After Joe Ciriano’s wife, Joy, died of cancer, he had to figure out how to care for two daughters in middle school, a son in preschool, and his youngest daughter with Down syndrome.
Being a widowed father not only changed his world, it brought self-doubt.
“As you are going through this, you question your self-esteem,” Ciriano said. “So anything that goes wrong you question: Is it because of this? Am I screwing stuff up? Can I not do this anymore? Was I able to do this before because I was married and had a partner to help with kids and do those kind of things?”
Ciriano eventually found help. Two weeks before his wife died, he spoke to Justin M. Yopp, a child psychologist at UNC’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, about how to talk to his children about loss and grief. After Joy died, Yopp and Donald L. Rosenstein, also of the Lineberger Center, asked Ciriano to meet with them.
The two doctors needed his help because their research had found no existing support group for fathers widowed by cancer.
“They said, we’re just not really seeing anything,” Ciriano said. “It became more and more readily apparent that there was nothing out there to support this group of fathers.”
Creating a new model
Rosenstein and Yopp formed the Single Fathers Due to Cancer support group. Ciriano is one of seven men who participated for about four years in the group.
Rosenstein and Yopp have written about their experiences in a new book “The Group: Seven Widowed Fathers Reimagine Life” (Oxford University Press). Rosenstein is a professor of psychiatry at UNC, director of the UNC Comprehensive Cancer Support Program, and vice chairman of the Division of Hospital Psychiatry. Yopp is an associate professor of psychiatry and director of pediatric psycho-oncology consultation with the cancer program.
“When we worked with several young families with young mothers who passed away, we wanted to refer their husbands to a support group,” Yopp said. “It was surprising to us that there was nothing out there, which led us to realize the need for one.”
“The Group” follows seven men – Ciriano, Bruce, Steve, Karl, Dan, Russ and Neill – through their grief journey. They discuss being a single parent, fighting depression, deciding whether and when to date again, and finding purpose in life after the loss of their wives.
From day one, Yopp and Rosenstein chose to collaborate with the widowed fathers. They wrote a professional paper describing the group and gave the men a draft before submitting it, Rosenstein said. The fathers also helped to craft a website, widowedparent.org, told their stories through videos and a short film titled “If I Should Not Return.”
“We did not come at this as experts in bereavement,” Rosenstein said. “We did not come at it as experts in parenting” or gender roles, he said. Because there was so little written about widowed fathers and bereavement, “We were learning along with (the fathers).”
Ciriano praised Yopp and Rosenstein for knowing when to let the fathers take the lead.
The first meeting was difficult and “gut wrenching,” Ciriano said. By the second meeting, the men were starting to feel more comfortable sharing their struggles. “Whether you actually brought it out explicitly and said ‘Yes, I feel like that,’ you could just see that everybody was going through a lot of the same ideas and same thoughts,” he said.
“Usually support groups have a start and an end, a fairly short cycle, maybe a year on the outside,” he said. This group was atypical because of the way it developed, and the number of years it met, he said.
Being able to share challenges with other widowed fathers was crucial, Ciriano said.
“If you haven’t been through that kind of loss, try as you might, you just can’t,” he said. “They want to put their own twist on things” and give advice on how to cope with different situations. This support group let him share with “people who ... know what you’re going through, and aren’t going to judge you.”
The fathers also were able to challenge each other, but always in a respectful way, Ciriano said. “You might get called out. The beauty of the group is we were not afraid to call each other out and ask the tough questions.”
Before, he said, a pile of laundry normally “would have always driven me crazy.” But after his wife died, the laundry just did not seem as important. He was able to talk about the laundry with men who had similar feelings.
“It lets you know, I am not a nut job here. I’m not off the deep end.”
The support group has led Rosenstein and Yopp to expand their research to include widowed mothers, and ailments other than cancer. In their book they write, “We remained committed to the needs of widowed fathers but also became increasingly interested in the end-of-life experiences of parents who are dying.”
Along with Linberger researcher Eliza Park, they are beginning to collect information for a study about bereavement of all parents. Their website has a spot where people can sign up for the study survey. It is open to parents of children 18 and younger who have lost a spouse in the last two years, the authors said.
Since members of the original group decided to disband, a second group has begun, with rules about when new members can join, and when men who feel they have found what they need can feel comfortable leaving. Under this new structure, new members get to learn from veterans, creating a dynamic that helps both, Yopp said. With their help, colleagues at Lineberger plan to start a support group for moms who have lost spouses to illness.
The authors hope someday that support groups for these parents are available throughout the state and nation.
The men who participated in “The Group” were responsible for this new focus. “That was the genesis of this whole burgeoning research,” Yopp said. “The seven men take a degree of pride knowing that is part of their study.”
“To a T, everybody wants to do this and spread the word and [do] whatever it takes, Ciriano said. “In the end, if it reaches one person, that’s a big deal.”
▪ Thursday, Jan. 18, 7 p.m., Regulator Bookshop, 720 Ninth St., Durham.
▪ Thursday, Feb. 1, 7 p.m., Flyleaf Books, 752 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill.
Want to participate in the study?
Visit widowedparent.org and click “The Survey”