Tomorrow is Father’s Day. Yes, this is an American import (unlike our traditional Mothering Sunday) which some don’t like, dismissing it as ‘commercial’.
But why shouldn’t dads be celebrated? Why shouldn’t the love men have for children — and all their hard work within the family — be applauded?
But when a baby dies at birth (or soon afterwards) the bereaved couple are still mums and dads.
Thought of the week
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.
From The Mower by Philip Larkin
For a stillborn baby is a real person to the mother and father who gave it all-too-brief life — and their grief can be life-changing.
The trouble is, most of the world’s attention is centred on the mothers — while their men have to give support and be strong. But what about their feelings? Today, instead of my usual advice column — and to mark Father’s Day in a special way — I’m focusing on a new campaign to give those men a voice. As a founder-patron of the stillbirth charity Sands, this issue is close to my heart.
The men in this article did not write to me for advice and yet they poured out their hearts so that others would realise that men are ‘allowed’ to share deep sorrow. It doesn’t have to be bottled up.
Now is the time to break the taboo and help break the silence around baby loss.
And if any of you are affected by this issue (or the loss of any child), please be sure to write to me at email@example.com
Dashing the tears away with the back of his hand, the young dad asked me: ‘Men aren’t supposed to cry, are they?’ ‘Oh, but it’s good to let it out,’ I said gently.
We were at a yearly service, Special Babies, at Bath’s Haycombe Cemetery — after which I had been asked to open a new memorial garden for stillborn babies, funded and designed by the local Sands (Stillbirth and Neonatal Death charity) group.
During the moving chapel service last month, what struck me most powerfully was the grief of the men.
In the pew in front of me, a burly, shaven-headed man, in his 40s I guessed, was being comforted by his wife, while their two daughters looked on in faintly embarrassed amazement, because big, tough Dad was crying…grieving for a baby they’ve never met.
Across the aisle, a young man with multiple piercings and tattoos held the hand of his girlfriend, who patted his arm when the tears came. His face was taut as he struggled for control.
Then we all walked to the new memorial garden where a touching sculpture of a family is surrounded by brick pavers, each engraved with the name of a dead baby and a date.
This week, with Father’s Day approaching, Bel makes a heartfelt plea to break a silent taboo, as she helps grieving men find a voice
Again I talked to the young man who had worried about crying. He wanted to show me the brick engraved with the name of the precious baby son stillborn in 2017. ‘You want people to know you’re still a father,’ he said.
He stumbled over his words: ‘You think you have to get over it — everybody tells you that — but you can’t. Months pass and you expect you’ll get all right, but you don’t.’
I told him you never do ‘get over’ the loss of a baby; that my son was stillborn in 1975 and I still cry — but this shows our lost children are always with us. Always. He listened intently, eyes wet — then said, ‘thank you’ and touched my arm. Most fathers find it hard to express grief, feeling it’s their job to support their partners. But this can be a terrible burden.
So this month, Sands is launching the Finding Your Way campaign to encourage men to seek support. The charity is concerned about a potential mental health crisis among men devastated by baby loss.
Who helps them? According to a new survey by Sands, almost a third of men who had suffered the trauma of a baby dying were not referred to a helpline or other sources of support.
They warn that when men don’t get the right emotional support they may struggle to cope with their grief. This can lead to mental health issues, including suicidal thoughts. Women find it easier to show their feelings and are expected to. But the straitjacket cliche ‘Big boys don’t cry’ still imprisons many men, forcing them to play strong and silent.
More women — 15 per cent — said they were able to confide dark, suicidal impulses, but only 7 per cent of men.
Actor and teacher David Monteith flatly refuses to keep quiet about baby loss. He rejects the word ‘loss’ too, preferring ‘death’, ‘because stillbirth is a medical term but until people realise there has been an actual death they won’t respect your very real grief’.
More from Bel Mooney for the Daily Mail…
He and wife Siobhan have three living daughters, but Grace — stillborn in 2014 — is never far from their thoughts. Her death taught David he could be most help to his wife by showing his feelings. ‘We have misinterpreted strength. A rock is emotionally unavailable. When I cried, my wife was glad, because she wasn’t crying on her own.’
David calls himself a ‘stillbirth activist’ and gives talks to spread awareness that every 90 minutes in the UK a baby is stillborn or dies shortly after birth. After a speech in America in 2016, ‘a big Texan guy just came up to me and wept on my shoulder. His wife explained their baby had been stillborn years ago and he had never spoken about it, but now I’d given him permission to show his feelings’.
The new survey shows that 59 per cent of men feel isolated and lonely, compared with just 4 per cent of women. Why? Because women find it easier to talk. That must surely also be why 55 per cent of men suffer depression, contrasted with 39 per cent of women, and 54 per cent feel guilt, compared with 35 per cent of their female partners.
The guilt stems from helplessness — an irrational sense that they should have been able to help. Such feelings drive many couples apart, each lonely within private grief.
The other common emotion for men is anger — with 46 per cent raging at what happened, compared with 25 per cent of women. David Montieth experienced this.
