I have written numerous posts over the last (almost) 5 years of life since our daughter Poppy was stillborn on her due date. I have spoken about my own grief, inability to function and trauma on numerous occasions, but I have never shared Nathan’s perspective. Not because I haven’t wanted to (I have, so many times), but rather because he has never wanted to talk about his deep emotions so publicly, and nor has known how to – and I respect that. We have both found different ways to cope.
This June however, for SANDS awareness month, it is all about raising awareness on male baby loss, and something changed – he agreed to tell his story to hopefully reach other dad’s! Whether a father, uncle, grandfather, brother… baby loss affects them too and finding their way through it is often just as rocky and messy. A survey by Sands found that almost a third (31%) of men who had suffered the trauma of a baby dying were not referred to a helpline or other sources of support, and in our personal experience, Nathan was told right off the bat by many to be strong for me. That perspective and lack of support angered me (a lot) and him too, because his daughter had died too and his baby was gone too soon also. He too needed to grieve and process that.
We often wondered it it was strong to hide his pain to try and help me? or Was it strong to act like nothing had happened for him – to help me? We didn’t understand it and it wasn’t helpful for either of us. I was the one that had birthed her yes, but he was the one that had lowered that casket into the grave. We were both, in our own ways just as helpless, lost and broken on this journey. Nothing was normal anymore (and still in essence isn’t).
Neither of us ever anticipated baby loss when we wished to grow our family from 2 kids to 3, but here we were, thrust into it and utterly heartbroken. And so today, after almost 5 years since losing Poppy at term, Nathan (her daddy), will share with you his perspective of baby loss and stillbirth, and how he found his way through the trauma and grief of it all!
Baby Loss – Poppy’s Dad’s Perspective
Nothing can really prepare you for the loss of a child. For 33 years of my life I would hear of, and read stories about ordinary people who had lost children, always thinking it wouldn’t happen to me. I suppose I did take it for granted that we had 2 healthy children and that Mary again would be pregnant for 9 months and then out would pop another bundle of joy all happy and healthy.
In 2014 however this was not the case for us and, as Mary’s husband it was extremely difficult to witness her go through a stillbirth and not be able to do anything. Looking back I would say it had a lot to do with being powerless in changing the outcome, because normally in life, when we have problems and difficulty, we work together to find a solution – but there wasn’t one in this case because our daughter had died.
I couldn’t protect my 2nd daughter and I couldn’t ease my wives heartache.
And then, in this state of being powerless for my family, people would say things like “just have faith” and “be strong” – I was so annoyed!
When Poppy died…
After we had discovered that Poppy had no heartbeat (that afternoon at Leeds General Infirmary), the reality hit me that this was going to be something I would struggle with emotionally and something that felt insurmountable. As we left a few hours later from being told such awful news, I was filled anger and found myself driving faster than I probably should have – I had so many “why’s” running through my mind and we wanted to be far away from what our reality was. And then, in a blur, it was a new day and we found ourselves hidden away in the bereavement suite of the LGI (something we never knew existed) with a specialist midwife who tried her best to make the experience a little bit better. It was a long roller-coaster of a night but there are moments I will never forget.
In the minutes leading up to delivery and the birth of Poppy, I was overcome with a feeling I’d never had before. It was a feeling of intense darkness that caused me to feel nauseated as I anticipated facing the body of our daughter with no life. I felt awful, but I couldn’t stay – I had to leave the room.
Moments later the midwife came and got me and I felt heartbroken as I walked back in to see Mary holding Poppy on the bed. I was of course immensely proud of her courage and tenacity in such difficult circumstances, but again I felt so heavy and powerless. I felt angry and broken-hearted as I looked down on my little girl – lifeless. The silence was all consuming and nothing like the birth’s of our other children.
It was 5 a.m and very difficult to sleep that day. I found myself weeping with the tears streaming down my face in the dark room next door. As an adult, I think it was only the second time I had cried, and It was certainly the most I have ever cried as an adult up until that point. I simply had to let it all out, I was overcome with devastation and grief.
Later that day family came to visit and brought our other 2 children to visit too. I remember my almost 4 year old son looking up at me as he held Poppy’s hand with innocence and asked me; “Daddy, when will Poppy wake up so we can play with her”! It felt like the wind had been knocked out of me and I stumbled over my words to try and make some sense at what had happened to our family. It was around this time that I felt the burden of having to “put on a brave face”. I simply didn’t feel comfortable sharing what was going on inside, or how this was all making me feel. I imagined (and would soon come to find out) that it would create a lot of awkwardness – and I was already carrying so many emotions I had never before felt.
The funeral came around days later and intensity hit again. I managed to speak in front of a congregation and Mary and I carried her coffin out of the chapel and into our own car, before taking her to the cemetery. The whole thing was uncomfortable and painful and so far away from my comfort zone. There are not words in the English language to describe the feelings I had that day, especially when I lowered her tiny coffin into the ground that September day in front of our families. I hope that I never have to feel the way I did that day, burying and walking away from my newborn – it was harrowing. But, it was the last thing I could do for her in this life.
I took some time off work to just be, but looking back I wish I had taken longer – we were a mess and very low for a long time after. I assumed some normality would help and I felt I needed to be working for my family, but it all happened too quickly – I was just going through the motions of what normal was, whilst feeling so heavy and angry that she had gone too soon.
Trying to find my way through the fog of losing a child was awful. On the one hand I was low and grieving, on the other there was an expectation to “man up”, provide for my family and be strong for my wife. I found wherever we went, people either avoided the fact our daughter had recently died at birth, or would jump straight into asking how Mary was and if she needed anything – I was rarely asked how I was or how I was feeling and whilst I may have been reluctant to offer up the truth of the matter, it would have been nice for people to recognise the pain I was feeling too and the loss I too experienced.
After a few months, Mary suggest I see the bereavement counsellor at the hospice we had been to following Poppy’s birth. She had been going and found it helpful and I soon realised It was a relief to be able to talk things over and say out loud, without judgement, how I was feeling too. We always enjoyed going to the hospice – they were good at normalising what we had been through, and good at talking about Poppy. It was a place we felt close to her.
I also found my way through grief and losing a baby, by attending SANDS. I was reluctant at first, as I didn’t want to be the only dad. I soon found comfort in listening to other couples, and even enjoyed laughing again with other Dad’s as we all tried to support and navigate life after loss. I didn’t attend as much as Mary did, but it helped me when I needed it and I even found myself contributing and sharing things some months too.
Losing a child as a father completely sucks. You are left powerless, yet told to be strong. People forget you have lost a child too and are also missing out on each moment and milestone. So many people told us that to have faith would help and that time would heal, and yet after almost 5 years the pain still remains and tugs inside. I am still finding my way through the pain and fog of each day without her here, and some days are easier to carry that. But, what helps is for us to talk about her and how we feel with each other, celebrate her life in our own ways and not shy away from the fact she is ours (although some days I feel to protect her by not sharing, because I have learnt people feel and make it awkward). I also find certain songs help me grieve in my own way and reflect, and also getting out in nature.
There are no right ways to get through this journey, but I do know that pretending to be okay and “being strong” only prolongs the pain that will inevitably consume you, because after all, your baby died and nothing can prepare you for how life and fatherhood will change following that loss.
If you know anyone affected by the loss of baby, want to support, or yourself are going through this horrific loss – please contact SANDS https://www.sands.org.uk/get-involved/sands-campaigns/finding-your-way-sands-mission-possible they have helped us find our way on numerous anniversaries and times.