Your Birth Story – Part 1

Pure Joy 

January 31, 2017

Dear Bella,

We learned Mommy was pregnant with you on Sunday, May 29, 2016, while we were at a family wedding in California. It was early in the morning, and we hadn’t slept much the night before because your big brother was very jet-lagged from the flight out on Saturday. But seeing that little white strip turn pink woke us right up!  We were so excited to return to New Haven, Connecticut, for Mommy’s first ultrasound. We couldn’t wait to see you!

Back home, I remember the details from the first trip to the doctor so vividly: listening to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody on the drive to the doctor’s office with Mommy and your big brother; the absurdly complicated parking meter system once we arrived; Big Brother jumping up and down on the temporary plastic construction mats lining the hallways; the number of times I changed his diaper during a 30-minute appointment (twice); the midwife’s sleeves of tattoos; Big Brother having a blast playing in the examination rooms while the doctors, midwives, and nurses ran tests on you and Mommy.  

Finally, they told us that you were due on Friday, January 27, just two days after Big Brother’s birthday!  I’m probably conflating multiple visits in my mind, but whatever the case, we were so excited to finally see your first pictures. You are beautiful! We compared your first ultrasound photos with Big Brother’s.  As siblings, you look alike, of course, but we could tell you are unique.

Unlike Mommy’s pregnancy with Big Brother, she got morning sickness a few times during the first trimester with you. Otherwise, Mommy said it was a very easy pregnancy – you were the best baby! Mommy had little back pain until the very end (whereas she was in a ton of pain throughout most of her pregnancy with Big Brother).  This meant that she was able to sleep through the night most nights. You were super active during the day, though. I had never seen a baby kick and stretch so much. I was convinced that you were, in fact, a little girl – a firecracker, like your mother. We wanted your gender to be a surprise, though, so we didn’t find out until you were born.

I told people all the time that your pregnancy was flying by compared to Big Brother’s, but would also readily admit that I wasn’t the one actually carrying you, so Mommy may have felt differently.  It was probably because our family experienced so much change over the course of those short months from April 2016, when you were conceived, until January 2017, when you were born.  I accepted a new position at a firm in Portland, Maine at the end of April, graduated from business school at the end of May, and – just a week later – we found out Mommy was pregnant with you!  We spent the summer traveling around New England to see family and friends from Downeast Maine to Cape Cod, across Connecticut and Rhode Island. Between weddings and family gatherings, we looked at apartments in Portland, ME – your first home!  We finally moved from New Haven to Portland on August 1, 2016. We didn’t start telling people Mommy was pregnant with you until around that time. We were so excited for everyone to meet you!

Mommy had to travel to Hawaii, South Africa, and London during the fall.  She said you were the best travel buddy! She didn’t really start showing until around mid-September.

The holidays flew by – you grew so fast between Thanksgiving and January.  

Your due date came and went, with no signs of any progress that weekend.  Despite the cold weather, Mommy wanted to get some exercise outside, so we all went to Crescent Beach State Park on the Sunday before you were born. We were hoping all that walking would get the labor started. Unfortunately, that didn’t work.

On Monday, January 30, Mommy went to her doctor’s in Portland for her regular weekly check up.  Mommy sent me the following texts that morning:

9:55AM:  Sounds like my water maybe broke? Need to have ultrasound so waiting around until they have time.

10:40AM: Plenty of fluid (my water didn’t break) but baby’s heart rate low so doing a stress test

I responded:

10:41AM: Ok. How are you doing? What does that mean? Is that a problem?

Mommy replied:

11:07AM: It’s low but fine. I have to come back at 3. Gonna go get something to eat. 

I responded:

11:39AM: ok, good. Let me know if you need anything, my love.

Mommy went grocery shopping and got acupuncture for her back pain. She fell asleep for an hour during the appointment.  She went back to the doctor; everything was fine around 3:35 p.m. when she texted me with an update. She was so excited for you to come that she almost asked the ultrasound technician to tell her if you were a girl or a boy, but she managed to be patient.

Our good friends, Rob and T, dropped off dinner for us that night. I was home at 5:30 p.m. 

Around 7:00 p.m., while Mommy and Big Brother were bathing with you and then again when she was reading you both bedtime stories, Mommy noticed that you weren’t moving as much as usual.  You were typically very active during Big Brother’s bedtime routine. Mommy was worried, but I told her that you were probably just getting into position in the birth canal. Mommy slept very well that night.

In retrospect, you had likely passed away already.

