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See me: A father’s perspective after stillbirth

Guest commentary by Patrick David Heery

I am a father. I am a father of two beautiful twin boys and four children I never met. All are in heaven.

I am a father like any other. I get up in the morning and greet them. I eat breakfast with them, get dressed with them, go to work with them. When I pray each morning, I say their names and ask God to watch over them. I pray that they are happy and tell them how much I love them. I take them hiking. I show them the animals at the zoo. I read to them at night and ask them about their day. I fall asleep with them.

The only difference between me and countless other fathers is that I do all of this in my mind. No one, except maybe my wife Jenna, sees me do these things. I do them simply by living – by choosing to believe that my children are with me, in some gracious mystery beyond my comprehension. Through tears and heartache, I have felt their presence. They are bound to me, and I to them, by the Love that is God (that Parent who also knows something about child loss).

It’s been six months since the stillbirth of our twins, and people remark how well I seem to be doing. Truth is, I am doing well. I still cry. I still feel sad. I am definitely still grieving. But laughter, purpose and joy have also resumed their place in my life. I suspect that, because of this, many assume I’ve done the healthy thing and moved on. They would be wrong. There is no “moving on” for a father. You don’t ever “get over” something like this. For me, there is only moving through. I move through grief and joy, and my children are with me every step of the way.

This is what I want you to see when you look at me. I know that it’s awkward. I know that you scramble for words. I understand that you may try to avoid the subject in order to spare my feelings. You don’t want to hurt me. But the truth is this: It always hurts. I’m always thinking about my children. The best thing you can do is to give me someone with whom to share that thought.

So, please go ahead and ask me how I’m doing. Ask me about my children. Say their names. Remember.

What I fear most is not death or grief. I live both every day. They are (in time) remarkably, and ironically, quite livable. What I fear more than anything is that you will forget – that you will move on.

I understand that this is hard for you. I did not always see even myself as a father.

Our first four losses were early miscarriages. I never got to feel them kick. Never got to see them on an ultrasound or hear their heartbeat. So, for me, these losses, while fraught with pain, were oddly abstract. I grieved hopes and dreams. I wasn’t a father who had lost a child; I was someone who had lost the chance at becoming a father. For Jenna, it was different. She had felt them inside her. Had felt her body changing. Our children had been, in a very intimate and real way, a part of her. She wasn’t just grieving a lost future; she was already a mother.

This was hard on our marriage. We did our best to understand each other. We held each other and cried. We talked openly. We went to a prenatal loss support group. But it was lonely. Jenna particularly suffered.

The twins changed all that. Because we made it past the first trimester, I got to meet them too. We gave them names. We got to know their personalities – how Ezra sat Buddha-like, in quiet repose, while Leo tumbled, kicking his brother in the head, brashly waving his sex all over the ultrasound. We read to them. We listened to their heartbeat every night with our own Doppler.

The twins were not abstract. They were our sons. And I was a father. For the first time, I allowed myself to imagine that this might really happen. We started preparing the nursery. We bought them clothes and stuffed animals. We picked out a crib and stroller.

After they were born still, due to an abruption in the placenta, we got to hold them. For two days, we spoke to them, cried over them, and played music for them. We couldn’t take our eyes off them. They were beautiful.

Sometimes, I still feel them in my arms, swaddled and sleeping – like phantom limbs. Sometimes, I picture them older. Maybe six or eight years old.

They’re always smiling. Always happy. Even when I am not.

I know you want to help. There are lots of dos and don’ts I could tell you: Don’t show me the picture of your baby. Don’t tell me how we can always have another (you don’t know that, and no baby will ever replace the ones we’ve lost). Don’t try to make me feel better; don’t say it was for the best. Don’t you dare put this evil on God; don’t talk about God needing another angel. Just sit with me, tell me how sad and angry you are, and listen. Help me yell, and rage, and weep. Help me find rituals – funerals, tree plantings, candle lightings, memory boxes – to move through my grief. Ask me what I need right now: It may be solitude, or a meal, or a distraction, or a tub of mint chocolate chip ice cream.

But more than anything, please see me. See a father. Because maybe if you take the time to see me, you’ll see them too. You’ll see Ezra. You’ll see Leo. You’ll see all of my children.

You’ll see love.

PATRICK DAVID HEERY is the pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Auburn, New York, and the former editor of Presbyterians Today. Patrick lives in Auburn with his wife, Jenna, and their two dogs, spending much of their free time hiking the countryside. Check out Jenna’s blog for more of their journey.

Editor’s note: As we approach Advent, the season of waiting for the Christ child, we lift up parents who bear the grief of infertility, pregnancy loss and infant loss. These topics are traumatic and often not discussed, even in the church – yet many women find their lives marked by similar grief. In sharing these stories of heartache and grief in a series of five blog posts this week, we hope that others also journeying that path will find comfort and that churches will respond to their calling to serve those who are hurting.