There’s nothing that can prepare you. Last month, my wife and I lost our son, Luke, who was stillborn on March 22. Luke had a lot of issues, but we were ready for him to arrive, and were devastated when we got to the hospital (for a planned induction) and he had no heartbeat, despite moving around like normal earlier in the day. We went ahead with the induction, and Luke was born a day and a half later. We held him, spent time with him, told him we loved him, and will be dealing with grief and loss for the rest of our lives, even as we are able to appreciate the joy he brought to us in the 9 months we had together and make sure that Luke will always be a lovingly remembered part of our family. There are many resources online to help with all aspects of losing a child, from what to expect during labor and delivery to advice on how to maneuver through the myriad of decisions you’ll have to make to the best ways to remember and honor your child and cope with your grief to endless support groups, all of which should be checked out. But what I couldn’t find, surfing on my phone in the dark in the hospital unable to sleep waiting for my wife’s labor to start, was something that could prepare me for some of the unspoken things, the way I’d feel, the things I’d think or do. So this is my attempt, in a sort of stream-of-consciousness, at what the last month has been like; not taking you through events as they unfolded, but covering some of the things I felt and experienced for which I wasn’t prepared.
(As a side note, there is adult language below. I am not going to apologize for it, nor do I feel the need to defend it. They’re just words, and they’re an accurate representation of my thoughts and feelings. Also, I make no claims that this is what it was like for anyone else, as we all have our own experiences and ways of coping with horrific situations, but perhaps some other parent sitting there in the dark on their phone might read this and be able to brace themselves a little bit about what’s to come, or at least find some truth in it to which they can relate. And of course, as the father in our family I fully acknowledge that my experience is nothing compared to that of my wife, who carried Luke for 9 months and then gave birth to him. I couldn’t be more proud of her or amazed by her strength and bravery, and I know that what she’s feeling must be infinitely more intense than anything I’ve gone through.)
I was unprepared to lose control of my thoughts. Especially in those early hours and sleep-deprived days, thoughts appear in your mind without warning, many of them on the spectrum from unwelcome to downright horrifying. You’ve just found out your child is dead, and you’d rather be mourning or remembering but instead you’re hit with an unrelated and unending stream of thoughts over which you have no control, often causing you to ask yourself “what the fuck is wrong with you?” There are the obvious thoughts, the sort of “what do we do now?” kind of thoughts, but then there’s the other stuff. “Well, I guess we’ll never have sex again. What the fuck is wrong with you? I wonder how much this is going to cost. What the fuck is wrong with you? What’s the divorce rate for couples who lose a child? What the fuck is wrong with you? Pay attention! Be present! I wonder how long this will take? Did I set the DVR to record our favorite show? What the fuck is wrong with you? Oh, I should play a game on my phone to pass the time. What the fuck is wrong with you? Guess I’ll never be able to watch Star Wars or Gilmore Girls or Panthers games again (our son’s name is Luke). Who cares? What the fuck is wrong with you?” You get the idea, and it doesn’t stop for a while. And then there are the quotes from movies or books and the songs that pop into your head without warning, hoping either to offer some comfort or to permanently ruin your ability to enjoy those things in the future. There’s the quote from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “The Body” where Tara says of death, “It’s always sudden.” There’s the song line from the new Beauty and the Beast, “How in the midst of all this sorrow can so much love and hope endure?” And of course there’s “It’s Quiet Uptown” from Hamilton (Luke’s middle name is Alexander), after the death of Hamilton’s son:
There are moments that the words don’t reach
There is suffering to terrible to name
You hold your child as tight as you can
And push away the unimaginable
You’ll never be prepared for how babies are just everywhere. In every store and restaurant, every commercial break, in every show you watch there will be babies. Everyone you know is pregnant. It’s like a conspiracy. You’ll lose count of the number of times you’ll have to quickly change the channel, or immediately walk out of a store, or just burst into tears because there was an unexpected baby or someone used your son’s name. You’ll sit down to watch something only to remember that one of the main characters is named Lucas, or you’ll be watching Doctor Who only to realize that this is the episode where they travel to the afterlife and realize that voices of the dead have been screaming “Don’t cremate me!” right after you just had your own son cremated. You’ll change the way you drive but not in a consistent way. You’ll avoid driving by the church where you buried some of your son’s ashes because you can’t bear it, while other days you’ll go out of your way to simply get a glimpse at the spot. You’ll take the same route repeatedly and without warning you’ll have a flashback to that evening before you headed to the hospital and have a silent panic attack when you realize there’s no easy way off of the road.
You’ll never be able to eat lasagna again, because it’s the go-to dish for people to bring over (at least for white people in America). You’ll consider dumping things straight into the trash, or telling people not to come, but you won’t because you honestly can’t cook for yourself and you feel a burden and an obligation to allow people to help you. You won’t want to eat, even when you’re starving. You won’t sleep, and when you do you’ll have horrible dreams and wake up feeling guilty for having slept. You’ll have a complicated relationship with your child’s room, simultaneously wanting to spend as much time in there as possible as well as to shut the door and pretend that room doesn’t exist.
People will make everything worse, because you have no idea what you want. There will be times when you want nothing more than to have someone to talk to, someone to ask you how you’re doing and want a real answer, someone you can talk to about your child, who will forever be a part of your life. In those times you’ll frequently have no one to fill those needs, but when you do find someone you’ll almost immediately want to be left alone again. Or you’ll want a friend to distract you, to try to get back in the flow of normal life again, to talk about games or books or movies or TV, but once they do you’ll find you can’t stand talking about anything except your child. You’ll desperately want people to understand how you feel, but you’ll be unable to explain the feeling and you’ll be convinced there’s no way they could ever understand. You’ll want someone to be hugging you all the time, but when someone does you’ll want no one to touch you ever again. You’ll even use your child as a weapon, taking a little sadistic pleasure in bringing him up at awkward moments to make things uncomfortable for others, or to put an end to a conversation you want to get out of, or to shame people who act like nothing has happened. Or at least, you’ll think about doing it and then feel guilty for it.
