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Bereaved fathers find healing in friendship

Ted Price and David Domeshek at a recent Fathers Forever session at a Boston pub. All in the group have lost a child, but their get-togethers are more about camaraderie than grief. Ted Price and David Domeshek at a recent Fathers Forever session at a Boston pub. All in the group have lost a child, but their get-togethers are more about camaraderie than grief. (Globe Staff Photo / Yoon S. Byun)
By Bella English
Globe Staff / April 29, 2009
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The Red Sox were on the screen, and the men had one eye on the game as they shared beer, pizza, wings, and chicken nuggets at Jillian's, in the shadow of Fenway Park.

They also shared stories about their children, the ones who are no longer with them and the ones who are. "My youngest daughter doesn't remember Charlotte very well," said Michael Bigham. Charlotte is his daughter who died unexpectedly at age 6 in August 2004 of malignant hyperthermia, a rare condition that prevents the body from cooling itself.

As Bigham spoke, the others nodded, empathy in their eyes. Some of them related similar experiences with their own children. The men are members of Fathers Forever. In this group of guys, there is no therapist, no mediator, no agenda. It is not a grief group. It is not exactly a men's group, either. "We don't beat drums," Bigham says.

You could call it a fathers' club with impossibly high dues: Each man has lost a child. But the members don't use that euphemism. "Our kids are not lost," says David Domeshek of Medfield, one of the founders. "We know where they are." His daughter, Natasha, was 8 when she complained of a headache and died shortly afterward of a brain aneurysm in 2002.

Each man's story is as painful as the next. Members of Fathers Forever bear witness to one another's grief and to their progress. "It's just a place where you can go where your life experience as a father is normal," says Bigham, one of the four cofounders. "If you were at work and you said, 'I want to talk about my dead daughter,' people would turn to stone."

Fathers Forever grew out of a therapy group in Needham run by psychologist Linda Gudas. In 2004, with her guidance, the men broke off on their own. Membership grew by word of mouth and jumped when they invited an author to speak about men and healing. Today they have 40 men on the e-mail list; six to eight of them attend the monthly breakfasts on a regular basis. The group also has a website, www.fathers-forever.org.

The founders were initially dubious. Grief counseling had not worked for them; they felt it was largely by women, for women. But they soon began to feel the benefits of the group.

For Bigham, it was a tutorial of sorts, taught by those whose children had died before his daughter. "They looked more normal than I felt," he says. "I had a sense of a road map out of here, light at the end of this deep tunnel I'm in."

As time went on, the men realized that they were consoling, teaching, and learning from one another more than they had in any counseling session. But they do not just sit around talking. They do stuff: hiking, dining, shooting pool, drinking beer, going for an overnight in New Hampshire. Paintball is on next month's agenda.

That, says therapist Thomas Golden, is one difference between male and female grieving. Women tend to interact through talking, men through action. "What men need is to be shoulder to shoulder with other men who are going through the same thing," says Golden, who spoke to the group about his book, "Swallowed by a Snake: The Gift of the Masculine Side of Healing."

Ted Price and Craig Luhrmann share an interest in scuba diving and have made a date for an outing in Gloucester. "It's probably tempting to ignore what we have in common and just do the fun stuff," says Price, a lawyer who lives in Wayland. His 4-month-old son, Adam, died in 2003 from mitochondrial disease. "But we all know what brings us together, and we're not afraid to talk about it."

Luhrmann's 5-year-old daughter, Amilia, was killed on Memorial Day weekend 2003 in a propane gas explosion that leveled the family's lake house in New Hampshire. A contractor had left a gas line open.

Luhrmann, another cofounder, says the group has been invaluable to him. "Men don't have close friends," says Lurhmann, an IBM executive who lives in Medfield. "I don't bowl or play much golf."

At the monthly breakfasts, there are common themes: an anniversary of a death, a project honoring their child, surviving children, wives, jobs. Or they may discuss the Red Sox, the economy, trips, wherever talk takes them.

George Gorman, an accountant who lives in Sudbury, attended the most recent breakfast. It was in early April, the month in which his daughter Annie was born and the month in which she died at age 11 of a congenital heart defect. Only one other person showed up for that breakfast, but it was enough.

"You can just say, 'April is Annie's birthday,' and they know what you're talking about and what you're feeling," Gorman says. Luhrmann asked him what he did to mark the day, and the conversation flowed naturally.

"None of us have any hesitation talking about anything," says Steven Branfman of Newton, whose son Jared died in 2005 of spinal-cranial cancer. "We could be laughing or kidding around, and all of a sudden one of the guys will say, 'Yesterday was the anniversary of my son's passing, and I was a basket case,' and he'll start crying. What I get out of it is this . . . bond with a group of men who share a tragic brotherhood, but we're making as much positive out of it as we can."

The fathers also discuss guilt, rational or not. Men are supposed to protect their families. Did they get to the hospital quickly enough? Could they somehow have foreseen things?

"My child didn't wake up," says Howard Teibel. "Could I have read his mind?"

Drew Teibel was a healthy 8-month-old when his parents put him to bed in November 2003. A few hours later he fell victim to sudden infant death syndrome. His death became the new reference point for Teibel. "There's the pre-Drew dying and the post-Drew dying," says Teibel, a management consultant and writer from Ashland who helped start the group. "In some ways it feels like a lifetime. In other ways it feels like it happened yesterday."

Wives are also a major topic. "If you broke your leg or lost a job, the one person you can count on to lift your spirits is your wife," says Bigham. "But when you lose your child, which is the worst loss you can imagine, the one person you can rely on is also suffering from the worst loss."

The men say their wives are grateful for the group, sometimes even a little envious. The Bighams, like most in the group, have surviving children: Cabot, 12, and Beatrice, 8. Sukey Bigham says she and Michael have worked hard to provide them as normal a life as possible since Charlotte's death. She thinks that Fathers Forever has been key. "I'm so proud of Michael. He was utterly derailed by this process, and to see him build something out of it that's so positive and make it a lasting tool for others. . . . it's been enormously helpful."

What has also been helpful for Fathers Forever is to honor their children with some sort of project, which they might brainstorm with the others. Charitable events in their children's name include fun runs, family days, benefits, and auctions. Craig and Michelle Luhrmann helped pass Amilia's Law, which mandates the licensing of those who install or repair gas-fired appliances in New Hampshire. Howard and Pam Teibel pushed for a Massachusetts bill aimed at training first responders for calls to homes where babies have died from SIDS.

Doug and Maria Schmidt created a sort of living testament to their daughter Sophia, a baby with Down syndrome who died three years ago at 13 months. A year and a half ago, the Holliston couple adopted a toddler from the Department of Social Services; Olivia will soon be 3. And they have held a seminar on DSS adoption in their church. As a result of their outreach, they estimate that 10 to 15 foster children are being adopted.

"That focuses on the gift of what Sophia was and is to us," says Schmidt, who owns a dry cleaning business. Fathers Forever, he adds, has helped him realize that he is not alone.

For Michael Bigham, that's the major point of the group. He thought and thought about a pin that such fathers could wear. With help from the group, he came up with a circle with a blue and pink rim and a line down the middle, off-center and broken. "The earthly bond with my child has been broken," he says. "But in my mind and in my heart, I am her father forever."