Father's Day

My Firstborn Baby Died — & Then It Was Father's Day

I’m a loss dad. Here’s what my first Father’s Day without her was like.

Written by Rob Reider
Benbatt/E+/Getty Images

“I love you, Lila.”

Those are the words I say each morning. I say the words out loud, the moment my eyes open, as I wake from sleep. I have done so every day since returning home from the hospital without my daughter, on December 13, 2017.

My first Father’s Day came roughly half a year after losing Lila. That morning, I slowly awoke from a vivid dream. I felt groggy, confused — like both my mind and body were stuck in a half-conscious state, somewhere between dreaming and reality. I knew, somehow, that I was slowly waking up, and that at any moment, I’d be fully conscious.

Suddenly, dread. Panic. I felt like I was freefalling. My eyes opened. My throat tightened. It was Father’s Day.

It was supposed to be my first Father’s Day with my sweet, beautiful baby girl, Lila.

But Lila was not with me. She had been delivered stillborn six months and four days prior.

The day she was delivered, I held her, I kissed her, I hummed in her ear. I studied her fingers and caressed her toes. I stared and stared and stared — at her perfect face, the soft tuft of dark brown hair along her tiny head, her eyes permanently sealed shut, like two little slits, never to open. I smelled her neck and kissed her forehead over and over. I rocked her in my arms as my heart shattered into a million jagged little pieces.

Lila never came home from the hospital with us. She was driven straight from the hospital to a funeral home. She never slept in her crib; she never wore a single outfit that hung lightly in her closet. She never got to celebrate a single milestone: a first word, first step, first tooth. Never got to taste that first frosted cupcake on her first birthday. She’d never be photographed getting ready for her first day of kindergarten. She’d never carve a pumpkin. She’d never clutch my hand as we crossed the street together. I would never hear her sing. The list of “nevers” felt never-ending.

One thing I always knew for sure in life was that I wanted to be a father. I wanted to create a family of my own. It took my wife and me several challenging years to get pregnant, but once we did, the anticipation of having a daughter, for me, was intense. I was elated. That dream of mine was coming true. I felt thrilled. Proud. I felt a new sense of strength, of clarity and purpose. I’d been gifted a deep, boundless love. A unique love, the type that only exists between a parent and child. I was so excited to be a father. To be her father. Lila’s father.

Losing her brought an extraordinary pain. A pain so unrelenting and torturous that it left me feeling physically depleted. All my life, I’d been a cheerful person; but the light that once existed within me was dimming. With each day that passed, I felt that dimming increase and intensify. By Father’s Day, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever feel that light again. I was supposed to be a father that Father’s Day, but I felt like I wasn’t. I wasn’t a father because I didn’t have a living daughter. I was heartbroken.

My phone buzzed: “Happy Father’s Day, Rob.” A text message from one of my oldest friends who, along with his wife, had also suffered a stillbirth a year prior. My eyes were fixed on the words of his text, as my thumbs slowly typed: “I’m not a father…”

“Yes, you are. You’re Lila’s dad,” he responded.

In that moment, something clicked inside of me. My friend was right. I was Lila’s father. I am Lila’s father. I will always be. My pain, my grief —it’s rooted in my deep, bottomless love for her. That Father’s Day text, the first, true acknowledgement of my fatherhood — it changed my life. It changed my relationship with my daughter. I felt validated, for the first time. And I felt my daughter being validated, too. I am Lila’s father.

These days, I do what I need to feel my daughter’s presence. I love saying her name. On my first Father’s Day, I was ready to relinquish my role as Lila’s father because she wasn’t earthside with me. My entire life changed once I allowed myself to believe, to know, that I am Lila’s father. And Lila is my daughter. I love you, Lila.

Rob Reider lives in Falmouth, Maine with his wife, son Dallas, and daughter (in the stars) Lila. He co-founded Sad Dads Club (Instagram: @sad.dads.club, www.saddadsclub.com) as a supportive community for loss dads to connect and support one another through their grief journeys. SDC hosts Loss Dads Open Hours via Zoom every Thursday at 8:30pm ET.