A father recently called me and opened the conversation with “I think there’s something wrong with me.” I’ll call him Donnie. His son was murdered six months ago. People in his family are telling him he is doing grief wrong.
He continued “I know a father’s love for a child is different from a mother’s.” It took all of me not to interrupt him. I restrained myself and practice my listening skills. I could tell he wanted to get a lot out.
His family, of mostly women, are questioning his love for his son because he isn’t mourning the way they are, with wailing and gnashing of teeth. They are still holding vigils, staging protests, wearing t-shirt with “Little Donnie” on them. They are, using his words, “stuck”. He told me he believes his son is safe with God. He trusts that his son is happy. He trusts in God’s promises. He then told me about his son’s life, filled with womanizing, drugs, and gang banging. There were times he didn’t see his son for years at a time, times when he worried about his well being. From his perspective, his son is safe now. No harm can befall him. His family takes his attitude as indifference to his son.
He went on to tell me that he misses his son all day, every day. When he drives past the location where his son was murdered, he stops and takes some time to visit with his son’s spirit. He told me how he was the one who had to handle his son’s funeral arrangements by himself. He didn’t have the time to mourn properly. He had to make the money to pay for the services, choose the clothes his son would wear, plan the funeral, etcetera. He had to get shit done.
When it was my turn to speak, we talked about how men are socialized. How many of us were told, “Men don’t cry.”? We both heard “You want to cry? I’ll give you something to cry about.” It’s difficult for us to cry in front of others. Speaking for myself, I know that my inability to express emotion in front of others is not innate. It’s not who I was when I came to the planet. It’s the result of years of conditioning living in a family that doesn’t express emotion, positive or negative.
I had to push back on the notion that a father’s love is different than a mother’s love. Women will tell us they have a special bond with their children because they carried them, as if the umbilical cord is still attached. This is an unfalsifiable theory. I cannot know the bond a mother has with a child, just as a mother cannot know the bond I have with my children. I do know that my life was forever changed the first moment I laid eyes on Kayla and again when I first heard Shayna cry. I know that a father feels responsible for the safety and well-being of his children. I know that bond is permanent. And, sadly, now I know that bond extends across the veil that we all cross from this world into the next. Men may not express our love for our children the way women does, I believe largely due to conditioning.
Since Shayna passed, I know that the tears come more easily for me. There are times when I wonder if I’m “over” the grief. I’m not sure that I want to be “over” it. I can get through a conversation about Shayna now without breaking into tears. I do it all the time. However, just yesterday, the sight of a little girl, 19 years old, the age Shayna would be brought a tear from my eye. She had survived the Parkland shooting a year ago only to be taken by PTSD. She took her own life. As I looked into her eyes in the picture, I could feel the pain she felt. I could feel the pain I know her family feels now.
I assured Donnie that there’s nothing wrong with him. I could feel the love he has for his son. I could also tell he genuinely believes his son is now safe, something every parent wants to feel and something he did not feel when his son was in this world. He did what he had to do in the days after his son passed. At the suggestion of someone, he joined Mothers of Murdered Children after his son was murdered. He could quickly tell these people were obsessed with being “stuck” reliving their children’s deaths over and over again, never healing. He told me he was confident his son wants him to be happy. He wants to be happy. I advised him to not let anyone add guilt to his grief. We all grieve differently. Six months in, he feels like he’s in a pretty good place. I warned him though there will be triggers. Grief never goes in a straight line. He’s probably still in the shock phase. But, he’s doing remarkably well and is dealing with his grief in his own way.
Helping Parents Heal has very few fathers involved. Less than 20% of the people at our first conference were fathers. The percentage of men in our regular meetings is even lower. This is the first father who picked up the phone and reached out to me for help. Hopefully, there will be more.
We may interact with our kids differently. We may grieve differently. However, a father’s love is a bond that cannot be denied. Men, don’t let anyone tell you that you love less or grieve less because you do it your own way.