The next morning, Tuesday, January 31, Mommy still didn’t feel any movement when she woke up.  Again, I assured her that you were probably in position, but suggested that we call the doctor at 9:00 a.m. to check in.  In the meantime, we played with Big Brother – he insisted on wearing his Halloween costume – a lion outfit – for the first time since October.  We had a great time playing in his cardboard box fort – the byproduct of a new nursing chair we got for you and Mommy. While we were playing, Mommy took a shower.

At 8:30 a.m., while she was reading Big Brother a book in our bed, Mommy’s water broke.  We were so excited! We began packing up and I brought all of our bags – with clothes for us and for you, of course, as well as pillows and blankets, some oranges and other snacks, and enough Gatorade to hydrate the New England Patriots – down the four flights of stairs to the car.  Mommy called the doctor’s office and told the nurse that her water broke, but then mentioned that there wasn’t any “fetal movement”. I vividly remember her using that term. It was so technical and incongruous with the joy we were feeling. I was a little nervous, but mostly excited. I could tell Mommy was anxious – she knew she hadn’t felt you move in more than 12 hours. I kept saying that you probably moved during the night when Mommy was sleeping and that you were just already in position. “Big Brother didn’t move that much,” I kept repeating. Nanna, your nanny, arrived a little before 9:00 a.m. We told her we were going to the doctor’s office and would update her once we knew more.

At 9:09 a.m., I sent my coworkers the following email:

From: Jay Tansey <jay@companyXYZ.com>

Date: Tuesday, January 31, 2017 at 9:09 AM

To: CompanyXYX

Subject: At doctor’s with Elly…

I’ll keep you posted!

Less than 30 minutes later, I replied all:

On Jan 31, 2017, at 9:37 AM, Jay <jay@companyXYZ.com> wrote:

The baby passed away. Please cancel my meetings.

Jay

———-

Deflection Mechanism

Originally, I wasn’t sure how to face, deal with, or even begin to process my grief. It was a confusing, spiraling, and terrifying concept that I avoided. Instead, I spent those first six months after losing Lila hyper focused on protecting my wife from anything potentially triggering. I wanted to keep all pregnant women and new families carting strollers out of sight from the moment we opened our front door. I couldn’t. This went on for more than six months – in fact, it was double that. But I’m vividly brought back to the first six months because we weren’t, during that time, focused on “trying again.” Lila was delivered via c-section; thus, my wife and I were advised by medical professionals not to attempt another pregnancy until 6 months had passed. “Trying again” brought other, new hurdles that I’ll write about at a later date.

Viewing the world through the lens of protecting my wife was one way that I ignored my own triggers and trauma. My natural reaction was to protect my wife. I didn’t ask myself what upset me, I just asked whether it would upset her. That’s how I shielded myself. Attempting to anticipate, and minimize, her grief and pain became my perspective. I needed to protect her in the wake of losing our baby. My wife carried our daughter and now I wanted to carry her. And, focusing on her emotional state distracted me from the excruciating reality that our daughter was gone. Avoiding mental flashbacks of the delivery room, the silence upon her entry into the world, and the way she felt in my arms was easier than working through the pain in my heart (whole body, really). I knew I missed her. In those subsequent months following Lila’s death, I wasn’t ready, or willing, to face my deep, complex wounds. I wasn’t ready to start the work to begin my healing. I was in pain, but I wanted my wife to be in less pain.

Those first six months were brutal. Lila was our first born. Home became a painful reminder that she was gone. Her absence loomed and erased all hope. Without Lila in that space with us, the familiar became unrecognizable. The joyous change we anticipated, and felt so real, for 37.5 weeks had vanished. It was replaced with sleeplessness, heartache, and deep sorrow. She was contextually woven into that home because every corner of that house was waiting to welcome her. We prepared her room, her blankets, her clothes, her toys. Some nights I’d wake up to a sound, and my wife wasn’t next to me. She was in another room crying. It was a cry unlike one I had, and have, ever heard. If pain were a sound, that was it. There are still moments, four years later, where I think I hear that cry (it’s not there). Days during those months were a bit easier to navigate, but the nights were endlessly dark and difficult.

On the other side, I realized that my wife and I shared a lot of the same triggers and pain. But during that time, I wasn’t directly acknowledging how much they also hurt me. I’ve been working on embracing, and accepting, their presence in my life. New triggers have emerged for me. And I’m sure even more will. The reality of accepting that I’ll always be moving through my grief is starting to settle. “Moving through” doesn’t mean that it suddenly ends, because I’ll always miss Lila. You don’t stop missing someone you don’t stop loving.

