This is a reposting of my latest fatherhood blog for Dad Central Ontario. Paternal grief is an important, but neglected subject, so I thought I’d post the blog here as well.
At their very last routine prenatal check up, just one week before their baby was due, Rob and Leslie (not their real names) got the worst news expectant parents can ever get. There was no heartbeat. They were sent straight to the hospital where more sophisticated equipment confirmed that their boy had died in utero.
Those of us who haven’t been through something like this can only imagine what it must felt like. The life with a new little person, one that you had been planning for a long time, suddenly isn’t going to happen.
Unfortunately, that was just the beginning of a very tough and sad series of events over the next few days. Here’s something you might not have thought of. Still reeling from this dreadful news, this gobsmacked couple are told that Leslie’s labour has to be induced right away because of the risk of infection. She still has to go through labour and birth, except without the payoff a mom usually gets at the end.
Can you imagine?
Most of us would prefer not to imagine. This is an aspect of parenting we don’t like to talk about. It’s so sad. So unfair. It’s so hard to find a way to talk about this stuff. I don’t want to scare expectant parents with the worst things that can happen: in-utero death, stillbirth, sudden infant death, miscarriage. But we need to talk about these things because they are real human experiences that should be acknowledged and honoured.
Rob and Leslie’s story is a long tough one. It also included several miscarriages, the heartbreak of an adoption that fell through at the last minute and, ultimately the birth of a daughter who is now four years old and the light of her parent’s lives. I don’t have space to do it justice. So I’ll let Rob’s words speak for themselves. Here are a few snippets from our long and poignant conversation. Rob hopes that by sharing his some of this window into his family’s experience, another father or bereaved couple might be helped in a small way.
Later that day
“We had to be at the hospital for quite a while – waiting for Leslie to be induced, going through labour, and afterward for a while. Everywhere you go in the maternity department you see glowing parents – happy people celebrating. And you’re just right at the bottom. I remember at one point noticing a rack of pamphlets on a wall. There were pamphlets on all sorts of topics for new parents. There was no pamphlet for us.”
Wise advice from a sister
“My sister sent me a very important text message. She said, ‘After the birth, take some time with your baby. Do the loving gestures. Hold him. Dress him in the clothes you bought for him, if you want. Because it’s the only time you’ll ever have with him.’ Leslie’s first reaction was, ‘Why would I want to hold my dead baby?’ But we did what my sister suggested. We took the time with Alex. We dressed him. I held him and talked to him.
Looking back, I’m really grateful to have done that. Because we did have a relationship with Alex. I’d felt his hand pushing back when I put my hand on Leslie’s belly. He had reacted when I’d played my guitar and sang for him. He had reacted to my voice when I talked to him in Leslie’s belly. Doing the loving things, as my sister suggested, was a huge thing for us. I’ve heard bereaved parents say, “if only I could have held him in my arms.” So that memory of the time we took with Alex has been a comfort at times, even now, eight years later. I know that he felt our love for whatever time he was able to be aware of it.”
On supporting Leslie
“In the immediate aftermath I had to push my grieving aside so I could be there for her. She was the priority. What happened to me was nothing compared to what happened to her. She still had to give deliver her dead child. You’re trying so hard to keep control because you can’t be falling apart all the time. After we got home I tried to look after her, bring her food and things like that. All you can really do is be there.”
Another good piece of advice
“One of my friends is a clinical psychologist. He said, ‘Whatever you do, try not to let this make you bitter.’ He was right, because it would be easy to become bitter. Going through grief like this is sort of like carrying this baggage around with you all the time. And that can make you bitter about other things that happen, or even resent other people’s happiness. At times I’d have to stop myself say, “OK, Rob, you’re being bitter and it’s not doing you any good.”
On people’s clumsy attempts to say the right thing
“People said all kinds of things that were well-intentioned but weren’t helpful. One thing I learned was that people have this need to compare other people’s grief to their own experiences. It’s really not helpful. I’ve learned that you just have to accept that people need to do that and that you don’t have to feel obliged to say anything in return. But I also learned that there were times when I had to cut people off. I learned it was best to do that quickly to avoid the conversation I didn’t want to have.”
Counting his blessings
“It gets better, very gradually. Eight years later life is good. We have a wonderful daughter. Leslie and I are still together and we love each other. It doesn’t work out that way for everybody.”
On long-term grief
“It never goes away. We’re happy now. But the weight can come back just about any time. It catches you off guard. I’m sure it will still happen when I’m 70. And every time that happens you sort of unpack your grief baggage and look at it again. But the good part is that every time you unpack your luggage, you sort it. So the load gets manageable.”
Thanks for sharing your story, Rob and Leslie.