The first thing he did following the news was draw closer and grab my hand.
He squeezed me so tight the shock of our son’s death vibrated between us. We were like magnets clinging together by a sheer force of nature. I screamed out proclamations of self-blame- he quieted me with reassurance that, although we had yet to find out why our baby died, he would NEVER blame me. When the white coats and pink scrubs left the room, I repeated, over and over like a scratch in the record, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” For what reason I gave him so many apologies I still don’t know. I knew I took care of that baby. I knew it couldn’t have been my fault. He never missed a beat in caring for my hysteria, meanwhile inside him his own flesh eating demons were awakening. He patted my hair, he kissed my wet cheeks, and he rocked my body in his arms as my uterus continued to contract every 2 minutes. He was my gravity, he still is.
It is no surprise that many fathers seem to grieve differently than mothers following the death of a child. I am not going to reinvent the wheel by regurgitating the widespread common understanding that men show less emotion, men act strong for their families, men rarely cry. Please refrain from pegging me as a sexist or a drone as I state the obvious. Yes, I listened to all 11 minutes and 47 seconds of Emma Watson’s United Nations speech. Yes, I am educated in gender psychology. Yes, I am aware of the countless societal reasons why men refrain from emotional disclosure. Most importantly, I know my husband’s reasons for only letting me see him cry a handful of times.
A piece of literature, sloppily photocopied from some generic grief handbook, was given to us before we left the hospital.
No, we did not leave that hospital empty handed. The car seat was empty, but our hands were full. Prescriptions, papers from the social worker, a box containing our son’s first (and last) outfit, his hospital bracelet, his hand and foot prints and a large bag of hospital-grade pads for the blood I would continue to lose for the next 4 weeks.
After a few days of being home my husband skimmed through the literature and read aloud “… for most men, the loss will hit them hardest about a month later…” (Generalized quote from my memory since I cannot locate the actual pamphlet we received).
We didn’t believe this at first. I mean, who the heck are these ‘experts’ who can theorize our very personal and unique experience and condense it in to a statistic. In the beginning, I shunned the statistics thinking our loss was not ubiquitous nor our grief predictable. Lo and behold, one month later he hit his lowest point.
Almost to the day, one month later, he came home in a slump. By this time, I had already been seeking out healing rituals, joined the YMCA and was going to yoga every afternoon. I had written my first piece to a makeshift memoir that would become my scattered recollections of this time in our lives. He couldn’t make jokes, he couldn’t see the light, he felt like giving up. This was his time to be the one “in the dumps.” Just as that stupid pamphlet said, one month later, but it didn’t last.
I cannot speak for all men who lose a child; in fact, I am treading on thin ice speaking for my husband. In this shattering kind of grief we can barely see ourselves clearly, let alone our partner. I can speak to what I have seen and felt from the man in my life. I can speak to my own perception of events.
After the worst day of our lives came and went and we slowly tried to rebuild any shred of normalcy we could my husband opened up to me about what those first 8 hours between hearing the words ” no heartbeat” and my delivery was like for him. I will never forget this because as he spoke I softened around my edges and melted into the muscles of his face as it moved with speech. My broken heart expanded- against all odds. I formed an internal pact with myself to never doubt him as the person I would spend the rest of my life with.
He said the only thing he was thinking about… was me.
In front of any agony for the death of his baby or the shock of our fate was his concern and complete sympathy for me as we learned I would still have to go through with a natural delivery. He told me how badly he wished he could take me out of that awful situation, how much he wished we could trade places. That man loved me so much he put me above all else during that time. He put me above his own pain of losing our Hayden; he put me above his knee-jerk reaction to drown himself in mind-numbing and sorrow-freezing substance abuse. Had I had the ability to move, I would have run away from that place. I would have hid from that reality. He stayed by my side and held my hand through the entire thing. No pain medication.
