rosenstein and yopp single fathers due to cancer
Drs. Donald Rosenstein and Justin Yopp.
Drs. Donald Rosenstein and Justin Yopp, UNC psychiatrists who work with patients at the N.C. Cancer Hospital and their families, founded the support group Single Fathers Due to Cancer in 2010. It was the first of its kind in the country. Due to the success of the seven-man group, led by the two doctors, the program now is being duplicated at New York University and is likely to spread throughout the country. Rosenstein and Yopp are planning to form another group for fathers recently widowed due to cancer. Visit www.singlefathersduetocancer.org to learn more. If you are a father who has lost a spouse to cancer, join the mailing list and take the online survey.
Tell us about the genesis of this program.
Yopp: About three and a half years ago, we were seeing a number of young mothers with terminal cancer here for support or therapy. Of course it came out in offering that therapeutic support that their husbands and their children were paramount to what they were concerned about. So after those women had passed away, we thought we should see what support is out there for these guys, because you can imagine what they’re going through, having to be newly widowed single parents. I was charged with looking for support groups locally, which we did, and found that there was nothing. After that we figured out there was nothing anywhere. The experiences that may be specific to fathers who had lost a wife to cancer had been virtually ignored. Then we reached out to a couple of them and asked them to meet for a focus group, really just kind of a chat session, to see if they’d be interested in a support group. That meeting went well. At least one of them had tried other support groups, grief groups, and found that they were primarily populated by women and/or older people. There was no home for them, which cemented our thought that we should start something up. We formed the group in October 2010.
What is it specifically about losing one’s wife to cancer that may present unique challenges?
Yopp: The bottom line is we’re not sure there is anything specific to cancer. There’s never been anything targeted in the research. Certainly there are differences between sudden death and anticipated death. With cancer, most of those deaths are anticipated and by the time these fathers were newly widowed parents, they had been through an emotional and physical and mental nightmare. So they weren’t coming into this cleanly at all. They were coming in exhausted and then were charged with being the sole caretaker of their children.
Do you lead the sessions?
Rosenstein: Yes, we are co-facilitators. The thing is, we were much more active in the early phase of it than we are now. These guys would do fine without us. What we do at this point is make comments periodically about consistent trends and observations that the guys may not see. But the fact of the matter is they set the agenda. They come in and mostly talk amongst themselves. We have very intentionally kind of receded a little bit. It’s not about experts giving information. It’s about men in similar circumstances sharing their experiences.
Describe the state of the participants when the group started.
Yopp: The first group meeting we asked everyone to go around and tell their stories. One by one, each story was equally as heartbreaking, as devastating as the other. I think these guys felt lost. They described themselves as being in a fog, both in their grief and in terms of, “I don’t know what to do as a parent.”
Rosenstein: There was a bit of a crisis of confidence that each could identify with. They were used to co-parenting with mom. One of the things that’s been so amazing about this group is that most of the time when one of the fathers is describing how he’s feeling or something that happened or something he’s struggling with, you’ll see nodding immediately around the table. There’s been a pretty remarkable sense of, “Yeah, that’s how it’s been for me.” One of the things that resonated with all the guys is this notion of, “This has been a big hit to our family, a big hit to the kids, I don’t want to screw it up any worse by making wrong parenting decisions.”
What are you seeing now? What are the new challenges two years on?
Yopp: The crisis in confidence has lessened. They feel like they are on more solid ground. Issues related to dating have come up as we’ve progressed. And specifically dating and how their children either do or do not accept that. Those are not easy or trivial things. We’ve heard a range of reactions from the children – from some accepting, fine, whatever, it’s not really on their radar to it’s squarely in the middle of their radar and they’re not terribly pleased. That’s become an increasing focus.
Rosenstein: In the past several months there have been more conversations about, for want of a better expression, self-care. In other words, initially it’s just a matter of keeping the trains running on time: getting the kids to school, getting the meals prepared, getting the laundry done, getting the house in order, keeping their day jobs. It’s kind of a survival mentality. There’s a lot of focus initially on how the kids are doing and doing right by them. At this stage, a couple years out, more of the guys are starting to transition into how can I tend to myself a little bit better: how do I lose weight, get back in shape. Which is a good thing. It’s not that they can ever lose sight of their parental responsibilities. But it’s as though that was lowest on the list of priorities for the first year or two.
Can you share a story about an issue that has come up in the sessions?
Rosenstein: There was a guy whose teenage daughter started dating someone he wasn’t real thrilled with. It was a perfect example of having to be both the disciplinarian parent and the cool, I-get-what’s-happening-here parent at the same time. He was reflecting on how there was a bit of a division of labor in the past. He might be a real hard-liner and his wife would be a little softer, would be the one to recognize that first loves are all-consuming. That brought up a larger issue about relaxing the usual rules after mom died because everyone felt bad about what’s happened so you don’t want to be too harsh. But we’ve experienced with these guys that structure is good and loss of structure doesn’t help matters. TW