When Neill Guy lost his wife Deanna to pneumonia in 2009 he was left to care for their four kids — the youngest just four, the oldest barely 14.
Guy was overcome with grief, he tells PEOPLE, and remembers feeling like the wrong parent had died.
“That’s just how I absolutely felt. I was grieving because I lost my wife and my best friend, but I was more grieving that my kids lost their mom. I didn’t want my kids to grow up without their mom,” he recalls.
A short, but devastating conversation with his four-year old helped awaken Guy to the challenging new role he’d have to take on as a parent, he says.
“I was taking my oldest daughter to a friend’s birthday and I had the girls in the car and Kayleigh was in her car seat in the back and out of the blue said, ‘Daddy who’s going to be my mommy now?’ ” he tells PEOPLE. “The only thing that I could say was ‘Mommy has gone to heaven and I promise daddy is going to do things daddy is supposed to do, and now daddy is also going to do the things mommy would do.’ “
That conversation, Guy says, was one of the first he opened up about during a support group meeting for men grieving the loss of their wives while raising young children. He joined six other men facing similar difficult circumstances, brought together in the first-of-its-kind group by two North Carolina doctors.
Dr. Don Rosenstein, a psychiatrist, and Dr. Justin Yopp, a psychologist, both work at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. They were counseling cancer patients and their families back in 2010 when they realized there was a need for this kind of support group.
Rosenstein says, “We thought, ‘Lets help the kids by helping the dads,’ and if we could make the fathers functioning as sole parents a little better — that was my original goal.”
Yopp adds, “I think it’s part of our culture that women are encouraged to be more open with their emotions than men are, but what these men were able to give each other… we’ve been blown away by how they supported each other, how much they taught us and want to help others.”
Originally meant to only have a six-month run, the group far surpassed that timeline, still meeting four years later.
Joe Ciriano lost his wife and college sweetheart to breast cancer and was navigating how to raise their four kids on his own when he was approached about joining.
“It really helped knowing you had this safety net,” he tells PEOPLE. “There was always very candid conversation, no topic that was off limits and it helped to know we were all dealing with the same issues — that you weren’t actually going crazy.”
Another group member, Dan Pelletier, has been widowed for eight years, after his wife Sarah lost her battle with colon cancer. A shy guy, Pelletier, says he was reluctant to join the group.
“At first I would just listen a lot and that alone was helpful, but it was also immensely helpful to bounce things off of other single dads. Just to know that you don’t have to go it alone was a godsend,” Pelletier says.
The men wanted so much to help others that they agreed to share their stories in a book by Yopp and Rosensentein, called The Group: Seven Widowed Fathers, that chronicles the support group’s journey.
“This has been the most interesting and rewarding work that I’ve ever done because its been such a partnership with the men,” Rosenstein says. “They encouraged us to write the book — we have learned more from them than they have from us and now we’re all hoping to help others.”
Yopp and Rosenstein also started the Widowed Parent Program offering help and resources to anyone anywhere. Any proceeds from their book will go toward the program. They’re also hoping the conversation will spark other support groups across the country.
The seven men still get together regularly in a more informal way, but very much support each other every day.
Guy says he has gotten used to being both mom and dad, but of course still wishes things were different. He tells PEOPLE he is forever grateful to the men in the group saying, “The support group saved my life, I don’t know how else to say it. They saved me.”