‘I was walking along the road, humming a tune from Frozen of all things. I honestly thought I was doing all right. Then I came up to one of those green boxes that BT men work on, and I just punched it with all my might. Until that moment I had no idea how angry I was. We’re like volcanoes. If we don’t vent, we explode.’
When the survey asked whether they were able to talk about their loss, one in five men said they needed to put on a strong front when talking with their partner.
A rather shocking one in ten didn’t want to talk about the bereavement at all. And sadly some marriages do not survive.
For Ross Coniam — a distribution manager for woodcare and paint products — football became a support and a solace.
Sands United FC is an unusual way for dads and other bereaved family members to come together through a shared love of sport. Playing team sports can aid the grieving process by helping lift someone’s mood, give them a focus, help with sleep problems and reduce feelings of isolation.
Sands United has already saved the lives of men like Ross, who were left feeling they had no one to turn to in their grief.
The players commemorate their babies’ lives by having their names on their kit. Ross and his wife Naomi were ecstatic when their daughter Norah was born in May 2018. But the joy swiftly turned to a nightmare, as Norah showed no signs of life. She was whisked to intensive care and the doctors worked desperately to save her, but died ten hours later. Ross describes the last 30 minutes holding their baby as ‘beautifully calm and peaceful’.
He describes the weeks and months that followed as ‘the hardest of my life’. He didn’t know where to turn or who to speak to: ‘I wanted to lock myself away and never come out.’
Then he found out about Sands United and once more started to play the game he’d loved. ‘It was my first real outlet. I didn’t know any men who’d suffered the same loss, then I found myself with 30 others who just knew.
‘Sometimes we talk about it, mostly we don’t. But if you’re having a bad day, you can message the rest of the team and people come back and say how they coped. They understand you. We just had the first anniversary of Norah’s death, and all the guys texted or called. We can all support each other at times like that.’
He says that he and Naomi still have good and bad days, but they’re very excited to be expecting another baby in September.
‘I really want to emphasise how much talking helps us and that we are so proud to be Norah’s parents. She is and always will be such an important part of our family.
‘We always believed our baby would teach us far more than we could ever teach her and this has proved to be true, even without her here in our arms.’
Sharing experiences is vital, and it’s important to remember that a stillbirth or neonatal death affects the wider family too. Ripples of sorrow spread out like a stone thrown in a pond: grandparents, uncles and aunts, siblings, cousins and friends all deeply affected.
Company director Jonathan McMahon will never forget the day in January 2012 that he got a phone call in the small hours, telling him his sister’s baby Dora had died.
The fact that Jonathan and his wife were expecting their first child a few months later made this family tragedy all the harder to bear.
‘As a brother and an uncle, I felt guilty that I wasn’t with my sister, Anna, to help. Then I had to stand watching her with this tiny coffin.
‘My cousin, a policeman who’s seen all sorts, told me it was the hardest thing he’s ever done.
‘I wept — as did every man in the room. But men find it hard to step outside that role of being strong and communicate how they really feel. All our thoughts are about protecting the women — because, after all, it is they who carry the babies. But there is a limit to all our strengths.’
This uncle has never forgotten his baby niece and found a way to channel his sadness by fundraising. Recently, he completed the gruelling ‘Marathon Des Sables’ — a foot race over 250 kilometres in the Sahara, raising £19,000 for Sands. ‘It’s mad — the equivalent of six marathons in six days.
‘But I wore my Sands wristband all the way and every time I felt sorry for myself I touched it and thought: “You’re doing this because that little girl will never have the chance to do anything in life.” When I crossed the finishing line I held on to it, in tears.’
David Monteith found his way through grief by making speeches (and setting up his website Grace in Action, which aims to help others affected by the loss of a baby), Ross Coniam through playing football, and Jonathan McMahon through fundraising.
Bel answers readers’ questions on emotional and relationship problems each week.
Write to Bel Mooney, Daily Mail, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5TT, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
A pseudonym will be used if you wish.
Bel reads all letters but regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence.
A ll are passionate about speaking out, spreading the word that men need to be encouraged to find their own way of coping with this particular bereavement, which is so often ignored by others who fail to understand that a stillborn baby (or one who dies soon after birth) is a real person to the parents and other family members.
No wonder the new campaign is called Finding Your Way. Vividly, as if it were yesterday, I remember the utter bewilderment when my second son Tom was stillborn — as if you are stumbling through a thick mist, feeling vainly for anything that will guide you.
In those days there was nothing at all; today, thankfully, there is support from more than one charity. All forms of grief push the bereaved through a door into a murky new world — yet the loss of a newborn is harder for others to comprehend since it can seem as if that little person was never there.
But our babies were there — forever loved — and we need the world to understand.
At the end of 1975, as I struggled, my husband had to hold things together — working hard as well as coping at home. Being strong.
Wherever he went, people asked after me, of course — until one day a male friend asked how he was feeling, saying: ‘It’s awful for her, I know, but he was your baby, too.’
I know it was a tremendous relief for him — to understand the truth of what David Monteith was to tell me proudly 44 years later: ‘My tears are a badge of my masculinity — and I’m proud of them.’
The June campaign launched by Sands aims to encourage more men devastated by the death of a baby to seek support. For more information, go to findingyourway.org.uk