Ask Dennis Woo about his kids and the proud dad starts to beam. Ben is his eldest, inquisitive and active at eight years old, and there’s baby Henry who was born this year.
He’s quick to mention another son, James, who Dennis and his wife Selene lost at 23 weeks in 2012.
The loss was tough on many levels. Physically, for Selene, who had to deliver a stillborn child. And emotionally for both parents.
“At the time, there’s so much to deal with. You’re filling in forms and making final arrangements. Everyone turns to the dad or non-birthing partner to be ‘the strong one’ and you feel a huge weight on your shoulders. But you need to let yourself feel the emotion, feel the loss.”
Dennis says losing James brought him closer together with his wife, and they were fortunate to have a supportive network of family, friends and employers. They also had Ben, who was two years old at the time, and who needed them to continue with day-to-day life.
But he admits that formal support, once they left the hospital, just wasn’t there. “So many families don’t have the support from family and friends that we had. It was a few years after losing James that I wanted to use my personal experience to help others. That’s when I found PAIL.”
Dennis is now a peer counsellor with the Pregnancy and Infant Loss Network (PAIL) for other fathers who have experienced a loss. He says he’s seen many who insulate themselves, and don’t allow themselves to grieve. Dennis has advice for dads and non-birthing partners:
- Let yourself grieve: “Give yourself permission to let the grief wash over you. Cry, whether it’s with your partner or a friend or family member. Allow yourself to feel the pain. Often dads and non-birthing partners have mentally created room for this child in their lives, and they walk out of the hospital without a baby and it’s absolutely devastating.”
- Take care of yourself: “Your emotions can turn from sadness to impatience and anger. Often emotions are triggered once you re-enter the world, whether it’s going back to work or attending family functions. It’s okay to tell others what you do and don’t need.”
In Dennis’ case, part of his healing came from talking about James’ death with his eldest son. Around the anniversary of James’ death, Dennis spoke with Ben about his younger brother. The family also visited James’ grave.
“I think sometimes we don’t give kids enough credit, they have a huge capacity to understand and process loss,” says Dennis. “Now when we have a loss in our circle of family and friends, he’ll ask questions to try and understand death a little more. I’ve been so inspired by his reaction.”
Are you a dad or non-birthing partner who has had a loss? There is support. Visit pailnetwork.sunnybrook.ca to learn more.
Connect with bereaved families in your community
There are various Wave of Light events being hosted across the GTA on October 15 to mark Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day. We also encourage you to join the Pregnancy and Infant Loss (PAIL) Network Facebook group to connect with other families who have experienced a loss.