stories.

Dear Lila

Dear Lila,

I can’t believe you’ll be 5 this year. You’re such a big girl! Your mom and I miss you a lot. So, so much. Every single day, we think about you. I know you know because we tell you. We know you’re here. In the sunrise, the sunset, the rivers, and oceans. You’re the reflection of the light off the branches and leaves, dancing on our walls. You greet me every morning with a soft whisper. I tell you that I love you before I do, or think about, anything else. We see you in all the beautiful things we love, especially your little brother. He’s growing so fast. We make sure to tell him about how much his big sister, Lila, loves him. I love knowing that you’re watching us, I just wish that you were here with us. I always think about all the things we’d do through the seasons together in Maine. I’d buy you as many ice cream cones as you wanted in the summer.

I’ve gotten to know so many dads just like me. And I’ve even heard about all their babies, your friends, in the clouds. All the dads and I wish we could play together here. But I know you’re out there adding wonder to the world in front of us. I’m sorry you’ve seen me so upset. It’s just because I love you so much, and I know that’s hard to understand. Sometimes, when someone’s heart hurts they cry. It helps them feel better. Eventually, they’ll stop crying. They’ll cry again, but they won’t cry forever. Their tears will always stop. The good news is people grow stronger after they cry! So strong, in fact, they could lift a car! Ok, maybe they couldn’t lift a car, but they definitely get much stronger. A person’s whole body is stronger after they cry. The muscle that grows the strongest is the heart muscle. And that is the most important muscle in your whole body. Your heart is where all the love in your life is stored. Pretty amazing that it all fits in there, right? That’s another place where I keep you, Lila. You’re always with me there. I just wish you were with me here. 

You’re my sweetest girl. Always and forever. I’ll never stop being your father and you’ll never stop being my daughter. I love you, Lila, and I really miss you. I always think about hugging you. For the rest of my days until I hug you, I’ll live for you and make sure that I’m doing my best to be a fun, loving, and patient father. To you, and Dallas. I loved seeing you in my dream on the morning of my 35th birthday. In that dream, I watched you through a window on a snowy night in Maine. You were playing quietly by the fire and looked so beautiful and cozy in your home. I couldn’t come in, but I will one day. My 38th birthday is coming up, but please visit me anytime. I’m always waiting for you.

I love you, I love you, I love you,

Your adoring dad (forever)

Happy Birthday Izzy

July is a confusing month at my house.  Our second daughter was born July 10, 2019, less than a year from when we lost Izzy.  The fact that my wife delivered two full term babies in under a year still blows my mind, she truly is a rockstar.

Happy fourth birthday Izzy.  It has been four years since I held you, four years since you were wheeled out of our room for the last time, four years since I spent my birthday, July 23, making your funeral arrangements.  These four years sometimes feel like twenty. 

I constantly think about what could have been.  Your first smile, your first word, your first step, your first tennis lesson, and so much more.  When things get hard, I lean on a line I wrote for your funeral, “Your mother and I don’t know how to take the next steps forward, but we will walk them for you.”  I still don’t know what every next step will bring, but I continue to push forward in honor of you.

Today brings with it a wide range of emotions.  This morning, my wife released an Instagram reel through Izzy Lee’s Kids, showcasing Annie and Maisie accomplishing milestones, and I will always wonder what you would have looked like in those moments.

Jay and his wife celebrate Bella’s birthday by sending floating lanterns to Heaven.  You can read about that here.  Our tradition is not quite as photogenic as Jay’s, but it is very meaningful to us.  Every birthday, we take Izzy’s poem, which was written while she lay beside us in the hospital, and read it by the tree we planted in her honor.

Izzy is buried at the church garden where we were married.  This year, both Annie and Maisie were able to visit their sister.  I still cannot set foot in her garden without crying.  Now that some time has passed, standing over her grave does bring a certain amount of peace.  I included pictures of our visit, and the garden where she is buried, at the bottom of the post.

We recently started talking about Izzy with Annie, our second daughter.  She received a Disney princess balloon on her birthday.  Annie, like most three-year-olds, accidentally let that balloon go outside.  Through broken tears, she turned to us and asked, “Will that balloon go to Isabelle for her birthday in Heaven?”.  She was so proud of herself for delivering that birthday balloon.

Who knows, maybe a new tradition was born, but whatever happens, it was an incredible moment in our journey.

Happy fourth birthday, Izzy, we love you from now until forever.

I’m happy for you, but I’m sadder for me.