Work will be the worst. You’ll realize that you never fully appreciated how much you hate your job and most of the people there, and just how pointless it all is. You’ll hate the people who try to be kind and supportive almost as much as you hate the people who make literally no acknowledgement whatsoever that you’re going through the hardest thing anyone could ever go through. You’ll hate having to be away from home, away from your wife, away from your child. You’ll hate America and capitalism and all of the structures and aspects of society that force you to go back to work if you want to keep your job and your house and to pay all of your medical bills. You’ll hate that you’re expected to use your vacation time for days you missed after your child died, as though you went on a trip to the Bahamas. You’ll hate that you’re not expected to take any more time off than the minimum necessary or otherwise people will start to think you’re not dedicated enough to your job and your “career” will suffer. You’ll hate that you wouldn’t have gotten parental leave even if your child had survived. You’ll hate insurance and money and doctors. You’ll hate yourself for leaving the house without the necklace you had made with your child’s footprint on it (as I did today), because you’ll be afraid it means you don’t love him enough. You’ll hate the patriarchy for demanding that men act a certain way and show emotion in certain ways. You’ll hate social media and the internet. You’ll hate the endless bullshit clichés that people will throw your way as though they’ll make you feel better. You know the ones: “Everything happens for a reason” or “It’s all a part of God’s plan”.
You’ll be angry a lot. Angry at life, at God, at fate, at yourself, your wife, your child, your parents, your friends, your church, your coworkers, your town, your doctors. You’ll be angrier than you ever thought you could be. You’ll be angry even when you know you’re not really angry, and angry for no good reason.
You’ll do irresponsible things. You’ll eat the worst possible food, or else avoid eating for far too long. You won’t take care of yourself while simultaneously going out of your way to provide the best care for your partner. You’ll spend money you shouldn’t, buying things because it gives you a momentary bit of happiness or provides the slightest comfort. You’ll stay in when you should go out, go out when you need to stay home and take care of yourself. You’ll drive a little more carelessly, a little more distracted. If you’re lucky you’ll remember to pay your bills on time. You’ll break things, mostly by accident but occasionally on purpose. You’ll say things you don’t mean. You’ll make plans for the future and then feel guilty for imagining doing anything other than crying for the rest of your life.
You’ll be haunted by your memories. Anything could trigger a flashback to the worst moments of your life, or they can be triggered by nothing at all. You’ll think of your child and all you can picture are horrific or grotesque details about his body, rather than the beauty of his face or his perfect little feet and hands or the soft feeling of stroking his cheek. You’ll be haunted by the way his ashes look. You’ll remember the smells of the hospital room, and they’ll come to you in the most unexpected way. You’ll have flashbacks of the moment when you realized your child was dead, before they told you for certain. You’ll constantly play the “what if” game, wondering if just this one thing had happened differently, or if you’d made some different decision, or had some lucky break, or if things had just happened a little sooner if you’d be able to be holding a crying baby right now. And all the time you’ll wonder if you’re doing things right, if you’re acting the right way, making the right decisions, feeling how you’re supposed to feel and saying what you’re supposed to say.
But what will surprise you the most of all are people. You’ll discover that you know far more people who have been through a similar situation than you ever imagined, even within your own family. And while you may be shocked at the way previous generations repressed or suppressed the loss of a child, as though it is some taboo topic we’re supposed to pretend doesn’t happen, you’ll realize that this what you’re going through is exceptionally common. You’ll be surprised by the ways in which people reach out to you, from long lost friends to total strangers, and the comfort they can bring to you. You’ll be surprised by how the right words at the right time can make an enormous difference. You’ll be surprised by the odd places and things that bring you a bit of peace, whether it’s a nature show on TV or a particular song on the radio. But most of all you’ll surprise yourself. You’ll discover not only that you’re stronger than you imagined, but all sorts of other things. You’ll find that just because the person you loved most in the world is now gone does not mean that they took all of the love in your heart with them. You’ll be surprised by your capacity to love, your ability to laugh, and the ways in which you still see the beauty in the world. You’ll be surprised by how it eventually becomes easier and even natural to use your child’s name, and how they are still a part of your life and your heart and how comforting that can be. You’ll be surprised that your life is not over, and that your family is not gone. You’ll find that you want to keep doing things, and the warmth that comes from doing something with your child alongside you in spirit. You’ll surprise yourself by your capacity to change and to try new things. You’ll be surprised that a support group can be so helpful, and that others who are going through the same process as you are feeling and experiencing all of these things right alongside you. You’ll be surprised to find that you want to spend time with these people and get to know them, and hopefully to help them just as they help you.
These are the things that no one tells you, the intangibles of losing a child. There’s such an emphasis on finding the positive things, not just in horrible circumstances but in life in general, that we forget the power and the strength that comes from simply acknowledging the less positive things. It can be helpful just to write down what you’re feeling. This is more for me than for anyone, not to try to explain to those who have never been through this or to gather sympathy or attention, but simply to articulate what has been in my head in the hopes of clearing the logjam in my brain. But maybe out there there’s some grieving mother or father in a hospital in the dark unable to do anything but mindlessly surf the internet looking for answers, and perhaps this can help them in some way to realize that they’re not going crazy, that it’s ok to feel what they feel, and that they’re not alone.