Widowed, grieving, lost and lonely, a group of Dublin fathers found their ‘life raft’ in each other. From sharing parenting and cooking tips to just being there to listen, they help each other to find hope for the future
It was 2017 and Tom Kennedy attended a bereavement event at Our Lady’s Hospice in Harold’s Cross in Dublin. The year before, Kennedy had lost his wife, Carmel, to cancer, and he was still lost in a fog of grief. Even though Carmel hadn’t died at the hospice, he and their children Danny, Robert, Amy and Christina — then aged 13, 11, nine and seven respectively — had been invited along to a weekend of services and activities for families who had been bereaved.
Following Carmel’s death, Kennedy had taken redundancy from his job to concentrate on raising the children. Even though he had wonderful support from family and friends, he felt alone in the experience of being a bereaved father.
“Being a man, you think being a widower is not a common thing. It’s silly but that’s the way the world turns — I thought I was the only one around,” says Kennedy, now 49, who lives in Stillorgan in Dublin. “I felt very alone about it all. I wasn’t depressed but it was extreme loneliness.”
He recalls the few men at the hospice event breaking off into their own little group over a cup of tea. “It was like, all of a sudden, I was able to talk. I’d mention something like how hard it was to make a decision – how I was trying to second-guess what Carmel would want — and suddenly they’re all telling you their stories. And they’re the same age with young kids. I was like, ‘Wow, I’m not alone here.’ It gave me hope that there were other guys like me that I could reach out to when I wasn’t feeling good.”
In the company of these other men, Kennedy found real empathy. “They understood the grief. There was advice around parenting. We were talking about schools and talking about cooking; about what we were doing. Hearing what they were doing made me feel like I didn’t have to be sad the whole time because these guys had the same grief.
“I suppose we were all coping on our own, ‘getting through’. I was just numb a lot of the time, there was no happiness. They all said the same thing; they were in the same position. It’s like you’re out at sea and you’re floating there with your life jacket. Then this life raft comes along and there’s a bunch of other lads on it.”
One of the other men there that day was John Fitzsimons, from Dublin’s Rathfarnham. His wife, Gráinne, had died of cancer just before Christmas in 2016, leaving him and their children Ella, then six, and Jack, then five. He recalls the weeks and months after Gráinne died as being like a blur. Like Kennedy, he had lots of support from family and friends, but he still felt incredibly lonely.
Fitzsimons had made the difficult decision to leave his job as chief executive of tech charity Camara Education. Though he loved the role, it involved a lot of travel and he was spending his time chasing the day. “I remember falling asleep in front of the TV with the kids. I was shattered, I was grieving and the kids were grieving,” he says, adding that leaving a job can bring a grief of its own, because for so many people their identity is tied to what they do.
When he suddenly found himself with other men who were “all hurting, we were all at the same place in life,” there were no barriers to the conversation between them.
“It’s powerful, because it normalises what you’re feeling — and it is very different for men. Women are great at talking at an emotional level. I didn’t have people around me that I could really communicate with. But within a couple of hours of chatting, I felt like I’d known these guys for years. There was something powerful there.”
That first impromptu meeting in 2017 turned into regular morning meet-ups. Today, the support group of bereaved fathers — they call themselves The Breakfast Club — is 13-strong. While they might initially intend to meet up for an hour, that usually stretches to three.
Darren Cooney, from Blanchardstown, first made contact after seeing a post that John Fitzsimons had written on bereavement support site widow.ie. A few weeks later, he joined the other dads at a breakfast meet-up. He remembers seeing the acceptance in their eyes at that first meeting. “It was a relief to see it wasn’t just me,” he says.
After Cooney’s wife, Karen, died suddenly three years ago, he found himself trying to cope with her loss as well as parenting their children, Hannah and Luke, then aged nine and five. Karen, who had struggled with mental illness for many years, was being treated for pericardial effusion — a build-up of fluid around the heart — in the weeks leading up to her death. Her family is still awaiting an inquest report into her death.
“You don’t even recognise what’s going on in the first year,” says Cooney, 39, of losing a spouse. “The second year, the individual feelings hit you. You learn to live with it. It’s not about getting over it and you have to give it the respect it deserves. If you don’t give it respect, it will hit you hard.”
