Few people will ever know the profundity of holding their stillborn child.
It was something I wasn’t sure I wanted to do, but the moment I saw him something inside told me I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I can still remember the little things; the way he smelled, how soft the little cap holding his little head in was and the tautness of his legs as I gently stretched them. Waiting for him to arrive was terrifying, not because I was scared to see my son’s corpse, rather because it forced me to face reality.
I always wondered what shock felt like.
Now I know.
All those cliched feelings were there: the heartache, the anguish, the pain, the sadness, the grief. The hardest one to parse, though? Failure. As a parent, you feel duty-bound to do everything in your power to make sure your child is protected and safe at all costs, no matter what. How do you do that when their life was forfeit before they even left the womb? There’s this nagging feeling in the back of your mind, asking if there was something more you could have done to change the outcome. It never goes away, even when you know the answer. I have to constantly tell myself that it is what it is, like some kind of mantra that, if I keep repeating it, it will somehow be true.
It doesn’t work that way, I found out.
Even though Harry was gone before he even came, not a single day goes by where he doesn’t enter my mind.
It’s hard not to, really — I see him every morning. He lies in an urn on my nightstand, waiting for me to make up my mind on whether I should bury him or not.
There was this pamphlet I got from the hospital the day Harry died, filled with inspirational quotes, soft imagery and coping mechanisms for depression and grief. Other than a line from Dr. Seuss, I had a hard time taking any of it to heart. There was a part about not forgetting fathers in these moments of pain, as they often task themselves with protecting their loved ones rather than dealing with the hurt themselves. I thought it was kind of rubbish.
I don’t want to be fawned over; I’m actually pretty good with sorting out my emotions on my own, thank you very much. The occasional hug was appreciated, but otherwise I’ll be OK with internalizing.
There were, and still are, triggers that make me teary eyed in remembrance of my lost son. I’m not afraid to admit that I used to openly weep at these moments, but over the months I’ve built up my fortitude to let the sadness come but not let it rule me.
We had taken pictures of Harry when he was born (courtesy of Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep) that took me almost a month to look at. Hell, just thinking about looking at them got me choked up. To be honest, it still kind of does. But much like the urn, the opposing wall in my bedroom has a collage my wife Carrie made of the photos that I get to look at every morning. We also have a big picture hanging in the living room with my other sons. It kind of sucks knowing that while their pictures continue to evolve as they grow, his will always remain the same. He’ll never be Harry the astronaut, Harry the baseball player or Harry the doctor; always and forever Baby Harry.
By far, songs are the worst triggers of them all.
For some reason I’m very easily persuaded into attaching nostalgia to things. You know, like eating a pastie reminding me of my grandma or certain classic videogames reminding me of Christmas. But songs…man, do songs hold a lot of weight.
Fastball’s “Out of My Head” was what I heard on the way to the VA Hospital to visit my grandad, which also happened to be the last time I saw him alive. Likewise, as we were leaving my grandma’s apartment on her last Christmas Eve, Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” (which, if you knew my grandmother, is ironic) played on my iPod as we drove away in the snow. For Harry, the song of choice is the Avett Brother’s “Live or Die.” Also ironic, and strangely filled with parallels and meaning beyond what the musicians probably intended.
All it’ll take is just one moment and
You can say goodbye to how we had it planned
Fear like a habit, run like a rabbit
Out and away
Through the screen door to the unknown
No matter how you perceive the song, the one common theme is that family is family, no matter what. But when they reverberate with the chorus, singing that “live and die, we’re the same” hits me on a different level than most. The song was released as a single literally the day after he passed away, which to me felt like cosmic timing. It’s one of those few times where I felt like it wasn’t just coincidence, rather some kind of divine intervention. It’s one of those moments where you realize your faith.
If you can’t hold on to the hope that a soul is so complex it must go to a higher state of being, then what can you hold on to? I’ll see my son some day, just not any day soon.
One of the nurse’s told me once that because of our ordeal we’d gain an extra sense of empathy for those around us. Which I wish were true, because the more I think on it the more I realize I’ve actually gone in the other direction.
That’s not to say I’m hard-nosed and nasty to people, but I definitely think I subconsciously hold the worries of others to a different level than I used to.
Bear in mind, I work in pharmacy, which means I see a different side of people as is, which doesn’t help my lack of sympathy. While medicine is something that was created to help people, most people don’t typically come to you with a positive attitude. The basis of my career is to help those that are sick, which is never fun in any circumstance, whatsoever. And I understand that.
But there’s also no doubt in my mind that we as a people are overly-medicated.