Finding Light Again

Immediately following the loss of our daughter, I was sure I’d never find genuine happiness again. That true, carefree, effervescent happiness. One year removed from Lila’s loss and I felt like the canyon of pain within me had deepened. These weren’t feelings I was used to having. I was always a happy guy. I was lucky to have that natural disposition. An eternal optimist. Finding (some) good in everything. And why not? I’d never endured devastating trauma. I was never, and will never be, the same after Lila died.

For a while, it was impossible to believe what my therapist(s) told me: “You will heal” or “you are healing.” “Bullshit.” was always my immediate, internal, response. I didn’t have the heart to say it out loud – until a few years, and therapists, later. The realization that healing felt like a betrayal to my daughter’s memory was illuminating. I associated her with my pain. Through that association, the pain of losing her, I craved feeling broken. I willed myself to hold onto that pain, and that darkness, because the more it hurt the more I must love her. There are still days, now, where I completely fall apart. Some days, I spend every waking hour teetering on the edge of sorrow. And every single day, good or bad, I live with a pain in my heart. And I know I always will. But there is more light now.  

There is no secret, there is no guide, and there is no fast track to finding light again. It will find you. And I know how impossible that may sound depending on where you are on your journey – because I’ve felt it, entirely. You will feel the warmth you once knew in a world that you once loved. You won’t feel guilty for smiling or laughing. The world will never feel, or look, the same as it did before you lost your baby, but familiar feelings of happiness will return. Going back to things that brought me my earliest joys in childhood were crucial in returning light to my soul — mainly music. Connecting with other dads who were going through what I was going through, when I spent so much time feeling alone, alienated, and confused, gave me a renewed feeling of strength. 

I can’t presume what worked for me is guaranteed to work for anyone else. The power of music, conversation, and connection have been paramount in my healing process. But I can say with confidence that if you’re continuing forward, you’re already doing the hardest part. No matter how absolutely shattered you feel on those toughest days, no matter how many times you excuse yourself to the bathroom to sob – you are resilient, strong, and more capable than you know. Falling apart does not make you weak. That’s now part of living, and that makes you strong. I’m really fucking proud of myself. And wherever you, fellow dad, are – I’m really fucking proud of you.  

Worst Club; Best Guys

You may have seen us use “#worstclubbestguys” on an Instagram post.  Rob, Jay, and I are setting out to build a community based on our personal experiences with stillbirth.  We were all forced into the Worst Club, but we have met the Best Guys through this process.

Jay and Rob came into my life at the height of my darkness.  They became my guardian angels.  Neither was through navigating their grief (not that we ever will be), but the three of us were tied together by this terrible, life-altering experience.

No one chooses to join this terrible fraternity; it’s thrust upon you.  We are saddened that you or your loved one has found themselves here, but the “Best Guys” are waiting.  The “Best Guys” are this community.  Sad Dads is a community where you are free to lurk, read, share, or connect without feeling judged.  After we lost our daughters, we didn’t find a robust set of resources for dads enduring this pain.  Therefore, we have spoken to hospitals, non-profits, and many of you about this; it is time to develop them.

What began as three dads shedding tears loudly and very publicly in bars, slowly transformed into tiny smiles, an occasional laugh, and temporary moments of joy.  Temporary moments of joy slowly turned into renewed feelings of hope.  Renewed feelings of hope helped restore a bit of normalcy.

I do not know what stage of the journey you or your loved one is in.  Early on, I felt I would never again feel happiness.  I couldn’t smile, couldn’t laugh; I sat and allowed hollow numbness to overtake my body.  Rob and Jay slowly pulled me back.  I am not sure how I would have navigated this journey without them.

Sad Dads Club is a community that picks you up during your lowest moments and lets you know brighter days are ahead.  There is light at the end of the tunnel.  Our goal is to help as many people as possible, but the beauty of Sad Dads is that we only need to help one person to succeed.

We are all members of the Worst Club in the world, but I can assure you, we have the Best Guys.

Take Care,

Chris

#WorstClubBestGuys

Wish List After Stillbirth

In the midst of our grief, I received the below wish list, which was sent to me by a friend of a friend whose child was stillborn. I found parts of it comforting after we lost Bella and it’s a good starting place as you begin piecing life back together.  It’s also a good resource for friends and family looking to support loved ones in the wake of stillbirth or pregnancy loss.

