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  • The Vail Project

12-Step Grief Program for Dads

Today was a hard day. And not just for us. As we push forward with trying to create awareness and understand SUDC more, we are faced with thoughts and realizations that push the limits of our fragile self esteem and our understanding of how we fit into the world now.

Steve has another SUDC dad that he talks to, his name is Mike. Steve and Mike were both struggling to deal with the weight of their loss today. So they jokingly said that they need to create a 12 step program for SUDC dads. Within a few minutes they had established 12 steps. I'm not sure they fit with the mission or intention of the original 12-step program from AA, but it was entertaining to read. I decided to focus tonights blog post on that list. Not just because it was a small light in what was otherwise a very dark day, but also because I think it is important to shed a light on the fact that fathers experience child-loss grief differently. The list is their unedited version with some commentary thrown in. Below the steps I have made some comments of my own. Enjoy.

Step 1: Punch Something.

The need to physically destroy something around them in an effort to make that object look how they feel on the inside. Damaged. Totally understandable. I don't have any statistics but I would hazard a guess that fathers experiencing child-loss spend a long time in the anger stage of grief. Much more than their female counterparts. Its healthy to be angry, but also easier. Anger is an easier than sitting in the pain.

Step 2: Find Someone to Blame:

If they can find someone or something else to blame then maybe they can stop blaming themselves. Which they do all the time. Why? A father's job is to protect his children. When a child dies it must be the father's failure to protect them right? Of course this isn't true at all, but that is how they feel. When a reason for death is black and white then there is someone or something to blame. With SUDC, the inability to assign blame causes most men to assume that blame internally.

Step 3: Hold All that Shit Inside & Don't talk about it, Nobody wants to hear about it anyway.

While it isn't true that no one wants to hear about a father's pain, it is less socially acceptable for men to express their emotions publicly. Our culture worships strong and stoic men. But how can a man be strong in the face of child-loss? They fake it, that's how. Until they can't anymore. As a culture, we need to do more to allow men to be vulnerable. And that can't start with 45 year old men who are grieving their children. It has to start at home, with our boys.

Step 4: Pretend:

Pretend to be okay. Pretend to care about work. Pretend to think about other things like football, chores, sex, movies, anything to make it seem like you are not constantly thinking about your dead child every minute of every day. Refer to Step 3. Dads feel the need to hide their pain and be the rock for everyone else. This means their grief takes a back seat to everyone else's grief. Not okay, but a fairly standard coping mechanism.

Step 5: Avoid:

Everything. Avoid talking about grief, avoid feeling raw emotions, avoid real life as long as possible. The longer they avoid the feelings and processing their grief, the easier it is to Pretend. See step 4.

Step 6: Wait for the backstabbing to begin:

In the Facebook messenger conversation where this list took form, this step actually read: "If someone is going through a hard time, tell them it will be okay and then stab them in the back." I paraphrased because the step makes more sense that way. Basically, this means that people will show themselves in their true form after such a loss. Friends, especially male fiends, can't handle the uncomfortableness that comes with supporting another through grief. So, they politely say "call me if you need me, I'll help any way that I can." Then when the father gets up the strength and courage to actually ask for help, the friend doesn't follow through. They don't call, return messages or extend any invites, and they certainly don't come through on their promises. It's a sad and painful part of experiencing grief and loss. People show up as their true selves, either that or your ability to see past the facade improves with grief glasses.

Step 7: They will Ghost your Ass:

This step goes hand in hand with Step 6. Men don't support men well. So when a father losses his child and reaches out to another man for support, chances are he will get ghosted. I'm sure its because, like most people (men or women) they don't know how to be supportive and are terrified of their friends' grief. It's just easier to ignore it and go on with their life. FYI: when you are an SUDC dad, you never just go on with your life. I imagine these pre-loss friendships are just gone forever.

Step 8: Make Others Feel Uncomfortable in your Presence: Simply by being a grieving dad.