The amount of anti-anxiety and sleeping medications I see walk out the door would blow your mind. I see their value; there’s a lot of people whom they help. But there’s also a lot of people who just can’t find a way to build a coping strategy for life and instead rely on meds. And I hear the stories they tell, of how rough they have it. But they don’t, really. Everybody has difficulty in life, it’s what makes you appreciate the good times all the more. These people need to learn to own up to that, to dig deep within and face it — to not dull the issues with inhibitors. When people call me in a tizzy about not being able to fill their anti-anxiety medication when they want to, I see that as a problem.
But I can’t pinpoint why that aggravates me so much. I don’t tell people off or anything, and by no means am I impolite. But I always wonder how I can survive such a big life event and not be on anything, but smaller matters stress others so much they turn to a controlled substance to ease themselves. I don’t even feel that way because I hate people; in fact it may be because I worry about them so much.
Which, in the end, I know to be an ironic statement, as I previously said I’ve lost some empathy. It’s because maybe I care for other people’s well-being so much that I am harder on them. You shouldn’t lose who you are trying to control that which you cannot. If you want to see how it’s done, I should introduce you to my wife.
Carrie is the softest person I know. A sappy movie, a cute baby, seeing a friend after a long while — all make her cry. Those that know her pick on her for it, but it takes someone truly special to be that tender-hearted.
She’s willing to bend an ear to those who don’t always bend one back, she always chooses to care for others before caring for herself and she has this uncanny ability to love a person even if she doesn’t love their actions.
To say I was worried about her well-being when Harry died would be an understatement.
She had a connection with him that none of us other did — she felt him move, kick and undulate. She knew what he was like when he was alive.
Knowing that is why I feared for a colossal breakdown. It was profound for me to hold him in my arms lifelessly; I can’t even imagine what it was like having known otherwise.
But she made it through. And is stronger for it.
How, you ask? She lets it out.
She cried. A lot.
My job was to hold her. Not say a thing.
Because really, you can’t say anything. I’ve heard enough people apologize for the situation. And while I can feel the sentiment behind it, the words themselves are hollow. My general manager at the time said she didn’t know what to say when she called; I told her that that was enough for me.
You can’t really say anything, but the act of being there, of giving a hug, is enough to let someone know you’re there for them.
But that doesn’t stop the tears. Then again, it doesn’t have to.
My wife was graciously given maternity leave, a time when I worried the most about her. Sitting at home, by herself, I thought for sure she would wilt under the grief. I’d spend every day coming home helping to pick up the pieces.
I should have known better.
She got stronger. I have no doubt there were times when she just laid there and wept. But I can about imagine that at some point she stopped having a pity party and began to do something constructive. She let herself be sad, but didn’t let it get her down. You can’t always change things in your life, so you have to accept them for what they are and build on that.
There are many women who suffer postpartum depression when their kids live, but not once did my wife fall into that hole. Her resilience is extraordinary.
Another hospital staffer said that people shouldn’t forget fathers in their sadness as well, but I never once felt that I needed to be doted on. In truth, sitting there thinking I needed to care for my wife, her strength helped carry me.
For whatever reason, after Harry died I made the magnanimous statement that I would “live life for two” because he was gone. While it sounded good at the time, in hindsight that seemed a bit…overzealous. What does that even mean? Nothing really. It was an attempt to uplift myself out of survivor’s guilt.
As I said before, I was told once not to forget to grieve myself; fathers often neglect their own emotions in a vain attempt at alleviating everyone else’s pain. But I think that’s just how we do it — we find comfort in comforting others. It’s taken me a year to finally fess up to how everything has made me feel, and even then it’s impersonally written down rather than talked about.
I was half tempted to say that’s how I “deal” with it…but it’s more like “that’s how I came to terms with it.”
A while back, my wife decided that after the birthday party we’re having for my lost son, she would finally put away a fold-out that we’ve had displayed in the boys’ play room that we’ve had since his funeral. I want to say it gives her closure, but I don’t think that’s the right word for it.
It’s funny though; I’ve had similar feelings about that cute little blue urn that sits on my nightstand. The finality of what has happened has finally caught up to us, and we’re ready to move on. Not from honoring and loving our son, but from the grieving process.
I was worried there would be days where I would forget to remember him, but one year later and that’s anything but the case.
Do I miss him dearly? Absolutely. Every holiday, every birthday, every morning that I get up I wish he could be here. Even though I only saw him for one day, I can somehow see facets of him through his brothers on all the others.
I’m ready to lay him to rest, in front of his beautiful headstone, tucked in between his great-grandparents. Because that’s where his urn belongs.
I’m not scared to put it there anymore, because he’s right there where he needs to be — in my heart.
And that’s the best place for him.