Forgotten Fathers and Families

As I visited a new primary care physician for the first time this week, I cringed as I had to fill out the medical information form.

With each question, I was forced to relive the trauma of our experience, asked to detail each disheartening diagnoses, to remember the pain of each surgery and blood transfusion, and to list each of our lost children as easily and impersonally as I would list each medication that I take –

“How many pregnancies?”   5

“How many live births?”     0

“How many children?”         2 (deceased)

As my new doctor looked over the form and as I recounted the story of the stillbirth of our sons and my own near-death for her, I noticed her eyes grow wide, surprised by the horror of our experience. This is a typical reaction of anyone who first hears our story. It is just too terrible and too sad to hear without some kind of emotional response. When I finished, I expected the typical response that we tend to receive. To me, people tend to say –

“I am so sorry. I can’t even imagine. How are you doing?”

To my husband, however, the last question is instead framed –

“How is your wife doing?”

This time, though, my doctor surprised me when she first said,

“Oh, your poor husband. I cannot fathom what he had to witness and endure.”

It was now my turn to react with surprise.

I was so deeply moved by her touching response to Patrick’s pain, especially since he was not in this appointment with me and since she had never met him before this moment, I knew that I had to make a mental note to tell him about this encounter as soon as I came home.

So often, fathers and families are forgotten victims in the aftermath of stillbirth.

The focus almost always centers around the grief of bereaved mothers. In a way, this makes sense. Mothers have a special connection to their lost children. As their mother, I  bore a unique witness to Ezra and Leo’s lives and to the tragedy of their deaths. However, as the focus centers around the trauma of my pain as their mother, the unique aftermath of Patrick’s pain is too often forgotten.

People sometimes forget that, while losing his sons, Patrick came so perilously close to also losing his wife at the same time. Helplessly, he witnessed every moment – caring for my every need while I was on bedrest at home; scrubbing blood from the bathroom floors and the walls after I first started hemorrhaging; driving me to the hospital and desperately holding my hand as the doctors and nurses worked to save me; calling our families and telling them the terrible news through words broken by tears; declaring his undying love for me as we said what we thought may be our final goodbyes; praying and anxiously waiting while I was rushed into emergency surgery, knowing that the boys would be born still but uncertain if his wife would survive; holding the bodies of our stillborn sons as he broke down, telling them his dreams and how he so wished that this could be different.

Since Ezra and Leo’s deaths, Patrick has been haunted by a grief that is perhaps even deeper than my own, for he bore witness to an intensity of trauma that I was just too sick and too far gone to see in that moment. In his first sermon back in the pulpit after returning to the church from his bereavement leave – entitled “Life is Beautiful” – A Sermon for Stillbirth, which you can read here – Patrick shared some of the pain of his grief with his congregation. As he poignantly revealed to them on that Sunday morning,

What can I say about grief that you don’t know already? Do I tell you about the nightmares that keep me up at night? The violent dreams where I’m running, running, but am too late. Where I am powerless to save Jenna, to save my children, to save myself. Dreams that wake, in sweat, to a reality not so different.

Do I tell you about the anger that burns me up inside? The tears that come unannounced? The weight of my body, of my mind, so heavy to move, to do the simplest tasks?

Do I tell you that I’m not the same person I once was? That something vital has gone out of me?

Do I tell you about the moment Jenna and I said good-bye to each other, thinking she too might die?

Where are the words for such things? Such terrors?

And yet, while Patrick is buried in the terror of this pain, too often he is first asked or even only asked –

“How is your wife doing?”

The question itself is not wrong. It is not wrong to inquire about my health or about my grief. However, without taking that question further, without asking Patrick himself, “How are you doing?” it can feel like his own pain is discounted, that his grief for his sons and the trauma that he endured is invalid or unimportant. It can feel like he as a father is forgotten.

In a similar way, our families are also hurting. Our parents lost their grandsons. Our sisters lost their nephews. When Ezra and Leo died, their death left in indelible hole in our family tree, and each person in our family has since been overcome and overwhelmed by a uniquely personal grief.

It was my mother who had to whisper reassurances in my ear, as I was out of my mind with grief and pain, that she could not watch her own daughter die. And it is my mother who must live with that trauma.

It was my father who had to anxiously drive he and my mother through the night to rush to the hospital, skipping church that morning when he was supposed to preach and lead worship on that Palm Sunday. And it was my sister and her husband who first beheld Ezra and Leo’s tiny bodies, since I was still too scared to see them, and it was she who reassured me that they were beautiful.