Wish List After Stillbirth

  1. I wish our baby hadn’t died. I wish I had her back.
  2. I wish you wouldn’t be afraid to speak her name. Our baby lived and was very important to us. I need to hear that she was important to you as well.
  3. If I cry and get emotional when you talk about our baby, I wish you knew that it isn’t because you have hurt me. Our baby’s death is the cause of my tears. You have talked about our baby, and you have allowed me to share my grief. I thank you for both.
  4. Being a bereaved parent is not contagious, so I wish you wouldn’t shy away from me. I need you more than ever.
  5. I need diversions, so I do want to hear about you; but I also want you to hear about me. I might be sad and I might cry, but I wish you would let me talk about our baby, my favorite topic of the day.
  6. I know that you think of and pray for me often. I also know that our baby’s death pains you, too. I wish you would let me know things through a phone call, a card or a note, or a real big hug.
  7. I wish you wouldn’t expect my grief to be over in six months. These first months are traumatic for me, but I wish you could understand that my grief will never be over. I will suffer the death of our baby until the day I die.
  8. I am working very hard in my recovery, but I wish you could understand that I will never fully recover. I will always miss our baby, and I will always grieve that she is gone.
  9. I wish you wouldn’t expect me “not to think about it” or to “be happy”. Neither will happen for a very long time so don’t frustrate yourself.
  10. I don’t want to have a “pity party,” but I do wish you would let me grieve. I must hurt before I can heal.
  11. I wish you understood how my life has shattered. I know it is miserable for you to be around me when I’m feeling miserable. Please be as patient with me as I am with you.
  12. When I say, “I’m doing okay,” I wish you could understand that I don’t feel okay and that I struggle daily.
  13. I wish you knew that all of the grief reactions I’m having are very normal. Depression, anger, hopelessness and overwhelming sadness are all to be expected. So please excuse me when I’m quiet and withdrawn or irritable and cranky.
  14. Your advice to “take one day at a time” is excellent. However, a day is too much and too fast for me right now. I wish you could understand that I’m doing good to handle an hour at a time. I’m living moment by moment.
  15. I wish you understood that grief changes people. When our child died, a big part of me died with her. I am not the same person I was before our baby died, and I will never be that person again.
  16. I wish very much that you could understand – understand my loss and my grief, my silence and my tears, my void and my pain. But I pray daily that you will never understand.

The World Kept Spinning

February 1, 2018 “And welcome back, Rob.” Suddenly, for the first time during that hour-long staff meeting, my attention shifted to what was going on in the room. Everyone turned in their chairs and looked towards me. All 50-something of my colleagues adjusted their gaze in my direction. Then, applause. It was uncomfortable. I was uncomfortable. It was my first day back at work since losing Lila and I was nowhere near ready to “return to normal.” What the fuck was normal? Normal was shattered for me. Normal didn’t exist because I couldn’t remember what it looked or felt like. Normal was a luxury I lived with for years and never, actually, appreciated. The piercing memory of my beautiful, lifeless daughter in my arms was all I could see or think about as I drove into work that morning. That awkward look from the first colleague I encountered that morning that read “oh, geez, I don’t really know what to say and I’m not really sure if you want me to say anything” pretty much set the tone for my first few weeks back to “normal.”

There was a big sign on my office door that said: WE MISSED YOU in big, colorful letters. I forced myself to smile, even though I knew no one could see me, and walked into my office and closed the door behind me. I sat down and cried. Not loudly, not uncontrollably, but genuinely. I missed me, too. I missed the me that was there before my heart shattered. The me that had a daughter I was so excited to meet. Me that didn’t see the color change in my daughter’s face after two days. Or the blood come out of her mouth. That me I missed, too. 

Once I gathered myself, I noticed the yellow folders on my desk. That was, in my office, the universal sign that something needed to be reviewed. For a moment, I thought there might be joy in immersing myself in a familiar, unchallenging task. Something that might soothe my mind and heart by occupying my focus elsewhere. At the time, I was working in Development in higher education. In those yellow folders were class newsletters that were nearing completion. Colleagues had been covering the classes I managed in my absence. Now that I was back, I could resume responsibility for those classes and finalize the newsletters by reviewing them for formatting consistencies and correcting any typos. 

I opened the first yellow folder and went numb. I couldn’t feel my hands. Pictures of sleeping newborns. Multiple. Suddenly, it felt like someone had punched me in the gut. I desperately flipped the page and was emotionally assaulted by a family photo with an accompanying caption “We welcomed our beautiful baby girl into the world just before Christmas!” – truthfully, I can’t guarantee that was the exact caption, but it was something pretty close to it. I couldn’t believe it. No one protected me from that experience. No one had the foresight, or second thought, to consider what sort of pain those images might cause me. Now, I was back in the office, and “normal” resumed in whatever form that took. Sooner, someone wanted to stop covering my workload and give it back to me. All of it. Whatever it was, however it looked. Then, it clicked: I couldn’t count on anyone because everyone had moved on. Did everyone move on? I couldn’t be sure, but I had to embrace that assumption. How else could I protect myself? In that moment, I felt more alone than I ever had, or have, in my grief. It was the first time (of, eventually, many) I felt rushed through my grief. My time to grieve, in that context, was over and it was time to move on. The world kept spinning. 

