The Group: Seven Widowed Fathers Reimagine Life. On a mid-October evening, a group of fathers gathered around a confer-ence table and met each other for the first time. None of the men had ever thought of himself a “support group kind of guy” and each felt entirely out of place. In fact, nothing about their lives felt normal anymore.

The Group: Seven Widowed Fathers Rei-magine Life chronicles the challenges and triumphs of seven men whose wives died from cancer and were left to raise their young children entirely on their own. Brought together by tragedy, the fathers— Neill, Dan, Bruce, Karl, Joe, Steve, and Russ—forged an uncommon bond. Over time, group meetings evolved into a forum for reinvention and transformed the men in unexpected ways. Through the fathers’ poignant interactions, The Group illustrates that while some wounds never fully heal, each of us has the potential to construct a new and meaningful future.

Rosenstein and Yopp, co-leaders of the support group, weave together the fathers’ stories with contemporary research on grief and adaptation. The Group traces a com-pelling journey of healing and personal discovery that no book has ever captured before. The men’s touching efforts to care for their families, grieve for their wives, and reimagine their futures will inspire anyone who has suffered a major loss.

“If we can help bring some joy for a brief moment of time, it’s worth it,” says Jarrod James, a former Tar Heel football player.

“Seeing a smile on their faces is awesome,” adds Marie McCool of the Carolina women’s lacrosse team.

James and McCool are two Carolina student-athletes who have volunteered their time with a men’s support group called Single Fathers Due to Cancer. The group was created in the fall of 2010 by Drs. Justin Yopp and Donald Rosenstein, members of the UNC Comprehensive Cancer Support Program at the North Carolina Cancer Hospital, to help men who have lost their wives to cancer address grief, healing and related issues. The group meets in the early evening hours once a month at the SECU Family House in Chapel Hill, and the Tar Heel athletes mind the men’s children for two to three hours.

“It would have been un-thoughtful to have a group partly about the challenges of being a widowed parent and not offer some sort of on-site child care,” says Yopp. “We set it up to have pizza or subs for dinner and let the dads come and not have to arrange for baby-sitters. We connected with the Athletic Department about four years ago to help us with the child care. It’s worked very well because the student-athletes seem to enjoy it and they connect very well with the kids.”

McCool wasn’t sure what to expect when she met the youngsters at the SECU Family House but enjoyed spending two hours with a boy and a girl playing board games and working puzzles.

“I thought, ‘What if they were quiet and shy, what would I do with them?’” says the senior midfielder. “But they were awesome, both outgoing and fun to be around. They seemed happy I was there and we had a lot of fun.”

McCool is the member of the lacrosse team designated its “outreach representative” and the one who liaisons with Korie Sawyer, Carolina’s assistant director of Student- Athlete Development, on opportunities for community service.

“I try to find as much time as possible for community service,” McCool says. “It’s important, not just for us but for the kids or group we’re working with. A lot of the kids aren’t as fortunate as we are, so it’s important to step back and realize how lucky we are.”

James and Brandon Fritts are two football players who have lent some time to the Single Fathers group. James was a center on the team from 2011-13 and then took a medical hardship; for two years he was a student coach, and since graduating in 2015, has been a graduate assistant coach. He entertained the children several times during the summer of 2015, and later that October, he arranged for the dads and their children to come to the Wake Forest football game and get a tour of Kenan Football Center pre-game.

“It was so much fun to see the kids and their dads together at a football game,” James says. “I can’t imagine the burden they have all had to bear. But for one afternoon, they could have fun and be together at a game.”

Fritts, a junior tight end, volunteered to watch the youngsters for a meeting in the spring of 2017. He’s also one of a cadre of football players who tour UNC Children’s Hospital on Fridays before home games.

“It’s something I love to do, and my teammates love it, too,” Fritts says. “It’s a lot of fun. It’s beneficial for both sides. Kids have serious illnesses or problems in their families, like they’ve lost their mother. It’s eye-opening to see that.”

Hansen Butler and Michael Busch from the baseball team have met with the group several times in the fall of 2017. The SECU Family House has a children’s play room with all manner of games, computers and puzzles, making it easy to find things to keep the kids occupied.

“It’s a time for kids to feel a sense of normalcy, take them away from life away from having lost their mothers and be a normal kid and play around,” Butler says. “A few times they got pretty loud, yelling and screaming and having a good time. The dads heard them and later told us it did them good to know their kids were having fun.”

Having the help of the Tar Heel student-athletes has given Yopp and Rosenstein the ability to focus for two to three hours once a month with the widowers in the program. What began organically has survived seven years and evolved into a website and a book that Yopp and Rosenstein have co-authored. The Group: Seven Widowed Fathers Reimagine Life is the story of the original seven men and how they formed an uncommon bond amid the prospects of raising children, dealing with grief and moving on in life.

“In one of the early meetings, we had a group of gymnasts volunteering to watch the kids,” Yopp says. “About halfway through the meeting, we heard this thump, thump, thump noise. We looked into the hallway and the kids were doing cartwheels and somersaults. They were having a blast. It did the fathers’ hearts well to know their kids were being taken care of while they delved into some pretty serious matters.”

This story appeared in the DECEMBER 2017 edition of Born & Bred