Fathers and Perinatal Loss Pt. 25: Conscious Versus Unconscious Grief

Tracy Schaperow, Psy.D.

Tracy Schaperow

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

This article is part of a larger work.

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Conscious Versus Unconscious Grief

This investigation originally determined participants’ conscious reactions with the PGS and the interviews, and their unconscious reactions through the T.A.T, the C.A.T.- H, and the interviews. The PGS and the other tests had conflicting results. That is, the participants’ PGS scores were generally low, showing little conscious grief reactions; however, during their interviews, many of them described a sense of loss and grief. Furthermore, their projective tests indicated a sense of loss. These results suggest that the PGS may not have accurately measured the men’s conscious or experience of unconscious grief. Perhaps, the norms used to determine their grief cutoff scores may not have been accurate as this instrument has not been validated on men. Because of this discrepancy, the PGS will be excluded from this section, and be discussed in other parts of chapter five.

Based on the T.A.T, the C.A.T.-H, and the interviews, this investigation found that the amount of conscious versus unconscious grief varied among the participants. Three of the five men seemed to be very aware, or conscious of, their grief. Dennis was quite aware that he had a strong sense of loss since Susan’s death. During the interview, he talked at length about how his loss still continued to affect his life, how he still missed his daughter, and how sad he still was about her death. Karl spoke of having a deep sense of loss, and of passing through a period of depression because of Dana’s death. Ryan was very aware of how he was struggling with Belinda’s death. He described his sense of disorganization, self-blame, and relationship challenges since the loss. These three men recognized that their loss was real, and, as a result, they were having strong reactions.

Interestingly, these three men who recognized their grief also had reactions that were unconscious. Generally, their unconscious reactions were those that seemed to be illogical to have. Dennis’s guilt and sense of responsibility for the loss was unconscious. When he was directly asked about this emotion, he denied it, stating, “I don’t feel guilty because there was nothing that we could have done to prevent it. It wasn’t my wife’s fault or mine.” Later, he talked about how guilty he felt after his friend had a stillbirth (a couple of years after they had one), as if it were his own fault. Perhaps he displaced his guilt about Susan’s death onto his friend’s loss, suggesting that his guilt about his own loss was unconscious. Karl’s unconscious grief may have been more related to the revival of feelings about his mother’s death, triggered by Dana’s death. Although he described his depression as resulting from the loss of his daughter, it is likely that he may, at the unconscious level, be grieving the loss of his mother; perinatal loss can often trigger feelings about parental loss. Ryan was very aware of his sense of loss from Belinda’s death, but he was not as aware that his grief may have been compounded by his miscarriage, and by his sense of guilt and responsibility from his girlfriend’s abortion years before. These results suggest that although some fathers are conscious of much of their grief, they may still be unconscious of other aspects of their grief.

Two of the participants had grief that was primarily unconscious. During their interviews, they reported to have little grief and a minimal sense of loss. However, their T.A.T. and C.A.T.-H results suggested that they were experiencing a sense of loss at the unconscious level. Raymond was aware of his narcissistic injury knowing that his son had Down’s Syndrome, and was aware of his sense of guilt over feeling relieved that Bryan had died. He was not aware, however, of his sense of loss. He denied feeling any “deep sense of loss,” but T.A.T. and C.A.T.-H results revealed that he may have had difficulty in resolving feelings about losses, that he was very sensitive to losses, and that he had the tendency to deny the emotional impact of losses. Therefore, Raymond may have been experiencing a sense of loss, but it was at the unconscious level. Similarly, Peter appeared to avoid his feelings about losing his daughter, Tabitha, repeatedly stating that he did not find it helpful to sit and think about the loss. Instead, he preferred to focus on preventing it from happening in the future. Because of this avoidance, it was difficult for this researcher to evaluate his sense of loss. However, his T.A.T. revealed that he was experiencing a sense of loss, indicating that his sense of loss may have been unconscious. It is important to note that this researcher is unclear whether he was aware of his loss but avoided talking about it in the interview, or whether his sense of loss was primarily unconscious.

In conclusion, the results suggest that the amount of conscious, or awareness of grief varied among the participants. Three of the men appear to be aware of the majority of their grief, while two participants appear to be largely unconscious of their grief. Interestingly, the participants who were mostly conscious of their grief, appeared to be unconscious of those grief reactions that seemed “illogical” to them. When it did not make sense to them why they would have a particular emotion (i.e., guilt when they did not cause the death), they were often unaware or unconscious of the feeling. The following page contains a summary that illustrates their conscious versus unconscious grief (see Table XVIII).

Table XVIII. Conscious Versus Unconscious Grief



While in the other sections of this document I wrote in the third person, this section will require me to take a step closer, and write in the first person, as I encountered several interesting countertransference reactions when conducting this study.

