UNC Health Care

Surviving the Unthinkable Together

Karl and his wife Susan before her cancer diagnosis
Karl and his wife Susan before her cancer diagnosis

Karl Owen and his wife, Susan, were getting ready to take their kids on a family trip to California when they learned Susan had lung cancer. She was treated at UNC Medical Center for 20 months but the disease spread to her brain and bones. Susan died on St. Patrick’s Day in 2010. Owen says he was overwhelmed trying to learn how to be a single father while grieving the loss of his wife and their imagined future. But he found out he wasn’t alone.

Shortly after Susan’s death, Owen, along with six other widowed fathers, joined a novel support group at UNC. The group was started by Donald Rosenstein, MD, director of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Support Program and Justin Yopp, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry, and grew out of the doctors’ work with families with young mothers who were dying of cancer. The group offered the fathers a chance to talk through issues they are facing with men going through similar circumstances, while providing support, information and resources on adjusting to roles and responsibilities of a sole parent raising grieving children.

From that initial support group grew the Widowed Parent program at UNC. The program offers a website resource for parents (widowedparent.org) and conducts research to learn how to better serve bereaved families. The support groups remain at the heart of the effort, and they are now offered for both fathers and mothers. The mothers group meets on the first Tuesday of the month, and the fathers group meets on the third Tuesday. There is no charge, and food and on-site child care are provided.

Rosenstein and Yopp recently published a book, The Group: Seven Widowed Fathers Reimagine Life, which shares the inspirational story of the seven men who joined that first group.  In chronicling the group’s nearly four years together, The Group weaves in the latest research on grief, adaptation, bereavement, adaptation and finding meaning after loss. All proceeds from sales benefit the Widowed Parent Program.

Book cover of The Group: Seven Widowed Fathers Reimagine Life
Book cover of The Group: Seven Widowed Fathers Reimagine Life

For more information about the support groups for mothers and fathers, please contact Justin Yopp at justin_yopp@med.unc.edu or at 984-974-8113.