Coping With Loss and Learning to be a Single Dadby Adam Collins
Ok so, coping with loss as a new dad. This is not the easiest thing to write; so let me just say that from the off. Everyone copes in different ways, maybe this article might help you, maybe parts you will find useful. Please do not take this as absolute gospel, these are just a few tips that I can offer from my experience of losing my wife too soon, some of which have kept me sane, others I did not pick up on, until it was too late.
Firstly, I just want to say that chances are, if you are reading this, you have probably suffered a loss of your own. For that, I offer my deepest condolences and hope that in some way, on some level, some of this will help you in finding your way. Even if it’s just knowing that you are not alone in this situation. For me, I lost my wife just 4 months after the birth of my baby girl. It was horrifying and something that I will never come to terms with. But I am coping.
So let’s dive into how and why I am coping as a single parent to a baby after loss:
Ok, so when I lost my wife, it took a couple of days for me to be able to stop screaming in pain every few minutes. All I wanted to do was hold my baby girl and hold tight to the last piece of my wife that was left. This is something that I did, however, I was not at this point capable of looking after my baby girl overnight, or even on my own, or even recognizing that this was the case. Luckily, I had a strong family around me who was capable of pointing out that I couldn’t be on my own and were more than happy to help with the night feeds and to let me call at all hours to check on her. I think that this is an important factor to mention. I had just lost my wife, I was terrified of losing my baby, so being able to check in on her at god-knows-what-hour was something that helped me. Trust me, nobody in the family is sleeping the first few days especially not your baby so they won’t mind picking up for you. What is also important to mention is, I was not in a fit state to be on my own with my baby 24/7. It's ok, please don’t feel guilty for it as you need time to scream and cry and process even the slightest bit of what’s just happened. It is 100% ok to need space, even if it's from your newborn.
So now all of that is said, here is my first big piece of advice: Make a list.
A list of everything you can possibly think of that is going to need to be done. The list does not have to be in any order of importance, although it may start that way at first but it’s not imperative. Some of the things you write down may seem so trivial they sound daft, and that’s ok too, it is, after all, your list - you don’t need to share it with anyone. The only important thing is actually making the list. My list is still growing. As fast as I tick things off, new things keep getting added, I honestly think that this is how my life will go from now on all the way through my baby girl's life. I see this as a positive thing though, it’s a very easy way to keep yourself grounded, stop your mind from wandering and keeping yourself motivated. The list gets you out, it gives you goals and purpose, it’s a brilliant way of focusing all your energy into one task per day.
Now there’s a small tip here that I want to touch on before I go any further because even though at the time it may seem insignificant, it’s not and it will impact your future. This small tip is to be upfront and as professional as possible with your workplace. Many of you like me are probably career-driven men who are proud of their jobs and just want to work to be able to give your family the best possible life. I think it was day 2 or 3 after my wife passed I emailed my manager and his manager to inform them of the situation and that I was not going to be in work for the foreseeable future, but that I would keep them informed of progress. This was a long and detailed email, written very professionally with the utmost respect shown, even if it was written through tears. That may not make sense, but I tell you, I think about an hour later I got the shortest email back from my manager, and it said something like this; 'Go focus on yourself and your daughter, I’ll call you in a few weeks to see how you are. Please forget about work, we are all behind you at this time, if there is anything you need, call us'.
I could not have asked for a better response, it was a huge weight off my chest immediately, I no longer needed to stress about work and could focus on dealing with this huge responsibility of caring for my daughter, alone. To this day I cannot thank my workplace for the support they gave me, and honestly, I think it was because I was so upfront and professional with them, they returned the favour x10! So contact work as soon as you’re able, it may seem like the last thing you want to do, but it pays dividends long term.
My next tip; get to your GP and your local HeadStart Center.
If you’re like me, you will have already been heavily focused on your baby’s life, but if you haven’t been, that’s ok too. These people will be able to help you every step of the way, with every single question imaginable. Be proactive and get yourself up there. Again if you’re like me, it will take a little pride swallowing to get through the door and ask for help, but this is so important for your child’s life. It’s something I cannot stress enough for you to do. You may barely need any help, but once you’ve been in a few times, you will always know that they are there if and when you need them.
The best piece of advice I can give is to build a routine around your baby, or follow your spouses and adapt it to yourself. Honestly routines simplify your life, they give your baby a sense of security, they know what they are doing day by day and week by week. You can plan your week around your baby’s routine, it absolutely helps to keep you grounded and gives you a reason to get up in the morning. Your local HeadStart Center can help with this too as they have sessions every day, which are free to attend and are useful to expand your knowledge base or just a chance to have a break and let your baby play and run wild.
The routine doesn’t have to be complicated at first, however, it can help you organise what to do. Mine looks something like this;
Monday – Little Talkers & Stay and Play at the HeadStart Center - this takes up a whole morning, gives me some company, and helps my baby develop.
Tuesday – Shopping for food - there is no specific time for this, but I know I’m doing it at some point in the day.
Wednesday – Free day - this is a day to pick something big from that list and make it your goal to get it done.
Thursday – Swimming lessons - my little girl loves swimming and even if it’s half term and the lessons aren’t on I’ll still take her swimming
Friday – Free day - again a day to pick something off the list and get it done.
