Trigger Warning: Child Loss
Expect it to be hard as hell.
I don’t think there’s any other way to put it. Prepare yourself for hell.
A tad over two years ago, my wife and I went through IVF. After months of shots and pills and constant probing, the doctors had what they needed to begin creating life in a dish. From that first moment, we started getting pictures of the progression almost daily. What started out as umpteen embryos ended with three healthy 6-day-old babies. At the close of the first round, we had two of those embryos placed gently inside Mama. And then, after close to nine months, we were blessed to welcome Logan William.
Afterward, Amber and I struggled with what to do with the remaining baby we had left behind. This child remained frozen. Quietly sleeping in suspended animation. Almost every day, we looked at the pictures we had of the “embryos” and talked through our options. Earlier this year, we decided that it was time to bring her home. And so we began the process. This time round was anything but smooth. The initial shots and pills and probing went well, but after implantation it was anything but.
Early on, we were told that things were not progressing the way they should and we had lost the baby. I took that call. The doctor told me that we needed to schedule a DNC as soon as possible. I asked for them to give us one week and let us come back in for a second opinion. They reluctantly gave us this stay of execution. We spent the time between in tears. Crying out to God and pleading for our little girl.
The next week, on October 31, Amber and I went into the office, weak and weary from grieving but somehow hopeful. When they started the ultrasound, the nurse practitioner paused. She looked astounded. There was a heartbeat. Against all odds, our little girl had somehow regenerated. Words cannot even begin to express what it was like to see and hear that tiny little heart. They told us that it was just shy of a miracle. They said to be cautiously optimistic. Weeks passed, and her tiny heart continued to grow stronger and stronger.
This is audio of our baby’s heartbeat. It may not be much, but it’s beautiful to me.
On November 13, we went in to see a specialist to get their take on our baby. What a day of highs and lows that was. We heard Nellie’s heartbeat at 152 beats per minute. So strong and beautiful, just like her mom. And then, the doctor told us that Nellie was growing very far down in Amber’s uterus and had decided to grow in a place where she would likely grow into Amber’s body if she hadn’t already. Obviously, this was a very dangerous pregnancy. He suggested that we should terminate immediately if Amber was to have any chance of survival. What a day of highs and lows it was — to go from hearing a strong, steady beat to being asked what we were being asked was unimaginable.
I will not forget going out to the truck with Amber and her simply stating, “So I have a few months to live. What the fuck do I do with that?” Nor will I forget seeing my baby’s heart beating so damn strong. Beating every odd thrown her way.
Things only got worse from there. On Wednesday night, we were eating dinner. Amber excused herself from the table and went upstairs to hang out with our son, Robert. At 7 p.m., I heard her yell. I ran up the stairs to see her standing there, drops of blood pooling.
Within minutes, we were in the emergency room.
Here’s the thing about losing a baby: It just happens. Sometimes there’s an absolute reason that can be dealt with and addressed, and sometimes, as we found, there is absolutely nothing that anybody — not the greatest specialists, pastor, and prayer group, or psychic — can do to stop it from happening. While miscarriages are common (they occur in about 20% pregnancies), in our case we were at less than 8% chance of it. But then add in the complexity of the pregnancy, and science goes out the window.
In the end, no matter what anyone will tell you, there’s no reason. All you’re left with are questions and pain.
For every person enduring this, it is poignant to the point that you want to rip your heart out of your chest. As a man, we find ourselves in this strange place. We suffer, but we are called to be the rock, to be steady. But I can attest, our hearts are broken, and we are as lost as our partner.
As I was attempting my best to navigate, I was called to task by my wife. I was not sharing, holding up in my own spirit rather than freely letting the tears flow. Attempting to navigate the necessary logistics as a hard, stoic man. But perhaps there is a better way. A way that I wish I hadn’t had to learn.
So how should we, how can we, navigate this while supporting our partners?