When I first began researching this topic, I read the literature and consulted with psychologists about perinatal loss. I found the psychological effects of perinatal loss on parents, and particularly among men, interesting, as so little was known about their reactions. When I was reviewing the literature and talking to psychologists, however, I did not realize how emotionally intense and, at times, difficult conducting this research would be. Although I had spent about two years reading about perinatal loss, it was not until I began the interviews that I encountered these intense emotional reactions.

My intense emotions began when I started the recruitment process. I was anxious about this process, as I was concerned that I was not going to be able to recruit any fathers. I regretted that I did not offer any compensation (i.e., money) for participation; I anticipated that the only way that people would want to participate was if they were paid. I felt uncomfortable asking people to participate, as I perceived that I would be intruding in their lives. I felt that I would be forcing them to think and talk about the loss, making them feel worse. These perceptions began to change when I talked to my first participant, Dennis, on the telephone screen. While I was talking to him, I realized that he wanted to be in the study. He was eager to tell me the story of his loss, felt flattered to be recognized that he was grieving, and was glad that someone wanted to listen to the story of his loss. Dennis expressed a great deal of excitement about the study, as he felt that fathers were not recognized as grievers after a perinatal loss. He seemed eager to talk about the loss of his daughter, speaking at length about her during the telephone screen. This willingness to participate and excitement over the study was also apparent with subsequent participants.

After interviewing several participants, I realized that each man’s participation was an opportunity for me to learn about his unique experience, and an opportunity for him to talk about his loss. Furthermore, it seemed that talking about the loss with me was therapeutic for them. Interestingly, most participants thanked me for doing this research. As I realized that I was providing a service to these men, my anxiety about intruding or making them feel worse by asking them to talk about such painful experiences dissipated. My own initial reaction in asking men to participate in this investigation led me to wonder if therapists who are unaware of perinatal loss issues avoid talking about the loss with men. They might fear that they would make men feel worse by bringing up this issue, thus interfering with their ability to grieve the loss through therapy.

I initially found myself thinking with a gender-biased view, reacting to hearing men expressing their grief differently from the way that I may have reacted if they were women. The first telephone contact with a participant lasted for forty-five minutes. The participant discussed how difficult the last three years had been for him since his loss. Interestingly, although I had read about fathers and perinatal loss, and seen them as unrecognized and unacknowledged grievers, part of me was thinking, “Get over it.” I felt uncomfortable with a man expressing his longing and sad feelings about losing his daughter, even though I had spent two years reading about fathers and thinking that they are not acknowledged enough. I think that my discomfort was due to my gender bias. That is, I was uncomfortable hearing a man express these emotions. I believe that if he were a woman, I would have been more comfortable. Once realizing that I was biased, I wondered if this is why fathers are the forgotten griever. Although I did not stop the men from expressing themselves, I had the urge to, and wondered if others shut these fathers out, thus giving them the message, “Get over it.”

Just as perinatal loss can create a sense of helplessness among parents, I felt extremely helpless while I listened to these fathers’ stories. Often, I had the urge to interrupt their story, do therapy, and provide comfort rather than just hear their story. This urge was not only to comfort them, but also to cope with my own feelings about their situation. Because I was doing research and trying to get as much information as possible about their experiences, I did not interrupt. I wondered if I would have, had I been in a therapeutic context with them. I may have tried to give them a “quick fix” to cope with my own sense of helplessness. Even in therapy, this approach would have been counter-therapeutic, as it is essential to let parents tell their story after perinatal loss (Leon, 1990). Perhaps therapists who are less knowledgeable about working with parents after perinatal loss do interrupt their stories to cope with their own sense of helplessness, impeding the therapeutic process.

Drafting the results of this dissertation was exhausting for me. I initially attributed this difficulty to the great deal of organization and analysis of the data, as well as to the abundant writing that the results required. Later in the process, however, I realized that listening to, and rereading, the stories of these men was emotionally draining. The feelings of the participants had transferred to me. I felt their sense of helplessness, sadness, and loss. Consequently, I often needed to take breaks from analyzing and writing up the results as the process drained me. I also noticed that my reactions varied with each participant’s data. For instance, when writing up Ryan’s results, I felt confused and disorganized, and as a result, it took me a great deal of time to write up his results. These feelings are consistent with how he described his feeling since the loss: confused and disorganized. Inconsistent with my work style, I found myself wanting to avoid writing up particular sections, especially the sections describing the loss. When I wrote up Karl’s results, I kept putting off writing up his description of the loss, as it was particularly upsetting for me to describe such a late loss. Perhaps my overwhelming feelings, as well as the need to avoid these feelings at times, paralleled that of these fathers.

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