Dads whose wives died of cancer turn to NC group

Saturday - 6/15/2013, 12:52pm EDT

In this Friday, June 14, 2013 photo, Karl Owen poses with his children, Jordan, 15, left, and Marcus, 13, in their Chapel Hill, N.C. home. Owen lost his wife and the mother of their two children to cancer three years ago. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

MARTHA WAGGONER
Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- When his wife died of cancer at the age of 39, Bruce Ham wondered whether the laughter would ever return to the house he and their three daughters share.

"And it is back. It took awhile, but it is back," Ham said, more than three years after the death of his wife, Lisa. "I still miss her. I think about her every day. But I don't cry every time I think about her. I smile and laugh. It's good to be on that side of grief."

A group that organizers say may be the only one of its kind in the country helped him on his journey to that other side. Therapists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill said they started Single Fathers Due to Cancer because they saw a need to help men struggling with their own grief and their children's grief.

The group first met in October 2010 after therapists and doctors at the UNC Comprehensive Cancer Support Program realized several young mothers with poor prognoses were being treated there. After they died, "we sat and talked and realized that universal among these women was concern about how their husbands would do after they passed away," said Justin Yopp, a clinical psychologist and a staffer in the program. "We wondered, what's out there for these guys?"

Their research found no support groups for this specific group of grieving parents -- fathers whose wives died of cancer, which is the leading cause of death for U.S. women ages 25 to 54.

Some of the fathers said they tried other support groups but were turned off because they typically were made of women and older people.

"I think I desperately felt like I needed help, but I didn't really know where to turn," said Ham, 47, of Raleigh, who blogs about his life as a single parent and is writing a book titled "Laughter, Tears and Braids." ''When I heard about this group, it was much more appealing to me than any other group that I heard about."

Karl Owen, 50, was one of the first two members in the support group. "One of us would say something, and the other one's head would nod," said Owen, a computer programmer who lives in Chapel Hill with his son and daughter. "It became clear there was some value there."

Yopp and his colleague, Dr. Don Rosenstein, started the group with the intention that it would go for seven sessions or so. Instead, the same group of eight to nine men has met once a month for several years. The men are working to start similar groups in other areas. The UNC doctors also plan to start a second group there in the fall.

A psychiatrist at New York University also plans to start a group, perhaps as early as this fall. Dr. James Fraiman said he's interested partially because research shows that children who lose parents when they're young can do well in life if they have support. That support starts with groups such as the one at UNC, he said.

Also, women tend to manage their families -- to be the CEO, as Ham described his wife, he said. "A group like this can help these men support each other so they can be emotionally present for their children," he said. "Emotional presence is key for a family to heal and for them to move forward with their lives."

Research shows young mothers tend to choose aggressive treatment because they want to survive for their children, Yopp said, and that doesn't always leave time to say goodbye. Owen and Ham say they that's how their wives' deaths played out.

Owen's wife, Susan Buchanan, was an environmental scientist who died of lung cancer at age 47. She was one of a fraction of nonsmokers who get the disease. By the time the cancer was caught, it was already in her bones and brain. Owen and his wife had two conversations with Yopp about what to tell their children -- a daughter, now 15, and a son, 13. In one talk, they told the kids Mom might die of cancer, and in the second they said she was dying. The children got to say goodbye, but Owen said he didn't.

"By the time we got to that first conversation with Justin, the combination of brain cancer and radiation had affected her," he said. "She was not the same person she had been."