Weekends – time visiting family - It’s not just your world that has collapsed but your family’s as well, it is so important that they get time with your child as especially for your mother-in-law, your baby is the last piece of her daughter she has left. So take the time to go to family houses or have them round to yours. It’s very important for your family and your baby.
What I do want to say is, building a routine helps with one major thing and that is getting out of the house, it does not benefit you or your baby to mope around the house. Get out, even if it’s just for a walk or a drive. It helps you to process thoughts away from your home and often this can help them be clearer and easier to deal with. It also gives you time with your baby for talking and interaction, which is a really positive thing for your baby. Do it in your own time and don’t force it, but I promise you 100%, getting yourself out and being around other people really helps.
Living out of Your Comfort Zone
Couple of small things that I feel are important to mention (these will be hard)...
1) Get used to explaining the situation. There are not many single dad’s in the world, we are a minority and you will constantly be explaining things. As blunt as this sounds - get used to it. It isn’t something that is ever going away. But there are ways to cope with this and make it easier. If someone asks where your partner is, or more likely, where mommy is, say something unspecific; a few examples I use are 'she’s not with us right now' and 'we’ll see her again soon'. These little phrases answer the question without having to go into detail and just allow you to get on with your day. But explaining the situation is something you will need to do almost daily.
2) Again this one’s a bitter pill to swallow. Get used to people saying “I understand how you feel” I know every bone in your body is sick of hearing this! Trust me, I know! Nobody does actually know how you feel. Not even someone who’s in the same situation. They just don’t know. We are all individuals and all feel differently. So when someone says this, just brush it aside, be polite and say thank you then change the subject quickly. But you will hear this daily, multiple times, so get used to brushing it off and try not to take offence.
3) Now this one’s a bit of a giggle. Guys, get used to being around women, especially if you have a daughter like me. As much as it sounds daft, your whole life will now be full of women - at the children’s center, at the nursery doors, in the playground outside school, school teachers, other moms at groups, your child’s friends mom - you get where I’m going. You are now surrounded by estrogen and are going to be involved in conversations surrounding all aspects of female life. So the sooner you get comfortable with this, the better. Trust me when I say you will be privy to all kinds of conversations that at first will make you feel awkward, but take it humorously! You never know what interesting things you’ll learn. You will be the odd one out, but embrace the women that come into your life, they will help you more than you can imagine. And hey, you’ll be able to pick up some information that may help down the line when your little one is older.
4) Take time for yourself. Have someone look after your little one and do something at least once a week, for you. Go to the gym, go to the cinema, go for a drive or hang out with your mates; after all that female company, you’re going to need some man chat. Whatever you do, do something you used to do for you before your life imploded. Doing this will keep you sane. Because you’re not just a dad. You are still you and you have to take time to be yourself.
Now, this one's probably going to sound odd but hear me out. Whenever a disaster happens like losing a loved one, it brings people together. You will probably get a lot of messages of support from people offering condolences, most of these people you’ll probably have never known or only met once or twice. Then you will get the messages from your older friends, maybe ones you’ve not spoken to in a while. Now a lot of people will say things like, 'if you ever need a chat, I’m here', Or 'if you need anything, let me know'. Take advantage of these offerings. This was something I didn’t find out until it was too late. You see, as sad as it sounds right now you’re the center of everyone’s thoughts. But unlike yours, their lives have not been obliterated and torn apart. It may be a week, maybe a month but sooner or later these people will return to their normal lives and all these offers will disappear with them. So take advantage while you can of the offer of someone to talk to, or to go get coffee with, or to help with the little one, or to walk your dog. Because those offers as awful as it seems, will disappear, and that’s not their fault. That’s just life, and they have their own lives to get back to. So take advantage of these opportunities whilst you can, because if you don’t, you’ll be like me, feeling really low and alone and just in need of a chat, but you will have waited too long and those people won’t be able to chat anymore.
One last tip that I want to give is a hard one. It’s to try and that’s the keyword - TRY. Try not to get upset in front of your child too much. Children pick up on our emotions tenfold. If you’re visibly upset, they will be too. For your child’s mental health, try to stay as happy and positive as you can around your child, I know that is asking a lot, but trust me when I say it’s so worth it to protect your child’s mental state. As hard as this may seem, try to put on a brave face and smile, because if you smile, then they smile and that will make you feel better. Soon it will become a natural smile and you won’t just be putting a brave face on. You’ll be smiling because your little one is beaming back up at you and the world suddenly doesn’t seem so bad. I’m not saying to never cry or break down in front of your little one, god I can’t count how many times I’ve had to hold my girl close as I ball my eyes out because of a song or a picture or memory floating into my head. I’m just saying that for your child’s mental state, try to remain happy in front of them and that way they will remain happy and calm for you. Let’s face it, the last thing you need right now is a child screaming or balling their eyes out because they can sense your upset and it’s feeding their emotions. So smile and it will soon become not just a brave face but a real smile. When your child is happy, you will be too.
I guess to sum this all up. Take things day by day. Make that list to keep you grounded and make you feel like you’ve achieved something each day. Get out and about as much as you can, creating routines and ticking items off the list will help with this - the days always pass quicker when you’re busy. Use the local help and facilities available to you, remember to take time for yourself and to still be you. Get used to being the odd one out and being surrounded by women. Make your new life goal to make your child’s life as brilliant as it can be and enjoy your time with them. After all, your child is a little piece of your loved one that has been left on this earth to make you happy.