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Grief and Life Beyond Child Loss: A Father’s Words

Sophia passed away in my arms on October 4th, 2011.

Barely a year earlier, Rachel and I were exchanging vows on our wedding day . . . already having our lives mapped out. But three months later on Valentine’s Day, we joyfully learned that our lives would change forever. There we sat, after dinner, in front of Walgreens staring at a positive pregnancy test. As off guard as we were caught by this new direction, we embraced jumping into the driver’s seat of would-be parents.

Unfortunately, the honeymoon period of pregnancy – and marriage – was over before it had begun. On the day set aside to reveal the sex of our new baby, we learned that our first child had developed a defect known as an omphalocele. (This abnormality occurs in utero when a fetus’ abdominal wall doesn’t fully close and certain organs protrude into the umbilical cord). In a matter of moments, our world was flipped upside down . . . only to be followed by the bittersweet words, “It’s a girl!

In the following weeks, we’d toggle the emotional rollercoasters of hope and sorrow. Doctors and decisions came and went with every sunrise. On days we didn’t sit through appointments, we’d pace our condo in anticipation of answers – ones that never came.

Ultimately, we relocated our entire lives from Norfolk to Philadelphia to seek the best-known care we could find. Rachel and I resided at the Ronald McDonald House of Philadelphia while we focused our attention towards Sophia at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).

Our spirits were high after having Sophia at thirty-two weeks via complicated C-section. Despite our prayers and best efforts, however, Sophia would live the entirety of her life in the CHOP NICU. Her health declined soon after birth and after five and a half weeks, we were faced with the unimaginable decision of letting our first child pass on.

She died six days before our first wedding anniversary.

I know that I’m writing these words to a broad audience. Not all will relate to the details above – particularly those of understanding an omphalocele. Some readers may be coping with recent loss; some long ago. Some may be dealing with the uncertainty of pregnancy complications; others have already stared down recurrent pregnancy loss. And I imagine many families are fighting to become pregnant or to financially afford the options to conceive or adopt among others.

Reciprocally, I also know I can’t relate to all the examples above; and that I may even be further detached from understanding simply because I’m a man. I know this much just from our circumstances, in how my wife and I coped differently with our pregnancy, challenges, and Sophia’s death. Emotionally, my journey as a father began the moment we found out we were pregnant. Rachels’ began years before – in her mind, longing to be a mother. So, I won’t try and pretend that I understand everyone’s story and I won’t attempt to be an authority on child loss. But, regardless of each reader’s reason for being here, there is something I know a few things about; the thing that ties the heartbroken threads of our uncommon bonds together.

It’s difficult to convey our experience in a single post but I do believe discussing grief could offer comfort to those living within a season of sorrow. Wherever you are in your journey – whenever your loss occurred – I pray my words encourage you to joyfully seek a new chapter; one abundant in happiness.

Grief, in general…

If nothing else, please understand this… you have every right to feel the way you feel. Losing a child will be one of the most difficult hits you ever experience. It’s not normal, so it’s completely okay to not be okay. Even as you regain a little bit of your old self, you can expect to “fall of the wagon” time and time again.

Seven years after losing her, we still have “Sophie Days” – days where random memories cause all hell to break loose in our hearts and minds. It can be the song we played when she passed away or visiting restaurant nearby the hospital. Whatever it is, it can shut us down for a day and I have to believe others have these days too.

Please know these days will come and go in your life. They’re the sadly emotional, yet, necessary side of recovery and I encourage you to embrace them and live in your memories of your loved one. These are the days for the ugly cries that help cleanse your heart; days where you’ll rebuild your life one stepping stone of grief at a time. Please don’t run from them. For us, “Sophie Days” are always difficult. Yet, the following days are also always the most peaceful.

This may not be easy to understand initially but I ask you to (eventually) face down your grief. Know that it’s healthy; that you are entitled to feeling the way you do as often or as long as you need.

Grief is a bittersweet double-edged sword. It’s painfully difficult to live with but it’s also what helps heals a broken heart.

As the other parent…

It’s fair to say (from my experience) that the mother usually receives most of the attention following a loss. Dad is likely sitting on the sidelines, living in his head, trying to figure out whatever it is men try and figure out. We want to be there for our bride, check the boxes of “normal” life, and hold the wall up before the rest of our world collapses too. Truthfully, we’re just broken men trying to understand the “why us” part of all this. We’re great at wearing our masks, but we’re as confused, hurt, and heartbroken as Mom. Losing a child is the hardest thing we’ve ever dealt with too, no matter how many times we grumble that “we’re fine.”

If there’s a man in your life dealing with this loss, please check in on him often. I agree that a mother-child bond is unique and should be addressed first. But consider that with (some) men, that he’s probably moved on from some friends along the way, only having his career, family, and wife’s friends in his life. In a nutshell, he might not have as many open arms in front of him. So, after you give Mom a hug, please turn around and wrap those arms around Dad too.

As a father…

Hey, tough guy! Stop holding up that wall and let go of that “men don’t cry” nonsense. We’ve reached out to numerous people over the years that have lost children. In every instance, only the wife engages. Her response to my offer to talk to her husband every single time – …“oh, he says he’s fine.”