Bella (Jay)

Bella Mae Pepper Tansey was born on January 31, 2017.  Unlike the details of her older brother and younger sisters’ births, I don’t know the exact time she came into the world nor her precise weight or length.  It’s all a blur and that breaks my heart.  I know she was born in the late afternoon, many excruciating hours after our doctor uttered the most devastating words Elly and I have ever heard: “There’s no heartbeat.”

Bella was due two days after her big brother’s second birthday and six days before Elly’s. She was perfectly healthy and absolutely beautiful. Sure, I’m biased, but unlike most babies (including our other children), Bella wasn’t a wrinkly blob.  She had a full head of dark, curly hair and the most gorgeous face I’ve ever seen. Pudgy, rosey cheeks, long eyelashes, full lips, and a precious little nose. She was perfect. She was full-term – 41 weeks, actually – and passed away peacefully four days after her due date and just two days before the c-section date, which was scheduled for Elly’s birthday.

An amniotic band wrapped around the umbilical cord and, seven minutes later, she was gone.

I will never get to change her diapers, bathe her or watch her learn to crawl or walk. I’ll never hear her blow raspberries or stumble through her first words.  I’ll never drop her off on her first day of school, teach her to swim, ride a bike or play hockey. I’ll never help her study for the big test or congratulate her on a job well done. I’ll never get to scare off her middle school crushes, hug her after her high school breakups or walk her down the aisle. There will be no father-daughter dance.  

Unless you’re just in the mood for a good cry, you’re likely reading this because you or someone close to you recently lost a child. I am so deeply sorry for your tremendous loss. 

After Bella passed away, I felt like I had gone from an overly inflated balloon, bobbing along so high that I might burst, to a very reduced, but not completely deflated balloon – just hovering. I’m not sure if I’ll ever reach those highs again. The deep sadness of the death of a child will always be a part of me, and of Elly. But I’m still a balloon, though. And a pretty fun one that a kid would pick at a grocery store or a county fair.

I have fun and I experience so much joy.  I love Elly, Bella, and our living kids so, so much. I love life. It’s just a little different now.  Yes, it’s been impossibly difficult at times, but I’m ok.  I promise – and I don’t use that word often or lightly – but I sincerely promise that  there’s happiness in your future too. You and your partner are strong and resilient. It may not feel like that in these darkest of days, but you will not only survive, you will thrive again.  Step by step, moment by moment.  You too will find joy. 

This is the worst club in the world, and sadly, it’s less exclusive than we imagined. However, that means there is support out there.  While you may be across the country or on the other side of the planet, and, at times, you may even feel like you’re alone in another galaxy, please know that you are loved and that we will always hold you and your baby in our hearts.

Be kind to yourselves and stay strong.

With love,

Jay

In the midst of our grief, I received the below wish list, which was sent to me by a friend of a friend whose child was stillborn. I found parts of it comforting after we lost Bella and it’s a good starting place as you begin piecing life back together.  It’s also a good resource for friends and family looking to support loved ones in the wake of stillbirth or pregnancy loss.

