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Extra Mile

The Extra Mile: Giving Widowed Dads a Shoulder to Lean On

06.01.13 by Laura Putre

Two physicians form a support group to help men adjust to family life without their spouses

When Jorge De La Cruz lost his wife, a stay-at-home mom, to an aggressive form of breast cancer in 2011, he didn't have time to be alone with his grief. Commuting to the kids' day care and then to work meant he was gone from early morning until 8 p.m. They often picked up dinner on the road. Once home, the children needed to do homework, take baths and brush their teeth.

"Someone told De La Cruz about Single Fathers Due to Cancer, a support group that was just starting at UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center in Chapel Hill. At first, De La Cruz resisted attending. "I was told about it, and I said, 'Oh, please. Whatever.' I'm not a big group person at all."

But after a disastrous Mother's Day and kids' birthdays that were "all over the place," he decided to give it a shot. "Everything was falling apart," he says.

The group was started by two mental health professionals at UNC Lineberger: Donald Rosenstein, M.D., director of the comprehensive cancer support program, and Justin Yopp, a medical school associate professor who also works with cancer patients.

Rosenstein had gone searching for support services for a father with young children who'd recently lost his wife, but couldn't find anything that seemed appropriate. The existing bereaved spouse groups were geared toward older people who were coping with loneliness or depression, and who didn't have the pressures of parenting weighing on them.

"One hundred percent fell on these fathers," says Rosenstein. "It wasn't something any of them had felt prepared for at all. I remember asking, 'Do any of you feel like the parenting baton was passed?' One guy said he felt the baton was just thrown at him."

Rosenstein and Yopp knew of eight or nine recently widowed dads with kids at home who might benefit from such a group. But "we looked around locally and nationally and there was nothing out there," says Yopp.

They held a minifocus group with two dads and then reached out to a dozen to start the group. About half showed up.

De La Cruz says hearing the other men talk about little things like the struggle to get dinner on the table and waking the kids up on time for school helped him to feel comfortable talking, too. "Once I started opening my mouth and saying things, they would start nodding and say, 'Yep, that's happened to me, too.' " It was just what he needed to hear.

The same group has been together for two years, meeting monthly at a satellite UNC site, largely because there was concern that meeting at the hospital would dredge up too many bad memories. Providing child care is essential, says Rosenstein, who tapped volunteer student babysitters from the University of North Carolina. The men and their families are fed so that they don't have to worry about squeezing in dinner before the meeting.

With time, the conversation has changed from things like how much you should talk with your children about their mother's passing, to dating again and how to broach that idea with them.

Rosenstein says for the group to succeed, it's important that the guys are in roughly the same place in their grieving process. Three months to two years after losing wives to cancer is a good window

"There is a kind of staging to this," he says. "The first few weeks or couple of months is probably too soon. Their heads are spinning just trying to get through the days. Then you have to think about the tail end. If somebody is 15 years out from losing his wife, I'm not sure the issues are the same."

With the help of the dads, Rosenstein and Yopp have done two studies, published in the journals Psycho-Oncology and the Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing, about the lack of such support groups and the need for them. They also reach out with videos and a survey on their website, www.singlefathersduetocancer.org, to health professionals and other dads who might be going through similar issues.

De La Cruz says the group has seen him through the difficult first 18 months after his wife's death when he was so depressed that his children were the only thing keeping him going, to this past year when he was promoted at work and now has a routine at home. "My doctor said, 'Here, take Prozac. Take Zoloft.' That's not what I needed. What I needed was a place to feel as though people understood what I was going through," he says.

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