Conquering grief by sharing it

Jonathan is 27 and lives in Wigan with his wife Michaela. Jonathan is a father to his son, Zachary, born sleeping, and his daughter, Amelie Autumn, who was born on 16 June 2020.

The first time I saw my father cry was when my son died.

It was about 7pm on the 1 May 2019. My son, Zachary, lay perfectly still in the palm of my hand. He weighed no more than a couple of ounces. He had been born at a gestation of 20 weeks, owing to a rare chromosomal condition.

It is true that I spent most of that evening fighting through pain so potent it was overwhelming. But one of the things I remember most is the moment my father arrived. He came into the room slowly. He saw me and my wife, both gazing down in shock at his grandson.

My father he stood behind me, placed his hands on my head and wept. It was a moment that changed how I thought about him, and about loss, forever.

The stigma associated with male grief

My dad’s father passed away when he was about the age I am now. It happened before I was born. All I knew of my grandfather was gathered from clues around my grandmother’s home: a picture of him on his wedding day; his old suits in the wardrobe; nostalgic remarks about ‘Jack’ between sips of over-stewed tea.

My father’s privacy around his own loss was symptomatic of his generation. It was one that did their best to unpack the stigma that ‘men don’t cry’ inherited from their parents. But they didn’t get as far as they might have hoped.

That’s not to say my father is a serious man or that he’s even shy. On the contrary, he’s a laugh-a-minute dad-joke machine. He’s one of the few people whose company I genuinely enjoy.

But throughout my childhood, I remained silently curious about my grandfather, and how my dad had felt during a shocking moment of loss.

Together, my father and I wept not just for the loss of a child but for the loss of a relationship. Because the relationship that I enjoyed growing up with my father - 27 years of laughter, learnings, and seeing one another grow - was something I would never be able to share with my own son.

I’m still coming to terms with my own grief. Like most men, it’s an alien concept, and I still struggle with vulnerability. But seeing my own father allow himself to openly feel everything he was feeling for what felt like the first time, validated my own feelings. He broke through years of cultural repression just to show me that it was okay to cry.

My first Father’s Day

I began to reflect on my experience on Father’s Day last year. It was my first Father’s Day since losing my son, just a month earlier.

The weeks leading up to that day were difficult. The pain of losing a child is like the end of the world; you can’t imagine anything beyond it. You can’t imagine how tomorrow could come around. You can’t imagine how life could go on.

When I mourned, it felt like I was mourning more than my baby - like I was mourning the end of my own life, too. Because how could it possibly go on after him?

Except life did go on. I have just days ago, welcomed our daughter, Amelie Autumn into the world. The long-lasting grip grief has on us is complication. It doesn’t let us enjoy the blessings that come in life without feeling bad about it. Even when good things don’t come, the very thought of feeling that you’re ‘getting past it’ fills me with an incredible guilt that pulls me back down.

That’s why, only a month after losing my son, I spent Father’s Day feeling a sort of numbness. Eventually, I learned that I wasn’t in ‘control’ of my grief. That was something that my personality has great difficulty coming to terms with. But accepting that it comes in unpredictable waves - rather than some linear journey where you get a bit better every day - is a big step forward.

Now that Father’s Day is coming back around, I’m going to take the opportunity to reflect again. I’ll think about the child I lost - about the 1 year old boy who should be gleefully stumbling around the living room, narrowly avoiding sharp table edges and giving my wife a small heart attack. I’ll be with my daughter who is just a few days old, who months ago passed the threshold where Zachary’s life had reached its end. It’s a day about me and my children, and it always will be.

Father’s Day is also a day about my dad. As I write, I think back to the moment I saw him at his most vulnerable: it was when I was at mine.

An address to all fathers

If you’re a father who will have to endure this Father’s Day without your son or daughter, I pray that you’ll feel peace, along with everything else you need to feel at that time.

However, I also want to talk to the grandfathers out there who have lost their grandchildren. I want to say to you now that ‘being strong’ for your son as he endures this difficult time doesn’t have to come in the form of a stiff upper lip. Rather, you might need to be strong enough to say: “I feel your pain, and I feel it deeply.”

Because just as I felt a father’s loss in that moment when I lost my baby boy, so too did my dad. And I needed to know that.