Wish List After Stillbirth

  1. I wish our baby hadn’t died. I wish I had her back.
  2. I wish you wouldn’t be afraid to speak her name. Our baby lived and was very important to us. I need to hear that she was important to you as well.
  3. If I cry and get emotional when you talk about our baby, I wish you knew that it isn’t because you have hurt me. Our baby’s death is the cause of my tears. You have talked about our baby, and you have allowed me to share my grief. I thank you for both.
  4. Being a bereaved parent is not contagious, so I wish you wouldn’t shy away from me. I need you more than ever.
  5. I need diversions, so I do want to hear about you; but I also want you to hear about me. I might be sad and I might cry, but I wish you would let me talk about our baby, my favorite topic of the day.
  6. I know that you think of and pray for me often. I also know that our baby’s death pains you, too. I wish you would let me know things through a phone call, a card or a note, or a real big hug.
  7. I wish you wouldn’t expect my grief to be over in six months. These first months are traumatic for me, but I wish you could understand that my grief will never be over. I will suffer the death of our baby until the day I die.
  8. I am working very hard in my recovery, but I wish you could understand that I will never fully recover. I will always miss our baby, and I will always grieve that she is gone.
  9. I wish you wouldn’t expect me “not to think about it” or to “be happy”. Neither will happen for a very long time so don’t frustrate yourself.
  10. I don’t want to have a “pity party,” but I do wish you would let me grieve. I must hurt before I can heal.
  11. I wish you understood how my life has shattered. I know it is miserable for you to be around me when I’m feeling miserable. Please be as patient with me as I am with you.
  12. When I say, “I’m doing okay,” I wish you could understand that I don’t feel okay and that I struggle daily.
  13. I wish you knew that all of the grief reactions I’m having are very normal. Depression, anger, hopelessness and overwhelming sadness are all to be expected. So please excuse me when I’m quiet and withdrawn or irritable and cranky.
  14. Your advice to “take one day at a time” is excellent. However, a day is too much and too fast for me right now. I wish you could understand that I’m doing good to handle an hour at a time. I’m living moment by moment.
  15. I wish you understood that grief changes people. When our child died, a big part of me died with her. I am not the same person I was before our baby died, and I will never be that person again.
  16. I wish very much that you could understand – understand my loss and my grief, my silence and my tears, my void and my pain. But I pray daily that you will never understand.

Isabelle (Chris)

July 21, 2018

Isabelle Lee, my heart, my angel.

My Izzy, it is impossible to put into words how much your mother and I love you.  We have loved you since the day we learned you were coming and will continue to do so forever.

I am not going to lie Izzy, this one hurts, it hurts a lot.  We couldn’t wait to meet you, and while we did not meet you in the way we wanted, we did, and will cherish every second you were in our arms.

Your mother and I are not totally sure how to take the next steps forward, but we will walk them for you.

Your family loves you; I know you saw all the love in that room.  You will always be our first born and we already miss you so much it hurts. 

That love will grow every day.  We love you from now until forever Izzy.

Love,

Your parents”

I became a Sad Dad on July 21, 2018.

What you read above was written in the hospital room as our stillborn daughter lay next to us.  This is the first and last time we got to hold her.  The hope of what could have been, the memories we were excited to create, the life we were eager to share, all gone in an instant.

I do not recall writing that letter, but I am glad I did.  That letter was read when we laid our daughter to rest, and every word of it remains true.

Sad Dads is not a community anyone wants to join, but if you find yourself here, please know you are safe.  Safe to share, safe to listen, safe to feel.

I will have much more to share about my personal journey as the Sad Dads Community takes shape.  No journey is the same, no journey is right or wrong, there is only YOUR journey.

Whatever brought you here today, I am sorry, but we hope you have found a home.

Lila (Rob)

December 17, 2017 I’ve wanted to write about this day, and Lila’s birth story, for years. I’ve given myself every excuse to wait for the perfect moment and let inspiration hit. I started writing this a few years ago, but quit before I could finish. I never went back to that draft. There will never be a perfect moment to share this story because life is imperfect. This experience proves exactly that. The foundation of the Sad Dads Club community is rooted in vulnerability and encouraging others to share their story – in whatever form they are able to get it out of themselves. My hope, in all of this, is that we can support one another and feel a little less alone as we navigate new and existing pain. Hope you’ll join me if this is something that you need. Welcome to Sad Dads Club.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017. 

Snow was on the ground. It was one of those brilliantly bright and cold days in Portland, Maine. Not a cloud in the sky as the sun shot off the snow creating a (near) blinding effect. My wife was pregnant with our daughter, our first child, and had reached full term. On this exact day, she was 37.5 weeks along. December 30 was our predicted due date. We had a ton of fun wondering if Lila would arrive before, on, or just after her due date. “Maybe she’ll be the first child born in Maine in 2018!” Time was becoming, more so, an elusive concept – we were so excited to welcome our daughter into the world and couldn’t believe that we were so close to meeting her. Getting pregnant had not been the easiest feat for us. Receiving that phone call from my wife, in my office, is a moment I’ll never forget. I was so happy. Elated, ecstatic, buoyant. Those are better words to describe how I remember feeling when she told me that her pregnancy test came back positive, and that we were expecting a baby at the end of the year. I was so excited to become a father.