Seeing families with two children triggers me. Especially when it’s an older girl and a younger boy. My son, our rainbow baby, should have an older sister. Four – five-year-old children trigger me. They remind me of who my daughter should be today. Pregnancy announcements trigger me. They bring me back to the excitement, and more strongly the heartbreaking outcome, of our first pregnancy. Birth announcements trigger me. They remind me that we didn’t bring our first born, our daughter, home. They remind me that she died. My heart remains widely open to my family and friends – with every pregnancy announcement, I close my eyes and hope deeply that they’ll bring home a happy, healthy newborn. But it also hits a deep wound. My heart rate increases, I feel the color drain from my face, and I realize that I’m reliving the trauma of losing my child all over again. I haven’t lost the love I have for my friends and family, but I have gained an unimaginable amount of sorrow and pain through the death of my daughter.

My sister has two children: an older girl and younger boy. Her family looks just like my family should. We were all together at the beach and hired a photographer to take family photos. This happened two years in a row, and both years I became inconsolably upset. Not crying or outwardly sad, but angry – with sudden bursts of fury and vitriol. I’m embarrassed about how I acted. And I couldn’t understand, in each respective moment, why I was so heated. I examined myself and my reaction after it happened the second time. I realized what it was: the hole. The child I was missing. The complete picture that my sister had versus what I didn’t. It was an intense trigger that emerged unexpectedly for me. Triggers are perfectly predictable or entirely unrecognizable.

Sometimes, I can’t reach out to a friend after they’ve welcomed their living baby into the world. It isn’t because I don’t care, and it isn’t because I’m not happy for them. I’m sadder for me than I am happy for them. I’ve accepted this difficult reality of my grief because I’ve tried to fight it for too long. I know, now, what it does to me every single time. The exhaustion associated with sending a text, email, or calling is compounded with the fear that they’ll ask if I want to see a photo. Or worse, they’ll send one unprompted. In my mind and heart, all I see, and feel, is Lila. 

My mindset, currently, is that my family and friends understand, as much as they possibly can, because they know me – and a lot of them cried with, and for, me. They know I love them and want the best for them. Though, if they misconstrue my silence for coldness, at any juncture in our relationship amidst the growth of our respective families, I have to be ok with that. They just don’t understand. They can’t. And for that, they are boundlessly lucky.  

(Happy?) Father’s Day

I am Lila’s dad. 

I didn’t know what I wanted out of my first Father’s Day as a loss dad. What I really wanted was to be a dad to a living child. To be Lila’s father with her there next to me. Happy, healthy, here. It was exhausting to entertain the different ways I pictured the day. Anticipating the way I’d feel, and what I’d need, felt impossible. Detached numbness? Celebratory acknowledgement? I wasn’t, fully, willing to identify as a father, but I acknowledged that I had a daughter. I always thought of Lila as my daughter. Why couldn’t I consider myself a father? With empty arms, a broken heart, and feelings of failure, I struggled through how I wanted my first Father’s Day to look, and feel. Nothing felt right because I was lost.

“I can’t wait for my first Father’s Day.” I thought. Lila was due at the end of December. She’d be nearly 6 months old once Father’s Day, my first as a dad, arrived. We’d take pictures that I’d show her when she got older. That first Father’s Day, she’d be in peak baby form, delightfully chubby and smiling, at 6 months old. It would be perfect.

Lila arrived in mid-December, stillborn. My world changed, and a sadness I’d never imagined emerged internally. The moment my daughter died; a heavy darkness settled inside my heart. That darkness manifested. It was, at times, nauseating. It hurt. And it still does. That pain also found a way to exist outside of me. It was everywhere. Sometimes, where I’d least expect it. Waiting to tackle me when I’d just gotten up. Triggers were something I was so guarded against that I trained myself to “turn-off” when I left the house. That (sort of) worked (for a bit). I dreaded my first Father’s Day.

Calendar dates, or milestones, wait for loss dads all year. They’re inescapable reminders that your heart is permanently missing a love you built and dreamed of your whole life. Father’s Day, for me, was the third big milestone. Right behind Lila’s due date, and the 6-month anniversary of her birth/death. That first Father’s Day, I couldn’t hold my baby in my arms. I’d already held her for the last time 6 months ago. I’d already kissed her for the last time. Sang to her for the last time. Whispered “I love you” in her ear for the last time. That first Father’s Day, I didn’t know what I wanted.