It is easy sometimes, as women, to forget about the emotional world that goes on inside the tough men we love. I’ve called my husband an asshole. I’ve called him selfish. I have called him many things he is not. I have screamed and thrown loaves of bread across the kitchen in a hysterical fit because he continued to play a skateboard game on his phone while we were (more like I was) having an argument. It’s easy to think they don’t care sometimes because they don’t express the same kind of immediate emotional response as we do.
I sometimes pause and realize we are playing out a scene from the movie – beloved among those in the stillbirth community – “Return to Zero.”
Me: (as sort of a -you should already know this- explanation for my vehement behavior) “My baby died!”
Him: (as a reminder for what I keep forgetting simply because he doesn’t say it as often as me) “So did mine!”
He doesn’t realize we are acting out this scene, script verbatim, because he refuses to watch the movie. No, he is not ready (and may never be) to see on screen what happened to us 6 months ago — to relive our nightmare through someone else’s story. This is the same reason he does not belong to any baby loss support networks or share my desire to read over and over again poems and essays of loss and grief. This is why he doesn’t want to look at the pictures of other people’s dead babies when I search #stillbirth on Instagram.
This is why he doesn’t reach out to anyone but me.
Often I am humbled back in to knowing and accepting that he is dealing with this tragedy in his own way. I was always the extroverted social butterfly and he the introspective quiet soul. It makes sense that I have made new friends who share my experience and that he rarely brings it up to others. It makes sense that I am writing about my grief journey openly for the world to see and he still hasn’t utilized his genius musical talent to write a song about his. It makes sense.
I try not to forget that his strength is used up by being strong for me. His energy is spent on modeling stalwartness and vitality for his 14 year old son – he only gets every second weekend to parent him so he needs to make it count. I try not to forget he works hard to provide stability in my life- to have the power to catch me each time I fall in the blink of an eye, at the drop of a hat, and without warning. He is doing so much for so many he cannot simply let the waves of his own grief wash him away so carelessly and freely as I can.
When he does crash though, when the tower of fortitude my strong and courageous man has built crumbles, I am here. I am the soft body he can fall in to. I am the arms that will hold his breaking-apart in one place. When it comes, rarely and unexpectedly, maybe in the short moments after sharing wine and moving the couches to practice drunken swing dancing in our living room. Or maybe in the midst of browsing through Kijiji ads online for dirt bikes when he professes how badly he wishes he could be picking out a 50cc for our Hayden one day — it is my job to be there for him. Although the support reciprocity might be severely heavy sided on one end most of the time, when it is my turn to show comfort — even if I have finally been having a “good” day, I have to take stand. I think that is all of our duties as the women in our men’s lives.
I need to add one important thing: I have spoken to many women whose relationships have faltered in the wake of losing a baby — if not broken apart completely. I am so sorry for the people who must face this journey, essentially, alone. At the same time, I am glad they have discovered the true characters of their partners. As harsh as that may sound at first, the reality is this: without the disconnection, they experienced following the death of their child they may never have realized how not right they were for each other. In any relationship, without a shared tragic experience, that understanding can take years. People can stay together a decade or more without fully realizing their paths were meant to be separate. In all honesty, I cannot imagine these past 6 months without Nick but I would have not wanted him there if he was not good for me- or I good for him. I would be hard-pressed to find another scenario where we might have the opportunity to learn as much about each other as we did after our first child together died unexpectedly.
Out of all of this comes a more natural ability to not only see the differences among men and women, but among people in general. I am not claiming to know either way whether men have a certain way to deal and women have another. I only know myself and the man I married at a courthouse 2 months after we lost our baby. I only truly know this journey, one we share together, uniquely yet inseparable. As a self-proclaimed passive feminist of the world, strong willed and bitter to words of stereotyping, I have accepted, and found comfort in, submission to being the “damsel in distress”, and treasure inexplicably my fearless, and often misunderstood, “knight in shining armour.”
Photo credit: Samantha Lyons