Back to that bright, mid-December day: you couldn’t be outside without squinting – for whatever reason, I can’t shake the power of the sun from that day. It was so, so bright outside when we got into the car for our regularly scheduled weekly check-up appointment with the doctor. My wife and I got into some trite spat about whether or not the recycling needed to be put out before we left for our appointment. I, the more stressed out and anxious one about these things, was certain that we’d miss getting our recyclables picked up if I didn’t cart out the bin before we left. My wife, more acutely observant as to when the truck actually arrived each week, was promising me that it’d be fine if we put them out once we got back. For whatever reason, I let this trivial disagreement linger within me. I carried that energy with me in the car, and even let it follow me into our appointment. My wife was being weighed and having her blood pressure checked as I kept my gaze on nothing in particular in the distance with my arms crossed. 

We were then escorted into a room where the nurse or technician – to be honest, I’m not sure of her official professional title, and I feel like a dick for saying that – would observe Lila’s heartbeat using one of those wands with a rolling ball at the end of it. My sour mood, catalyzed by the recycling bin ridiculousness, was starting to lift as I realized I’d hear the sweet music of my daughter’s heartbeat momentarily. I loved hearing that sound. It was like a deep vibrating oceanic rhythm that felt so soothing, so promising, and so pure. As my wife lifted her shirt to expose her belly, the wand began to search for Lila’s heart. I was familiar with that static silence before it caught the heartbeat and my eyes were locked on the device that would soon bring my daughter’s, Lila’s, heartbeat to our ears. Suddenly, my heart sank. I didn’t hear anything and too much time had passed. From experience, I knew it could take a few seconds, but this was extending into an alarming lapse with no heartbeat to be heard. The technician/nurse seemed slightly concerned, though not panicked. She said they were going to conduct an ultrasound, so we’d need to move to another room. My wife looked at me with a bit of concern and felt around her belly with her right hand – she said something in that moment about being able to feel Lila move, which, looking back, was likely a defense mechanism to keep us both from freaking out. My eyes were wide and I couldn’t swallow. My wife sensed my deep, deep fear.  

We switched rooms, and my wife lifted her shirt again. Our doctor joined us to to conduct the ultrasound. She applied the gel and started going across my wife’s belly, again. No sound. A deafening absence of that beautiful rhythmic heartbeat. The technician’s color was gone from her face as she looked at our doctor and shook her head. That was the moment that changed everything for us: Lila had died. She had no heartbeat. She was gone. I saw our doctor grab my wife’s hand and remember my wife screaming and bursting into tears. My hands went to my face, and I wanted to keep them there. There and then, I could hide behind a self-created darkness, at least for a moment, and escape what had happened – rather, what was happening. This was really happening.  In that moment, my heart broke. It really, really broke. My wife was still sobbing on the table with the doctor tightly holding her hand. I removed my hands from my eyes, and suddenly we were getting into our car  How did we exit the building? How did we get through the waiting room of the doctor’s office? Did they clear out that space? Had anyone else been there? Did anyone see us or hear us? I always think back and wonder about those transitional moments I can’t remember. I held onto my wife in the parking lot as I helped her in the car. She could barely stand.

It was a ten-minute drive back to our house and I’ll be damned if I have any idea how the fuck I was able to drive. I was laser focused on the road squinting through the brightness of the sun and repeating to my wife “we are going to get through this, we are going to get through this” – truthfully, I don’t know what possessed me to say that because I wasn’t sure I believed the words coming out of my mouth. I didn’t know at that moment how I, or we, could ever be happy again. Our daughter was still in utero, unalive. The weight of what we had to go through next was crushing. How could we do this? How could my wife deliver our daughter? How could we hold her? How could her eyes never open? Those questions invited a deep darkness that I could feel spreading inside of me. Suddenly, a canyon of pain opened up and went on endlessly. We got home and aimlessly started packing our bags for the hospital. This was actually happening. My wife called a friend on the phone to tell her what had happened. My mind and body continued to pack our bags for the upcoming hospital stay, but I couldn’t physically feel anything: the shirts, the socks, the sweatpants, the toothbrush, the toothpaste, and whatever else I thought we’d need. I called my mom somewhere around this time – could have been my dad. I don’t remember, but I am pretty sure I called my parents and spoke to one of them as I dropped items into a duffle bag. We had to bring Lila into the world even though she’d never get to see it, or us. Darkness grew. The closer we got to that “next step,” the more excruciating the pain became. “Our daughter is dead inside of my wife,” I kept thinking. I was nauseated. Meeting my daughter, Lila, was something I had been so excited for. Now, I was dreading it.

