CHAPEL HILL — Their tragedies came back to haunt them at the oddest moments.
Dan Pelletier remembers some tense conversations in the JC Penney’s junior department when he and his pre-teen daughter first shopped together for her clothes.
Bruce Ham heard his youngest crying down the hall and rushed to see what was wrong.
“I can’t braid my hair,” she sobbed.
Those were just a few of the puzzles facing these fathers who had become single parents after their wives died of cancer. But they and five other men found help in what’s believed to be one of the nation’s first support group for dads who have lost partners to the disease.
Convened in Chapel Hill by UNC Hospitals’ Comprehensive Cancer Support Program, the group started in 2010 after staff noticed a confluence of young mothers’ deaths at the N.C. Cancer Hospital. Now, participants say, it has brought more emotional stability and parental confidence out of chaos and grief.
But rather than stop meeting or continue talking about themselves, the fathers decided to help professionals design the next such group, for dads more recently widowed by cancer. They also want to help create a blueprint for other cancer centers.
“We’d like for someone to benefit from the experiences we’ve had,” said software engineer Karl Owen of Chapel Hill, father of two.
The fathers are determined to pay it forward, said Justin Yopp, assistant professor of psychiatry at UNC, on staff with the support program and a facilitator of the group.
“Our job is to craft together what they’ve taught us into a plan that can be replicated across the country,” Yopp said.
Lives on hold
Tentatively set to start in January, the new group will be for fathers widowed by cancer whose children are 18 or under.
More than 320 fathers – about 38 in North Carolina – from 42 states and 79 countries have completed a survey on the website singlefathersduetocancer.org.
Many parents in this situation are emotionally and financially drained after the spouse’s illness but put their own issues on hold to try and help their kids, Yopp said.
Pelletier, a reading tutor in Chapel Hill who soon came to trust his daughter’s judgment about her clothes, remembers in a video on the website, “It seemed like it was overnight when the meals stopped coming. Family members who had been staying had to leave and get back to their lives, and I just remember feeling really alone,” with his son and daughter looking to him for guidance.
Usually, the wives had managed parent-teacher meetings, carpools, summer schedules, birthday parties and more.
“I’ve learned so much about girls’ clothes, including the difference between tights and hose,” said Ham, of Raleigh, a vice president at the YMCA who has three daughters. He insisted on learning to braid hair, too.
Holidays are tough.
“Sarah was huge with Thanksgiving,” said Pelletier. “She did all the planning, inviting and cooking. She loved doing that.
“One of the things that we’ve done to minimize the pain and reminders is to hit the road.” Now, they visit his brother’s family for Thanksgiving.
Planning the new group’s first meeting will be key. Facilitators don’t want to scare the dads off. That’s what worried them after the present group’s first session.
“It was one breathtakingly sad story after another,” said Dr. Donald L. Rosenstein, a UNC psychiatry professor who directs the cancer support program and, with Yopp, facilitates the group.
“It was pretty brutal,” Yopp said. “At the end, Don and I thought, ‘I hope these guys come back.’”
And they did. The resulting cohesion taught the dads that they weren’t the only ones when “they’re talking, and all the heads in the room start to nod,” Rosenstein said.
UNC student groups provide child care during the sessions.
Rosenstein said a similar group for moms also would be helpful, but “we’re just starting where we’re starting.” They chose dads in part because many men are less likely than women to reach out for support.
At Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, one of the country’s preeminent cancer hospitals, single fathers typically join a young adult bereavement support group for spouses and partners in their 20s, 30s and 40s. But Kimarie Knowles, a clinical social worker there, regularly refers fathers to the Chapel Hill group’s website.
“Sometimes fathers are not given the same support as single mothers, so fathers can go into parenthood post-loss of a partner due to cancer and have to take on a lot of new roles they haven’t had,” said Knowles, who wants to see Chapel Hill’s eventual blueprint.
MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, another esteemed institution, has a general bereavement group and several groups for family members of patients with cancer, but nothing just for fathers widowed by the disease, said Stephen Collazo, administrative social work counselor there.
“Groups that are all male tend to develop a little differently in the types of rapport they develop,” he said. “There are specific types of support that could be beneficial for them.”
When UNC finishes its blueprint, Collazo said, “I’d love to take a look at it.”