The day, what I remember of it, felt surreal. Like a dream. Floating. In a state of shocked sadness with nothing but her on my mind. I always thought of her. Father’s Day was no different. But, something profound hit me. The moment I opened my heart to love my daughter forever, I became her father. My sadness and longing, however painful, was linked to my boundless, life-long love for my daughter. I’ll always have these indescribably strong feelings attached to her. That’s because I’ll always be her father. I didn’t immediately realize that. And I’ll carry that with me forever. There is light there.

I am a father. I am, always, Lila’s dad. 

Life Raft

After your first child is born still, your relationship with pregnancy is terrifying. “Completely fucked up” is a more accurate summation of the dynamic. The only outcome you know is devastating, heart shattering, and so viscerally painful that it makes you nauseated to recall. Your child was born dead. You gave birth to death. Faith, hope, and what is “fair” are fabled concepts. It’s hard to find comfort. You hold onto the notion that “it couldn’t happen again.” You also have the recurring, prevalent thought that “it could happen again” – because it already happened. That’s all you saw happen. The subsequent pregnancy is not one full of joy, it’s full of fear. Panic. And, in many ways, it’s torturous. 

When my wife and I got pregnant with our rainbow baby, Dallas, a glimmer of light appeared. Getting pregnant with Lila was difficult. Getting pregnant with Dallas was even tougher. But once that test came back positive, we were elated. That elation, internally for me, was immediately tempered. My heart, mind, and soul wouldn’t allow absolute happiness or relief to occupy my body. Before losing Lila, happiness flooded, and filled, my being. Now, it was being filtered through a tiny hole. Just a few drops a day, so I could function in the world. Just a few drops a day, to avoid the depths of absolute depression and hopelessness. That pregnancy with Dallas was the most anxious time in my life. I’d never had such difficulty being present. I’d never had so many pessimistic thoughts.

Trying again felt like a life raft. Despite all the uneasiness around pregnancy after losing Lila, it still felt like the only corner of the world offering a sliver of comfort. We had been tirelessly treading through an ocean of heartbreak for over a year. It felt endless. Draining, exhausting, and difficult. Everything was hard. I mean everything. Getting out of bed, focusing on tasks at work, even going to the supermarket (not just for the inevitable stroller run-in, but I always seemed to pass by the cabbage in produce. That reference will make sense to an unfortunate few) was challenging. 

Trying again wasn’t easy. For a while, everyone was pregnant except us. Would it be my wife and me and the memory of our daughter forever? Was that enough for us? That was a very real concept and conversation that we had to have with one another when getting pregnant again looked like it might not happen. That’s a tough fucking conversation to have with your partner when you two always dreamed of starting a family together. Getting pregnant, and being pregnant, after a loss is painstakingly difficult. We feel so lucky, now, to have a living child. But our living child does not replace the child we lost. We never thought it would, though I don’t know that the world sees it that way.

Pregnancy is still terrifying. While so much has changed, so much hasn’t. One thing that will never change is the hole in my family. I love you, Lila. And I miss you every single day. I wish you were here with your mom, brother, and me.

Join Us

First and foremost, thank you for being part of the Sad Dads Club.  This is the worst club with the best guys.  We are still very much a work in progress, but it is time to share some of our long-term goals with you.

Welcoming Other Sad Dads to Share

We have spent years cultivating plans for the Sad Dads Club.  Jay, Rob, and I have all shared deeply personal stories.  We signed up for this, but the main goal is to create a community.  To create a community, it can’t just be about us.

If you want to share your story, we want to hear it.  Let me be clear; there is absolutely no pressure to share.  If reading our stories, or the stories of others, helps you get through, keep going.

We want to feature guest writers as often as we can.  If you want to share your story, share your thoughts, give us feedback, or reach out privately, click the link below.

Click Here to Contact the Sad Dads

Pursuing 501(c)(3) Non-Profit Status to Increase Impact

As we continue to build out this community, we are also actively pursuing our 501(c)(3) nonprofit status so that we can have an even greater impact. This is a year-long process, and, ultimately, we will begin fundraising to support critical clinical, research, and advocacy work.  However, the Sad Dads Club will always remain a free resource, and communal space, for grieving dads.

We have three main funding objectives:

1. Grief Counseling & Mental Health Care – We will fund quality grief counseling services (i.e., therapy, psychological counseling, etc.) for parents of stillborn babies so that no grieving dads and moms have to choose between their mental health and other important needs;

2. Research to Reduce Stillbirth Rates – We will donate to reputable organizations working to reduce the rate of stillbirth; and

3. Stillbirth Awareness & Community – We will continue to spread awareness about stillbirth by expanding the Sad Dads Club community across the US and around the world.