I have no idea where we parked at the hospital. My wife was escorted in a wheelchair with her head down as tears fell into her lap. The hospital lights were too bright. Voices crashed together and created a piercing hum. Surrounded by doctors, nurses, and strangers I felt myself disconnect. I was drifting. I don’t remember anything about getting settled into our hospital room, or what instructions they gave us, if any. Life was moving and progressing, but I was removed from the momentum. All I could feel was the weight of dread, darkness, and sorrow inside of me. Was this how the world would feel forever? I had to get ready to meet my daughter. And then say goodbye. Could I bring myself to do that? How could I possibly bring myself to do that?

We were in our hospital room for hours. Lila’s delivery kept getting moved back. I understood: there was no immediate risk for us. Who knows how many lives were being saved in those hours while we waited. The life we wanted to welcome, nurture, and watch grow was already gone. Piercing silence, anxiety, and tears filled our hospital room. It was palpable. Somewhere around the late afternoon, I had my first-ever panic attack. I didn’t know what was happening. I couldn’t breathe, and I couldn’t stop crying. My wife was holding me as I rested against her belly. I wanted my daughter back. No one entered the room, but I’m sure they heard me. That’s where everything became too real for me. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to my daughter. Evening fell and around 10pm they were ready to deliver Lila. My wife was taken to the delivery room and I was left to put on scrubs and wait until they called me. A nurse sat with me and asked me questions – one of which was whether or not our daughter had a name. “Lila” I remember saying, barely audible. “Lila” she repeated back to me. My gaze remained fixed on the floor. I tried to count the lines in the floor. Part of me tried to escape the moment and a bigger part of me struggled to remain present. I sat in silence with the nurse until it was time for us to join my wife in the delivery room. And to meet Lila.

“Maybe she’s fine. Maybe they’ve made a mistake and she’ll come out just fine. Alive. They’ll be able to help her once they see her. Maybe.” Through subsequent years of therapy and grief counseling, and recounting that internal narrative, I’m told that my body and mind were defending themselves against the toughest part of this traumatic day as it approached. I had to believe that there was a glimmer of hope and that she might be ok. My wife opted to deliver Lila via c-section. I walked into the delivery room and saw my wife’s gaze locked on the ceiling. I settled next to her and put my hand on my wife’s head and stroked her hair. We talked and she told me she wanted to have sex. That made me smile and laugh. Clearly the medication was working to calm, soothe, and remove her, somewhat, through this unbearable process. I told her we couldn’t right then, but assured her we would later. There was commotion on the other side of the curtain as they worked to bring Lila into the world. I focused on keeping my wife engaged in our conversation. Telling her how proud I was of her, and how in awe of her strength I always have been.

Then, Lila joined us. The doctors and nurses gave a prompt that they were delivering her, and I looked up. That glimmer of hope was immediately shattered. I saw her beautiful face, her perfect new-born body, but I didn’t hear a sound come from her. The medical staff held her so carefully and she looked so absolutely angelic. My eyes stayed on her as they carefully brought her to be weighed. I was called over to cut her umbilical cord. There was my daughter. My sweet, beautiful, perfect daughter. My first born. I started telling her how much I loved her and how excited I was to meet her, finally. She was finally here, just not in the way we expected. The feeling of cutting her cord was so bizarre. All my life I’ve known I wanted to be a father. That moment in the delivery room of cutting my child’s cord was supposed to be so joyous and memorable. It was one of those things, but not both. They wrapped up my daughter and placed her on my wife’s chest. In that moment, likely due to the medication, I watched my wife forget that Lila wasn’t alive. My wife smiled widely, closed her eyes, and kissed Lila’s head while repeating “my baby, my baby.” It was one of the more difficult things I’ve seen in my life. There was beauty, but there was pain. Lila was delivered at 10:49pm on Wednesday, December 13, 2017, stillborn. 

The three of us went back to our hospital room. My wife asked to hold our daughter while she slept that night. I don’t remember falling asleep, but I remember waking up the next day, next to my girls. I’ll always marvel at my wife’s resilience. We had been bonded before this, but now we were fused. There is so much more of this story to tell: the proceeding days in the hospital, returning home, and eventually welcoming Lila’s (healthy) baby brother, Dallas, into the world. That will take time and energy to convey, but I am up for it.

The night before I woke up on December 13, 2017, I had a vivid dream. I was trying to hold Lila, but I couldn’t. My arms were positioned to cradle my newborn baby. But she was floating away, she wouldn’t settle into my arms no matter how much I moved my body to try and hold her. At that moment, I believe, Lila left us. I never told my wife about that dream. A lot of dreams I forget hours after I wake up, but I’ll live with the memory of this one for the rest of my life. No details have faded. No brightness surrounding her has dimmed. Every single day, I talk to her – out loud. I start every day by saying the same thing, but I want to start writing it more: “I love you, Lila.”