By Martha Waggner/The Associated Press
RALEIGH, N.C. — When his wife died of cancer at the age of 39, Bruce Ham wondered whether the laughter would ever return to the house he and their three daughters share.
“And it is back. It took awhile, but it is back,” Ham said, more than three years after the death of his wife, Lisa. “I still miss her. I think about her every day. But I don’t cry every time I think about her. I smile and laugh. It’s good to be on that side of grief.”
A group that organizers say may be the only one of its kind in the country helped him on his journey to that other side. Therapists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill said they started Single Fathers Due to Cancer because they saw a need to help men struggling with their own grief and their children’s grief.
The group first met in October 2010 after therapists and doctors at the UNC Comprehensive Cancer Support Program realized several young mothers with poor prognoses were being treated there. After they died, “we sat and talked and realized that universal among these women was concern about how their husbands would do after they passed away,” said Justin Yopp, a clinical psychologist and a staffer in the program. “We wondered, what’s out there for these guys?”
Their research found no support groups for this specific group of grieving parents — fathers whose wives died of cancer, which is the leading cause of death for U.S. women ages 25 to 54.
Some of the fathers said they tried other support groups but were turned off because they typically were made of women and older people.
“I think I desperately felt like I needed help, but I didn’t really know where to turn,” said Ham, 47, of Raleigh, who blogs about his life as a single parent and is writing a book titled “Laughter, Tears and Braids.” ”When I heard about this group, it was much more appealing to me than any other group that I heard about.”
Karl Owen, 50, was one of the first two members in the support group. “One of us would say something, and the other one’s head would nod,” said Owen, a computer programmer who lives in Chapel Hill with his son and daughter. “It became clear there was some value there.”
Yopp and his colleague, Dr. Don Rosenstein, started the group with the intention that it would go for seven sessions or so. Instead, the same group of eight to nine men has met once a month for several years. The men are working to start similar groups in other areas. The UNC doctors also plan to start a second group there in the fall.
A psychiatrist at New York University also plans to start a group, perhaps as early as this fall. Dr. James Fraiman said he’s interested partially because research shows that children who lose parents when they’re young can do well in life if they have support. That support starts with groups such as the one at UNC, he said.
Also, women tend to manage their families — to be the CEO, as Ham described his wife, he said. “A group like this can help these men support each other so they can be emotionally present for their children,” he said. “Emotional presence is key for a family to heal and for them to move forward with their lives.”
Research shows young mothers tend to choose aggressive treatment because they want to survive for their children, Yopp said, and that doesn’t always leave time to say goodbye. Owen and Ham say they that’s how their wives’ deaths played out.
Owen’s wife, Susan Buchanan, was an environmental scientist who died of lung cancer at age 47. She was one of a fraction of nonsmokers who get the disease. By the time the cancer was caught, it was already in her bones and brain. Owen and his wife had two conversations with Yopp about what to tell their children — a daughter, now 15, and a son, 13. In one talk, they told the kids Mom might die of cancer, and in the second they said she was dying. The children got to say goodbye, but Owen said he didn’t.
“By the time we got to that first conversation with Justin, the combination of brain cancer and radiation had affected her,” he said. “She was not the same person she had been.”
Lisa Ham died of colon cancer, which was stage 4 by the time it was diagnosed. “It was like a 747 flew by, and she was dead,” Bruce Ham said.
He said part of the problem was denial, and part was that doctors wanted the couple to stay optimistic. “They wanted the treatment to be successful because of her stage of life and the fact that she had three kids,” he said. “And they probably looked at me and said, ‘He can’t do this alone.'”
The men in the UNC group spent many sessions talking about cancer, grief and the emotional needs of their children. How much of your own grief do you share with your kids? How do you keep Mom’s memory alive without every dinner turning into a grief session?
Three years out, they’ve moved on to discussing teenager issues, handling the logistics of a single parent and dating. When do you take off your wedding ring? How do you get one child to soccer and another to dance at the same time?
One persistent topic of discussion: raising a teenage daughter. “I feel completely out of my depth helping a teenage girl navigate cliques and social situations in high school,” Owen said.
He gets plenty of advice from Ham, whose daughters are 15, 12 and 10. His blog posts include subjects such as the difference between a sports bra and a regular bra and why a girl needs both.
Since his wife’s death, Ham said he has spent many days wondering, “What would Lisa do?” What to pack for lunch? Should the kids go to summer camp? He wishes he and his wife had thought to discuss the questions before she died.
Ham describes himself as an involved father before his wife died, but in the sense that he picked up the kids when Lisa told him to and played with them when he got home from work.
“She handled the schedules and the logistics and the planning of our lives,” he said. “She knew the other moms and scheduled the play dates. Even our friendships, she cultivated most of those.”
The laughter returned through his own hard work and the help he got from the group, where he was comfortable talking about the level of sadness in the house. That helped him uphold his promise to his wife that he would take care of their daughters.
“I realized that I was not raising them and taking care of things as she would have wanted me to,” he said. “Realizing my promise to her shook me up.”
Bruce Ham’s blog: http://therealfullhouse.wordpress.com/
Martha Waggoner can be reached at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc