"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."
Lisa Ham died of colon cancer, which was stage 4 by the time it was diagnosed. "It was like a 747 flew by, and she was dead," Bruce Ham said.
He said part of the problem was denial, and part was that doctors wanted the couple to stay optimistic. "They wanted the treatment to be successful because of her stage of life and the fact that she had three kids," he said. "And they probably looked at me and said, 'He can't do this alone.'"
The men in the UNC group spent many sessions talking about cancer, grief and the emotional needs of their children. How much of your own grief do you share with your kids? How do you keep Mom's memory alive without every dinner turning into a grief session?
Three years out, they've moved on to discussing teenager issues, handling the logistics of a single parent and dating. When do you take off your wedding ring? How do you get one child to soccer and another to dance at the same time?
One persistent topic of discussion: raising a teenage daughter. "I feel completely out of my depth helping a teenage girl navigate cliques and social situations in high school," Owen said.
He gets plenty of advice from Ham, whose daughters are 15, 12 and 10. His blog posts include subjects such as the difference between a sports bra and a regular bra and why a girl needs both.
Since his wife's death, Ham said he has spent many days wondering, "What would Lisa do?" What to pack for lunch? Should the kids go to summer camp? He wishes he and his wife had thought to discuss the questions before she died.
Ham describes himself as an involved father before his wife died, but in the sense that he picked up the kids when Lisa told him to and played with them when he got home from work.
"She handled the schedules and the logistics and the planning of our lives," he said. "She knew the other moms and scheduled the play dates. Even our friendships, she cultivated most of those."
The laughter returned through his own hard work and the help he got from the group, where he was comfortable talking about the level of sadness in the house. That helped him uphold his promise to his wife that he would take care of their daughters.
"I realized that I was not raising them and taking care of things as she would have wanted me to," he said. "Realizing my promise to her shook me up."
Bruce Ham's blog: http://therealfullhouse.wordpress.com/
Martha Waggoner can be reached at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc