An ongoing grief
It turns out there’s a lot of help out there for men mourning the loss of pregnancy, but good luck if you aren’t John Wayne.
“I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process.” ― C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
Nothing. Numbness. And then it was overwhelming.
It was a cold January day, the freeze-your-face kind that reminds you who is in charge in the epic battle of humans vs. nature. We’d soon learn just how thoroughly nature was kicking our ass.
My wife and I were going in to see her obstetrician for an ultrasound on our newest little miracle on the way. It had been about a month and change since we realized she was pregnant with our second, and I was already doing the dad things — downloading apps, tracking the baby’s size (why are they always compared to something edible?), making lists of things I needed to get done to prepare for the little one’s arrival.
Our first child was a miracle as far as we are concerned. We are older parents and got started on the baby-having process later than most. We weren’t even sure we could pull off a pregnancy at our age, let alone be parents. But our son arrived in 2011 and he’s our world, the best thing that ever happened to us.
This new pregnancy wasn’t a surprise, except in that we weren’t sure we could even get to the point of a positive test. We steeled ourselves about the risk factors for age both in terms of loss and in terms of just how damn difficult it can be to do a healthy pregnancy at our age. I felt I was realistic throughout.
Before this January day’s appointment, we had been in for a prior ultrasound. I saw a heartbeat, a little continuous pulse that at 8 weeks was proof enough that this kid was alive and ours. It’s hard to describe it as anything but an instant connection. There’s no name and it’s the size of a blueberry, but it might as well be a newborn infant for all I care. That biological connection, that fulfilling of urge, it is so damn powerful. It’s not rational by any means, but it’s undeniably strong. How do you love something smaller than a blueberry? It just happened.
The one potential trouble spot we saw at that first ultrasound was that growth was a little bit off based on what they’d expected. It was a concern, but in my own reading there were enough other variables to know it could be a lot of things. I’m a data guy. Science and probability were of comfort to me. Plus there was a heartbeat. If there were something wrong, there would be no heartbeat. It’ll be fine. It’ll be fine.
It wasn’t fine.
We had physical signs that something was going wrong before we ever got to the scheduled followup visit, and so on that January morning we went in for an emergency ultrasound. What we saw was nothing. There was no sign of that sac, no heartbeat, no nothing. It was overwhelming and devastating, as if someone had wiped our baby from memory. As far as that screen was concerned, it never existed.
My realism and pragmatism about the risks melted away. Everything I’d told myself, steeled myself with — this is a real risk and could happen — didn’t matter. It was as if I’d never thought about the possibility. I kept thinking about the heartbeat. There was something alive there, and now there isn’t.
In the ensuing six weeks since I have kept this inside, telling only a scant few who knew about the pregnancy to begin with. Outwardly I’ve gone about my days and done my job with resolve and steadiness (I hope) but inside it’s been devastating. Almost two months later I am still mourning, still not believing we lost our baby. I look at our son now, so happy and vibrant, and get overwhelmed at how fragile young life is, how right on we were about his being a miracle. It hurts me in different ways, unexplainable ways, to look at him and realize how hit-and-miss it is that we even get to experience life with him. It’s silly sounding, perhaps, but it’s hard not to perceive all life through that lens of life easily lost. The grief of this moment got tangled with other, ongoing grief and has become its own monster.
We have lots of information out there about how to help women through miscarriage, and rightfully so. The toll is emotional as well as physical, something I observed up close as I helped my partner recover physically from the ordeal that comes with miscarriage. As it turns out, though, finding help for dads and their unique way of struggling with it is harder. I could share a lot of unhelpful links here from dads who have written about it, but I won’t deny them their own method of grieving loss. I will say that much of it is couched in terms of how to get your partner through and subtly dismisses the idea that the husband also wrestles with deep, deep loss when a miscarriage happens. It is not the same as the wife’s grief, but it is unique in its own way. Miscarriage is a taboo subject unto itself in our culture, but there seems to be an extra layer of it tacked on to men dealing with it. It’s not what is explicitly said but rather the deafening silence. Men are supposed to be the strong one, dealing with this on their own.
What I was looking for was a dad to say it’s OK to let it devastate you. I kept reading I needed to be strong for my partner, with little said about how to muster my own strength to carry on. The self-help often seemed rooted in more traditional views of masculinity; you stare stone-faced into the abyss, harden yourself and appear to move on for the sake of the family. Don’t let ’em see you cry.
Fuck that, I want to scream at them.
What I’ve gone through feels more like continuous depression, with layers of numbness and detachment interlaced with bouts of emotional agony at the What. Just. Happened. of the whole thing. No particular feeling is constant. There are days I see a way through this, and other days when the pit feels too deep. Friendships have suffered, weight has been gained, sleep has been lost.
Find me a self-help daddy blog for that.
Just as every family runs its own way based on its own unique dynamics, so do people. There is not a “male” version of grief; this isn’t deodorant or shampoo (or even more stupidly, pens). If it was just a problem of marketing that would be bad enough, but several sites explicitly said to not cry in front of your spouse so as to not appear insensitive to her own pain, which is 1000 times worse than my own. And my wife’s pain probably is that much worse, but my pain is still mine.
I haven’t said much because it feels like I’m talking about my wife’s personal medical issue. Yes, I’m involved, but the physical recovery is hers. I’ve felt I had no right to talk about it (she’s read this piece and OK’d it, by the way).
This is the point of the piece in which I should go full listicle and offer my wisdom for all. Eleven Ways Men Can Grieve Miscarriage In Their Own Way. Maybe I’d include some animated GIFs or a Left Shark thrown in for good measure. It’s clickbait gold! I mean, I am not through this grief process yet but it’s not like I have no lessons learned.
But really any list of my own lessons threatens to create a new version of what I ran into in my own googling, to force a man into his own box created by me. So I only say this:
Grieve as hard as you need to, in a way that’s true to yourself and your own pain. Don’t forget your partner, but don’t feel the need to define your grief solely through your partner’s pain.
My main message to dads reading this is you’re not alone in your anguish. How that pain manifests is going to look different for everyone, and that’s OK. Maybe you are unemotional and move on by looking to what’s next. Or maybe you need to feel it intensely. Regardless, it’s not weakness to feel something intensely. I needed — maybe even need — someone to tell me it’s OK to still be struggling with this as the odometer rolls over to two months since.