'We'd love to see it replicated in Munster': The breakfast club helping young dads navigate grief 

In the months following his wife's death, John and two other dads formed a breakfast club for grieving fathers 
'We'd love to see it replicated in Munster': The breakfast club helping young dads navigate grief 

John Fitzsimons children Ella and Jack were aged  six and four when their mother passed away

A father of two whose wife died four days before Christmas is urging bereaved dads in Munster to come together to form a group similar to the one that has helped him navigate his grief.

Five years ago, John Fitzsimons wife Gráinne died of cancer in Our Lady’s Hospice in Harold's Cross. At the time of their mother’s death, his children Ella and Jack were aged six and four.

In the months following his wife's passing, John and his children were invited to attend a child bereavement weekend. It was there that the Bereaved Dads Breakfast Club was formed.

“They put myself and two other widowers in similar circumstances, both with young kids, out chatting at a table out in the garden and we just instantly connected. We chatted for hours."

Before meeting the other dads, John says he felt a bit like "an alien". 

"I didn't know anyone else in my position, the only other widower I knew at that time was my 80 something-year-old uncle.

“To meet other young widowers was huge.” 

The three dads decided to stay in touch, and as they met more and others heard of the group, their membership grew. Four years later, there are now 15 dads in the rather unusual breakfast club.

Pre-pandemic, John says the fathers would meet up every month or two, either for breakfast or brunch. 

"Deliberately, it's not just going for pints in the pub so we can have some more meaningful chats.” 

“It's all very informal,” he says, “at the moment it's over Whatsapp.” 

The dads "dip in and out of it," he says. 

"Sometimes people want to engage, sometimes they don't. We'd typically have six or eight at any particular breakfast.” 

The group discusses a wide range of topics- from the logistics of solo parenting to the pain of losing your life companion.

“We talk about dealing with girls coming into their teenage years, we discuss childcare solutions, we talk about work, we talk about the wives that we've lost.

John Fitzsimons is encouraging other bereaved dads to join the unique breakfast club
John Fitzsimons is encouraging other bereaved dads to join the unique breakfast club

It’s “very unusual” for men to talk at the kind of deep emotional level that the group does, John says: “I just don't get that with any of my other male friends.” 

“It's common that you might turn up and one of the guys will say, Listen, I'm actually having a hard time at the moment, I'm pretty low and I am finding it tough.

“I suppose there's a unique connection there, any of us can turn up and bring our real selves to the group, that we wouldn't maybe bring to our other mates.” 

It is also a space to get advice on raising children, and to discuss how to talk to your children about grief, he says.

“We talked about what's worked for our kids and what hasn’t, we share and give each other ideas.

“Parenting is incredibly tough, it's the toughest job out there and it's an incredible burden to have to be solely responsible for small human beings while trying to mourn the loss of your wife.

“There's a huge amount of stress and pressure and anxiety.

“When Gráinne was around, we would discuss everything and a lot of the time we didn't agree, but we always got to the right outcome. It's difficult navigating those decisions on your own.” 

For John, the toughest thing about being a widower is the loneliness.

“There's just a huge void in your life after something like that happens.

“For five years I've been putting the kids to bed at eight o'clock and then I come down and sit on the couch on my own for the evening.

The pandemic was particularly challenging he says. 

"I'm not gonna sugarcoat it and say anything else. It was really difficult. 

“Myself and the kids all lost something during the pandemic, they lost their socialisation with their friends at school, they couldn't go on playdates, their activities were gone, a lot of their life was taken from them.

“And it was the same for me, I lost that socialisation and interaction. In the first lockdown, it was just stay at home, there was no concept of the bubble which came more in the second and third waves where you were allowed to buddy up with another family.

“So we were on our own, and I couldn't have a babysitter come around so I could get out for a cycle or go out for a walk. It was very challenging.” 

For John, the Bereaved Dads Breakfast Club has been a life raft in challenging seas, and that’s why he wants to speak out about his experience - in the hopes that other men might see there is support out them for them too.

“We know there are loads of bereaved dads out there, and men are terrible at picking up the phone, I'm terrible at it, and that makes it all the more lonely and all the more difficult.

“Peer support is a well-known solution in many fields of life and I think we have something here that is filling a gap, something that's really badly needed. There's no organisation behind it, it's very informal. It's just about getting people together and connecting."

Appeal for Munster dads

John says they’ve had a couple of inquiries from dads in Cork, and another in Kerry and Tipperary but they don’t have quite enough to form a group yet.

“We're hoping to get more dads from the Munster region so we can connect those guys together in their own Whatsapp group and they can arrange to meet in a location that works for them.” 

"We'd love to see the club replicated in Munster."

For family members or friends who know someone going through a situation like John's, his advice is to keep the lines of communication open despite your fear of “not saying the right thing”. 

"Everybody is wary of going near someone that's grieving, they're worried about putting their foot in it or saying the wrong thing or that they'll start crying. What happens there is people pull away.

“Just stay in contact, it’s the one time in our lives where we need contact more than ever.

"People always say to me ‘what will I say?' - it doesn't matter what you say as long as you say something.

“Meet whoever it is, and just listen. Maybe some days they want to talk about grief and death and everything that's happened, maybe others, they just want to shoot the breeze.

“If you're with someone and you just listen to them, you really can't go wrong.” 

John Fitzsimmons will be speaking about his experience and the Bereaved Dads Breakfast Club at the Irish Hospice Foundation's 2021 Forum today which is taking place online. You can find out more about the Programme of Events and purchase tickets here.  To get in touch with the club and express your interest in setting up or joining a group in your own area, you can email bereaveddadsbc@gmail.com


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