Jay, Rob, and I all agree that professional help was a critical part of our journeys.  Unfortunately, not everyone has access to these resources.  A significant focus of the Sad Dads is getting people the help they need when they need it.

The Sad Dads have also tried to identify other organizations conducting research to reduce stillbirth.  If you know of any organizations that warrant consideration, please contact us.  If you are looking for resources, please visit our resources page.

Finally, we want to keep building this community.  At the moment, the Sad Dads Club focuses on stillbirths.  We recognize that other Dads need to be welcomed to this club.  Infertility, miscarriage, and the loss of a living child immediately come to mind.  We want them to feel included; we just need to establish the proper resources.  We only know what we know, and we urge you to reach out if you, or someone you know, would like to be that resource. 

Chris

Innocent Question

“Do you have any children?”

“Do you want children?”

“When are you going to have children?”

“Is he your only child?”

I’ve received those questions, at various junctures, consistently. Everyone in young adulthood has. Somewhere along the way, these deeply personal and complicated questions became common conversation starters. Or conversation carriers. Always delivered so casually. And, at times, by complete strangers.

They’re asked mindlessly. And innocently, I know. They can help avoid an awkward silence. Sometimes with a new acquaintance, colleague, or friend of a friend in a social setting. You don’t think twice about asking these questions if you haven’t experienced loss. And if you have experienced loss, then you probably don’t ask these questions.

Up until recently, I always gave the “easy” answer. I said “no” when asked if I had children after losing Lila, and before Dallas was born. I said “yes” when asked if he was my only child. It was the easy answer, for those who asked, to hear. Not the easy answer, for me, to say.

Recently, a contractor returned to our house. He knew me and knew my wife — I don’t think he knew my son. I asked him to text me when he arrived, rather than ring the doorbell, and mentioned that my son was napping. We discussed work that needed to be done in the basement, then the conversation was drifting into a lull. I could nearly sense the question before he asked it. “So, is it just you, your wife, and your son?” he asked me, innocently. “No.” I said immediately. “Our daughter passed away four years ago.” Stunned silence. His eyes widened and went to the floor. Not the response he was expecting. It was an innocent question, after all.

I haven’t changed my response to make anyone feel bad for asking. I take no joy in introducing a difficult moment. It’s important that people realize exactly what they’re asking. It’s an opportunity to introduce an understanding of how complicated, deeply painful, and complex the response to that innocent question can be. I changed my response because I want to honor my daughter. She’ll always be my first born. And I’ll never, ever leave her out of the conversation again.

Absence of Joy

Lila was synonymous with joy. Even before she arrived, she became our world. Everything around us changed. That sweet excitement transformed, and dictated, everything in our home: a room for her crib, a closet for her clothes, and even her own seat in our car. We could, and would, take her anywhere with us. We were finally going to fulfill our dream of becoming parents by having a baby girl.

But we never took her home. Not the way we were supposed to. She never slept in her room. She never wore her clothes. She never even saw her parents. And that last part breaks my heart every time. There was so much happiness, elation, and excitement that was tied to her. For a while, I didn’t know where else it existed in my life. Everything I loved before her, I still loved. Love was not erased where it existed, but she took so much of my love’s attention in a new, overwhelming way. She became such a focus of my love. An entirely different, new part of my heart was full thinking about her in my life. Then, it disappeared without her in my life. And that void was heavy. It still is heavy. There was (read: is, still) something so powerful about Lila. All the plans I made: the experiences I wanted to share with her, things I wanted to show her, and “I love yous” that I wanted to tell her. Her absence meant an absence of joy. Everything became past tense because there was no future. 

Within the first year of losing Lila, three babies were born in my family. That meant three separate pregnancy announcements, endless months of seeing three baby bumps grow, and enduring a strong, triggering pain that was so deep and indescribable that I had to hide from it because I was scared it would break me. What a hopelessly fucked up situation to find yourself in, as someone who’s baby was recently born still. I couldn’t participate closely, or even from afar. Inability to immerse in the incredible milestone of a loved one’s pregnancy will really make you feel like shit. I wanted to be there celebrating them, and their miracle, in the moment and beyond, but I mentally, emotionally, and physically couldn’t. I couldn’t find that joy. My family understood (as much as they possibly could) the complexities and darkness that I was navigating. I took space because I had to, not because I wanted to. This was the beginning of enduring triggers, continually revisiting trauma, and finding a way to survive in a life I’d never lived before losing her. A crash course, really. There was no way around this part of moving forward. I knew these pregnancies in my family would happen soon. But it was much sooner than I’d thought. 