It's awkward to carry around that much pain and not be able to adequately express your feelings. Worse, yet feeling like it is not okay to share your pain. Constantly being worried about judgement and scrutiny. Dads fear the judgement as much as Mom's do. People will think this is my fault. And because they already are assuming the blame (Step 2) they fear others believing it as well. Again, this is a societal pressure problem. We cannot expect our men to be kind and loving fathers and then at the same time expect them to be so strong and responsible that it makes them uncomfortable expressing their pain. Stop letting the presence of a grieving man make YOU feel uncomfortable. It's not about how you feel.

Step 9: Stare at little girls at the mall or on the playground:Stare at the ones that are similar in age Vail (and Vienna) and ask why my child and not theirs?

This is something that I think all child-loss parents do. It's impossible not to. Especially when your perfectly happy, healthy child was there playing one day and poof-gone the next. Out of all the children in the world why did it have to be my beautiful girl? It would be insane for a father to not ask himself this. Looking at other children and wondering how old they are and comparing them to the only age your child will ever achieve- just sucks. Then seeing older kids and having to accept that you won't ever see your sweet baby reach that age. Wondering what she would have been like if she had. Fathers love their little girls, in a special way that only they can. Little girls know this and having that relationship with their fathers is how they learn their value, self-worth and build self-confidence. All that comes from their relationship with their Daddy. The loss of that future with your child is so traumatic that staring at little girls longingly is just a part of grief.

Step 10: Invest in Sunglasses: so people don't see you cry.

"Step 10-B: Remove sunglasses because we don't give a shit if other people are uncomfortable."

We have established that men don't like to show their feelings and be seen as weak. So initially in child-loss grief, these two dads felt like they needed to hide behind sunglasses when they cried. Let me tell you that controlling your tears when you have lost your child is virtually impossible. The only time I haven't cried at the drop of a hat is when my tear ducts were so empty and raw from crying that it was physiologically impossible to shed another tear. Then after a while, after the anger starts to dissipate and the deep dark sadness of reality sinks in, the ability to give a shit fades as well. So if he cries in public who cares? I'll say it again and again, why does our society think that crying equals weakness? Why are we teaching our boys this lesson? It needs to stop.

Step 11: Reboot Your Entire Life: attempt to become someone you never thought was possible.

Why not? What else have you got to lose? He doesn't recognize himself in the mirror anyway. None of us do. Our lives are now divided into two very distinct segments: Before & After. The before person no longer exists. Not even on a cellular level. Every part of you is different. I think for a man like Steve (I can't say for sure about Mike, because I didn't know him before he lost his daughter Vienna, but I'd hazard a guess that this is true for him as well) identity is largely defined by accomplishments. What have I done with my life? Once you hold your dead child in your arms, all the past accomplishments just don't matter anymore. It's like they never happened. So the only thing that now defines him is the loss. Remaking himself is the only option.

Step 12: Avoid Driving into Oncoming Traffic:

Step 12-B Don't talk about your life-insurance policy

Don't jump to conclusions on this one. Clearly they were joking. But the jokes are rooted in truth. We all question our own mortality when faced with loss. This is quadrupled when that loss in your child. There are too many why's. Why not me instead? Why her? Why now? Why? Why? Why? So it is natural to wonder if your life still has any value, search what reasons you have for going on. Plus, we all want to be with our babies when we get to heaven. So suddenly the idea of our own death is lot less scary. In fact, it seems like it will be a relief to be back in baby Vail's arms. The fear of death, having faced the worst possible version of it, is washed away. This doesn't mean that any of us want to die. Just that when our time comes, we will happily go home to our children in heaven. Plus, unbearable grief makes for jokes in very poor taste.

The last thing Mike said was: "That is a solid 12-step program. Clearly enough to push mortal men over the edge by step 12. Bravo!!"

And he is right. The loss of a child is clearly enough to push any father over the edge. Be kind to these dads, they are holding on by a thread, despite the front they put on. Remember when you are out in the world that the handsome father at the playground or the super smart doctor treating you in the ER, may be coping with the loss of their child. If you look closely, you will see the unmistakable pain in their eyes. Even the strongest of them can't hide that. Be kind to them. After all, they are the best fathers in the world.

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