Amber and I spent close to five hours in the ER room. Amber was lying on the table while I stood next to her softly stroking her hair. A slew of doctors came by to draw blood, poke and prod, and ask cold-hearted questions. Each time someone new came in, the scabs were ripped asunder as we had to recount everything over again. While there were times we were alone together, we did not talk much. The deft silence louder than our voices could overcome. Finally, the doctors were able to get an ultrasound machine from the labor and delivery unit. Three nurses came in, dimmed the lights, cracked the door, and began the scan.
The room was quiet as they explored the warm depths of our baby’s home. After what seemed like hours, the nurse cleared her throat. We anticipated the worst finding, each breath harder than the last. I silently prayed for a miracle, but there was none to be had. What, two days before, was a picture with a blinking, flickering heart was now still. No heartbeat. Nothing.
I will never be able to describe the sense of complete and utter loss at that moment. There are no words to carry the feeling of the abyss.
After this, things only got worse. Without any time to cope with the loss, we had to schedule surgery for the next day. And since our children were home alone, I had to leave my bride there. Both of us in this together but completely alone. The next day when I arrived, we just sat together in the hospital room and waited. In silence, in tears, in anger, in pain.
They took Amber back and at 245 p.m. On November 16, 2017, our little baby was born. Not the way we had intended, and perhaps not born to us. But she — we named her Nellie Abagail — was brought into this world nonetheless. At this point, nothing seems right. The past week has been a blur.
I wanted to give this little girl everything, but in the end, the only thing I could give her was a coffin that my wife and I built.
I am still figuring this out — how to cope and what my place is. I know I didn’t deal with things the right way upfront, and I am probably not dealing with them correctly now. I don’t consider this to be some kind of 12-step process for handling the loss of a child. These are simply my thoughts on it and things I wish I had done to be there for my wife. I hope this helps if you’re going through something similar.
1. Allow time to grieve.
It’s okay to let your emotions out. Yes, you are a rock, you are strong, you are man. But more than that, you are human. You and your partner need to take time to grieve together. I don’t care how strong you are, or think you are, this will hit you square in the face like a truck. Accept it, expect it, and own it.
2. Offer assurance and be confident.
Your partner will blame herself; you may blame yourself for the loss. Recognize that it’s no one’s fault. I’ve spent hours upon hours since we first thought we lost Nellie to the moment that we did trying to figure out what I did wrong, what I could have done differently.
Whatever you do, come to terms with the fact and assure her that the two of you offered a safe home, love, and support. Beyond that, there is nothing that we can do. The creation of the body is a beautiful thing. I know, through this process we’ve seen every moment of our little girl’s existence, from the moment that she was literally 1 day old to the moment that she was implanted, to the moment that she passed away. You were chosen to be a part of this for however long.
3. Simply love, and love simply.
There will be so many emotions during this time, both from you and her. As a man, choose to be a solid source of love no matter what. Even if it’s one-sided for a period, be love. Affirm for her that you love her and you’re in this together. It will be hard, but it will be worth it.
4. Remember and celebrate.
As I’ve said, Amber and I were able to see the entire process of this child’s existence, from conception to passing on. We know firsthand the struggles she had to overcome to get as far as she did. We wanted to celebrate that struggle and this beautiful life. For us, that meant bringing her home.
There are many ways to remember the life you’ve created. It could be celebrating their birthday or getting a tattoo. Whatever you chose is right and special and holy and yours.
5. People are assholes, well-meaning, but assholes all the same.
No one has the right words, but they will try. And they will fail. Miserably.
Recognize this early on and help shield you partner from the onslaught of well-meaning sentiments. From “it’ll get easier” to “you can try again,” you’ll hear it all. Expect it, and try not to punch anyone in the face — that never ends well.
6. Talk about counseling together.
Working through this is going to be hard — there is nothing easy about any of it. You may find it helpful to seek professional help. This isn’t weakness. It’s meeting with someone who can help you navigate the waters you’re in and put things in order a bit.
7. Be in it for the long haul.
Recognize that this loss you have experienced together is going to color your life for years to come, maybe your entire life. Choose early on to let it be known, that come what may, you are in this for the long haul.