It was Patrick’s mother who worked so hard to track down two blue butterflies for the flower arrangements on the day of the funeral, after a mixup at the florist. Her attention to this detail was an expression of her deep pain and love. And it was Patrick’s father who first heard the terrible news that Patrick could barely choke out over the phone through his tears. And it was Patrick’s sister who wrote an indescribably beautiful letter to Ezra and Leo, detailing all of her hopes and dreams for them and her grief at the loss, which will now forever live in their memory box.

And on the day of Ezra and Leo’s burial, one of the most moving moments for me came when we were speaking with my brother-in-law and he shared the depths of his own grief and his anger at God with us. Through the pain of his tears, I could see just how deeply Ezra and Leo were loved and how widely they were grieved.

Our families are in pain. And yet, often when people are speaking with them about this loss, they too are similarly only asked –

“How are Patrick and Jenna doing?”

rather than,

“How are you doing?”

I remember when my niece was first born, in a small community hospital with antiquated rules, she was sick and placed in special care, and she could only be visited by her “immediate family.” So even though I was obviously my sister’s family, and even in moments when there were no other family members present with my sister at the hospital, I could only see my niece through the glass windows of the nursery.

I remember the pain and the anger I felt then, as my own love and my own fear were not considered valid enough to enter that room to meet my newborn niece behind that glass wall, as I was not considered close enough to be “family.” My very love felt invalidated.

(I must admit, though I am typically a nice person, I was so angry that day that I flipped off a number of nurses behind their backs.) 

Our friends are hurting. Our church is hurting. Strangers who have never, and may never, meet us in person have shed tears as they read about Ezra and Leo’s death over the vast chasm of the World Wide Web.

And yet, this grief can too easily be invalidated or forgotten. Fathers are forgotten. Families are forgotten. Friends are forgotten.

So next time, when you check in, feel free to ask how I am doing. There is nothing wrong with that. But be sure to remember to take the next step. In conversation with Patrick or with our families, remember these four simple words. For truly, these magical words mean the world –

“How are you doing?”

“Small Bump”

This song and music video by Ed Sheeran poignantly captures the grief and the unrequited dreams of a father who has lost his child to stillbirth. Sheeran was inspired to write this song after watching his own friend go through the grief of stillbirth, losing their child at 5-months-pregnant. While stillbirth is rarely addressed in media in general, it is even rarer still to show how the pain of this loss impacts fathers.

The lyrics express all of the father’s dreams for his child and his expectations that this baby will be born in four more months. Powerfully, in the video, you see him sitting alone and anguished in the ER waiting room, as other emergencies pass by and as the woman who you later discover is his wife learns the tragic news in the background. It is not until the very end of the song and the video that you learn the reason for this father’s anguish – the baby will not be born in four more months as he had hoped and dreamed, but instead has been “torn from this life.”

Powerfully, this story tells the story of so many forgotten fathers. I share it now in honor of them…


You were just a small bump unborn, in four months you’re brought to life

You might be left with my hair but you’ll have your mother’s eyes
I’ll hold your body in my hands, be as gentle as I can
But for now you’re a scan of my unmade plans
A small bump in four months you brought to life

And I’ll whisper quietly and give you nothing but truth
If you’re not inside me, I’ll put my future in you

You are my one and only
And you can wrap your fingers round my thumb
And hold me tight
You are my one and only
You can wrap your fingers round my thumb
And hold me tight
And you’ll be alright

You’re just a small bump, I know you’ll grow into your skin
With a smile like hers and a dimple beneath your chin
Fingernails the size of a half grain of rice
And eyelids closed to be soon open wide
A small bump, in four months you’ll open your eyes

And I’ll hold you tightly and tell you nothing but truth
If you’re not inside me, I’ll put my future in you

You are my one and only
And you can wrap your fingers round my thumb
And hold me tight
You are my one and only
And you can wrap your fingers round my thumb
And hold me tight
And you’ll be alright

Then you can lie with me, with your tiny feet
When you’re half asleep I’ll leave you be
Right in front of me, for a couple weeks
So I can keep you safe

‘Cos you are my one and only
You can wrap your fingers round my thumb
And hold me tight
You are my one and only
You can wrap your fingers round my thumb
And hold me tight
And you’ll be alright

‘Cos you were just a small bump unborn for four months, then torn from life
Maybe you were needed up there but we’re still unaware as why.

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