In the politest way, that’s complete crap! I know you want to carry the world on your back, but this is where I remind you that it’s completely okay to acknowledge your heartache and pain. You lost a child, so that macho pride that works in the boardroom or the gym doesn’t apply here. You need to stare this down for your own well-being and sanity. I went down a dark road of depression and alcoholism after Sophia died – just me, a bottle, and my thoughts. Trust me that you can not walk through this on your own, in your own mind.

For the sake of your family – you must experience grief in its purest form. You have got to talk it out; cry it out with loved ones or professionals. Your wife is grieving your child too. Don’t let her grieve the emotional loss of a person she still has in her life.

Being mature in your masculinity has everything to do with knowing when to let your emotional guard down and being vulnerable. Being a man is knowing when to soften up. If someone invites you to lunch or offers you a hug, take it!

In marriage…

Loss changes who we are forever. Likewise, it can change a marriage forever too. That beautiful vision you had about your future on your wedding day is going to be hiding out behind the clouds of this storm for a while. It’s important for y’all to understand that you’re going to have to take turns holding the umbrella.

Just as important as letting yourself grieve, you must understand that your spouse is in mourning too. It’s critical that you understand that your spouse will grieve differently than you. Love them and let them be . . . and never ever make them feel guilty about their grief!

You must go into grieving knowing that your spouse might not be able to tend to your needs. My wife’s love language is Personal Touch while I’m as hands-off introvert as they come. My wife needs the comfort of company. I need a walk in the woods. She prays aloud while driving with the radio on. I seek solitude in a dark room with prayers reduced to whispers.

As okay as it is to grieve, it’s equally okay to do so on your own terms, in your own style. There is no copy and paste way to overcome a loss. Once you learn to make it your own, the sooner you can get back to life. The sooner you realize that your spouse is facing this in a way unique to them, the sooner you can assure that your marriage will not only survive, but be reinforced by your compassion and empathy for one another.

Not your identity…

I say this with a sincere (perhaps tough love) tone: do not let your grief or the loss of your loved one consume you. If it lights a fire under you to write a book, raise awareness, or start a charity, then by all means, fuel the fire of your child’s legacy. But, if years later, you’re still devastated from losing your loved one, please let me encourage you to resume living.

You are worth so much more than residing in a state of tragedy. This world is too beautiful to simply pass through. You have an opportunity to do what your loved one can no longer do and I don’t mean just functioning and breathing. You owe it to yourself to recover; to dream; to love. You owe it to those who aren’t able to live to go out and live a life worth living.

We owed our recovering to Sophia as you owe your lost loved one. But most importantly, you owe it to you. It’s okay to take as long as you need, but you cannot give up living because your loved one is gone.

Grief is what you feel, not who you are.

Love them always…

There’s good news in the entirety of this grieving process. Days become easier. A sense of self is regained. Eventually, normal gets pretty close to normal again.

I said above that you should move on, but know that you can also flourish without forgetting. Moving on doesn’t mean leaving everything behind. You will always be entitled to cherish their memories; to ugly cry when a song plays on the radio. You can remember, sob, laugh, and love them until the end of all your days. For every day that the sun rises, love them.

Love them forever . . . love them always.

But not without hope…

I don’t know that recovery is possible without taking control of your daily struggles and learning to love and give of yourself again. It takes effort; fueled by hope.

Keep your sights set on better days. Believe that you are deserving. You can’t accept better tomorrows if you don’t believe you deserve it. You can’t prepare for them if your heart is lost among yesterdays.

My wife and I buried our heads in the sand for a year before trying to have more children. We felt it was an adequate amount of time to give ourselves, yet, to also honor Sophia without rushing to move on. In that year, we focused on one another and let “Sophie Days” come as they may. Know that when I speak of hope, and learning to live again, I pour my heart out to you because while we’ve experienced the worst of life, I believe we now experience the very best.

Not only have we learned to live with our loss, we’ve also been blessed with three more little girls. As a father, I know that I love those little girls more because of the one I’ve lost. In grieving, yet, hoping for better days, we’ve now flourished in having a bigger (healthier) family than we could’ve ever imagined after Sophia died.

Grief hurt for a while, but after long, we found normal again. And truthfully, the new normal is somewhat better with deeper perspective, vision, gratitude, and love for my life and family.

For me, that’s Sophia’s legacy . . . that she taught me how to be a father to her little sisters.

I ask you the same my friend. Regardless of how closely you relate to my circumstances, what will your loved one’s legacy be?

Perhaps, just perhaps . . . your loved one’s legacy will be in teaching you how to live again; to love anew.

That life beyond loss . . . is yours.

About Nick

Nick Rhodes is an “all things adversity” blogger on his site, Matters of a Man’s Heart. He uses much of his own life experience to help guide others through related circumstances-whether it be overcoming addiction, mental illness, child loss, and even incarceration. He also blogs his perspective on his greatest passions faith, family, overcoming day-to-day adversity, and accomplishing life goals.