It felt like my joy was taken from me and being given to everyone else. I know that’s not how the world works, but that’s how it felt then. Pregnancies, newborns — they were everywhere, inescapably everywhere. I felt so completely hopeless, sad, and angry. Hopeless that my baby died. Sad that I couldn’t be there for my friends and family expecting their babies. And angry, really angry, about the combination of those two things. Grief put a new lens on the world. Even now: nothing looks the same, nothing sounds the same, and nothing feels the same. I am four years, five months, and fourteen days removed from Lila’s death. I’m posting this on a Wednesday. She came into this world, silently, on a Wednesday. My beautiful baby girl. My first born.

She will always occupy a unique joy in my life that I’ll never get back. Ever. New joys have entered my life, but that doesn’t replace her joy. Nothing can, nothing ever will. I love you, Lila. Every single moment of every single day, forever. 

It Gets Better

If I could return to the day Izzy passed and deliver myself a letter, I would want it to express a simple but powerful theme; it gets better.  This doesn’t mean easy, just better.  Below is a short letter I wish I could have shared with myself.

Chris,

         I know you aren’t going to listen to what I am about to tell you, that’s ok.  You aren’t ready.  I am you almost four years removed from that hospital room.  Four years after you watched your daughter wheeled out of your room for the last time—four years since you spent your birthday planning a funeral instead of blowing out candles.  You have a long road in front of you, but it gets better.

         Let me assure you that your love for Izzy grows stronger every day.  In these early days, start by taking life second by second, slowly transition to minute by minute, eventually move to hour by hour, and finally day by day.  You will never go an entire day without honoring Izzy.  Embrace the days you don’t feel like doing anything, take the time you need to grieve, but I promise, it gets better.

         Today is April 7, 2022.  I know you can’t even comprehend tomorrow right now, but you have some amazing things to look forward to.  You are sitting inside a screened porch in Captiva Island, Florida, looking out over the ocean.  You are drinking a “Florida Man” IPA and listening to music with your wife.  You have been up for over fifteen hours because your daughters woke you up by screaming at 5:15 this morning.  That’s right, your daughters.  Today you brought them to the waterslides, won a pool duck race for free ice cream, and helped build sandcastles on the beach.  It gets better.

         You are about to embark on the most challenging journey of your life, but you will not do it alone.  Your friends and family will help you through your darkest hours, and you are about to meet two incredible guys who will become like family.  Through shared heartbreak, something beautiful is going to emerge.  As of today, that journey is just beginning, but through these efforts, you will find a new purpose, a new drive, and hopefully, reach a lot of people.  You are forever a member of the worst club comprised of the best guys.  With the help of this incredible community, it gets better.”

To all the Sad Dads out there, understand that the experiences above are my own.  This isn’t meant to be a roadmap or even advice about emerging from those difficult times. Depending on where you are in your journey, this might seem impossible.  Just remember, it doesn’t get better overnight, but if you keep putting one foot in front of the other, it gets better.

Chris

I Want

On some sunny days, the sun hits my face and I feel so warm. Buoyant. I think of everyone I love and everyone who loves me. A splendid dizziness. A natural rush. I let it consume me. I live in that moment. My heart feels so full. Life is wonderful. 

On some sunny days, I don’t feel the sun at all. She should be here. Here with us. Her mom, her brother, and me – her dad. I’m her dad. Her room should still be decorated. Her clothes shouldn’t be stored away in a box beneath holiday ornaments. Her laugh should be ringing throughout our home. Her pictures shouldn’t make me cry. She should be getting ready for kindergarten. She shouldn’t be a lifeless memory.  

I want to hold her. I want to kiss her. I want to braid her hair. I want to paint her nails. I want her to paint my nails. I want to make her laugh. I want to sing her favorite songs. I want to soothe her when she’s scared. I want to pick her up when she falls. I want her to know I’ll always love her. I want to read her favorite books. I want to touch her cheeks. I want to see her smile. I want to look into her eyes. I want to be her favorite guy. I want to let her stay up late. I want to bring her to the park. I want to give her colorful flowers. I want her to fall asleep in my arms. I want her to wake up in my arms. I want to see her with her brother. I want to see her with her mother. I want to put her on my shoulders. I want her to know how much I love her. 

I want to be her dad. I know I am her dad. I want to be her dad, here. I hate that she’s not here. I talk to her every day, but I want her to respond. “I love you, Lila.” I want to hear her say “I love you, dad.”