grief can be emotionally taxing. Families often face decisions about funerals, burial, and who to tell with little guidance when a baby dies. Mothers may feel pressure to make all the choices, but fathers should have an equal input. 

Healthcare providers can help parents explore their options together, strengthening bonds between them, normalizing their experience, and offering resources to help couples make informed decisions.

5. Normalize fathers honoring their babies (in their own way).

Choosing how to honor a baby lost during pregnancy is left to the parent’s discretion, and there is no obligation to do anything. Memorializing their child, however, can be comforting and profound. Possible rituals for fathers could range from releasing balloons into the sky to lighting a candle on October 15th for the global Wave of Light event that takes place every year during Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month.

 Alternatively, fathers may organize an awareness walk in their community, write a book, poem, or social media post, or even share photos of their baby. All family members must be allowed to participate in creating lasting memories and honoring their little ones if they choose.

Furthermore, we, as a society, owe it to ourselves to break the silence surrounding pregnancy loss. Through educating ourselves, knowing the resources, having open conversations, and providing supportive environments for those grieving the lost of a baby, we can help bring about cultural change. 

 If you’re wondering how you can make a difference, start by sharing the following resources: this Dad’s Grieve, too informational brochure, this grief resource guide,  this online magazine devoted to grieving parents, and  PS WA’s Warm Line: 1-888-404-7763 and perinatal loss resources page.

Bio: Shakima “Kima” Tozay is a bereaved mom, Preeclampsia and Stillbirth survivor, writer, speaker, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, and Navy Veteran and military spouse. After the death of her son Jaxson in 2017, she has dedicated herself to supporting BIPOC families impacted by pregnancy and infant loss by raising awareness through her clinical and advocacy work. She is also a PS WA board member. Kima and her husband find peace walking along rocky beaches, writing Jaxson’s name in the sand, and listening to the waves crashing against the shore.