The other men’s stories gave him hope. “Seeing that they were two or three years on and they’re doing OK told me it’s going to get better. You’re constantly seeking out the fact that you can survive and you can recover.”
Having a forum to swap parenting tips and advice has also been hugely helpful to the men as they navigated the sometimes choppy waters of raising children alone. Kennedy says that getting advice from the other dads on bereavement counselling for his children was really beneficial in the early days.
He also learned that when he shared what was going on for him at home, it resonated with the other fathers, and in turn that eased his own anxiety that he wasn’t doing things right. Over the years, he’s sought advice from the group on everything from how to deal with Mother’s Day, to what secondary schools to opt for and whether to get an au pair.
Cooney says nothing is off limits: from puberty to periods, if the group members have advice to offer, they will. With a daughter approaching her teenage years, Cooney is proud of the fact that she comes to him with questions about what’s happening in her body, or when it’s time to go clothes shopping.
From Fitzsimons’s perspective, the practical stuff of parenting is easy compared to dealing with the complex emotional lives of children. He recalls meeting a widower a few years ago whose advice was to hug his children regularly. Fitzsimons says this simple piece of parenting advice is something he not only practises himself, it’s also something he’s taken to the group.
“Sometimes the power of [sharing] is that it allows you to calm down. You’re talking to the guys and it takes some of the anxiety away. You’re always worried about the kids and ultimately it’s all for them,” says Kennedy, who was christened ‘Fudder’ by one of his daughters in honour of his being both mother and father.
“I have become much closer with my kids than I ever would have been if Carmel was still alive. I have to be both mother and father. I spend a lot of time with them. I get the whole 100pc.”
Fitzsimons says that he sees his time with his children as a privilege. “This morning I was brushing Ella’s hair and the sun was shining in the window. One of the neighbours was looking in at the time — it’s unusual for a dad to be doing his daughter’s hair. It’s something I might never have learned. It’s beautiful as well as very sad.”
As well as caring for their children, the members of the group need to take time to care for themselves as they learn to live with grief.
“I’d be very conscious of keeping myself in a good space,” says Fitzsimons. “A lot of grief is like a heavy sadness, it’s the realisation that the dreams and hopes you had together are now gone. It’s very hard to parent when you’re sad. The kids are carrying their own grief.
“I go cycling up the mountains, and exercise is really important, as is meeting my friends for coffee — these give me energy. I’d be quite clear now about how important those things are. It’s about identifying when you have those moments of happiness. Some of these things seem counter-intuitive. The last thing you want to do is ask friends out for coffee if you’re not feeling chipper but you need that.
“Over time you find coping mechanisms; you find ways of carrying on and you find joy again. It’s never what it was, but there’s other ways you can build things into your life that make it a good life. The last thing I ever wanted was pity. It’s a long, tough road but with the right attitude and the right approach, there is hope for the future.”
He’s very clear that men do need to learn to reach out to others, whether it’s to ask for help or ask a friend to meet for a coffee. If help is offered, he says to take it. “At the start, people would invite me around for dinner. You might think, I don’t want this, but you really need it. When you do it, it’s beneficial. Get whatever support you need.”
On the flip side, he advises that if you know someone who has been bereaved, take the time to make contact with them. “The worst thing you can do is avoid someone who’s grieving. You need to get over your fear of putting your foot in it and just reach out. All you really need to do is listen. There’s no solution here to grief. You just need someone to be around to just listen.”
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s been difficult to meet in person for the past year, but The Breakfast Club kept going over Zoom. Now, with restrictions easing, they are all looking forward to being able to meet in person again.
Kennedy believes that the power of the group really comes down to being understood. “It’s grown organically by being a bunch of people who can talk to one another. You could be yourself; you could confide in them if you were having a bad day. You could be sad. It’s been a very important part for me in getting used to the grief. By having someone else who’s doing the same thing, you feel like you can carry the burden.
“You don’t ever get over it — you get used to it. It’s like getting used to a missing limb. These guys are also missing limbs. You say to yourself, ‘If they can do it, I can do it.’”
For anyone affected by these issues, see widow.ie. For more information on The Breakfast Club, contact Tom Kennedy at email@example.com