Your pulse quickens, your eyes become super focused, the ringing in your ears becomes louder, your breath is heavy and fast. Are you preparing to present to the board of directors at work, or to give a speech to a huge crowd? No, you are simply preparing for a normal social situation when you wear the scarlet letter of being a loss parent.
You are stuck in the unenviable position of entering a situation where either everyone knows that you have lost your child, or you know that people will ask “Do you have kids?” and you will have to choose how to answer what was once a remarkably easy question.
You go into these situations knowing that you are not the person you were before your loss, and that those who know, treat you differently, you are now the dreaded other, you are everyone else’s nightmare, you are the “dead baby man/woman/couple.”
It changes you and makes every social interaction you will have for the rest of your life that much more difficult.
When I lost my sweet Olivia to stillbirth, I knew that I would not be able to retreat from the world as long as I would have wanted to, or frankly needed to.
Bills needed to be paid, client matters needed to be attended to, and as much as we would want the world to stop with us, and mourn our children, the world keeps spinning while we are stuck.
I returned to work a mere eleven calendar days after hearing “no heartbeat” and entered a new and frightening world as a loss parent.
Of course, co-workers and friends knew about what had happened with Olivia, and treated me with grace and compassion upon my return, but it is not those that are closest to us that cause the anxiety of the carrying our loss.
It is the peripheral people in our lives, the new people, the “single-serving” friends that are the most difficult to interact with now.
The hardest moments are those where everyone else knows what happened, but no one else knows how to help you, handle interacting with you, or what to say.
After losing Olivia, I attended a conference where many of the attendees have gone for years, and I know several of them well. Most knew that my wife and I were expecting and that I was overjoyed with the prospect of becoming a first-time father, and they all knew the tragedy that unfolded just a month or so before the conference.
When I walked into the room, I noticed something different, people looked away from me, or conversations were shorter than usual.
After some time, the dam broke, and Olivia’s passing came to the forefront. I was met with the same tired tropes that we have all heard before; “You are young, you can still become a dad” “You were meant to be a dad, you’ill have another child” and all of the seemingly helpful platitudes.
But, after these comments are shared, the conversation quickly ends, as you see, no one wants to be hunkered down talking to the man wearing the scarlet letter. It is merely an invitation to an awkward conversation that no one wants to have, or that they themselves cannot contemplate.
The conversations are especially short when you are speaking with other parents.
What happens is: in your eyes, they see their own worst nightmare.
Even before I lost Olivia, I lost sleep over all of the things that could have happened to her, thinking about how I could protect her from the dangers of the world, knowing that she would be vulnerable and that it was my duty to protect her from those dangers.
This must be the same feeling that all parents have, a primal evolutionary urge to protect your child and ensure the species survives.
When these other parents see you, they see the physical manifestation of their worst nightmare. They likely think, if this could happen to him, it could happen to me.
The thought makes them uncomfortable they realize that bad things do in fact happen to good people and that despite any precaution that they may take that their child’s wellbeing is not always in their control.
I would guess being confronted face-to-face with the “other” is what makes the conversation end so quickly.
The more one can insulate themselves from their fear the happier one is.
Now that our baby has died, we are the fear that other parents insulate themselves from.
On the other side of the spectrum of people who know of your loss, are those that simply want to dwell on the tragedy. They come up to you and tell you how sorry they are about what happened. They ask if you know what went wrong, and discuss other people that they know who have lost children.
You sit and listen to them talk about how hard it must be for you, and how brave you are to be able to go out to whatever event in spite of your loss, they extol that they could not do the same and that you are constantly on their mind.
While it is helpful to have the support of these people, and I generally relish the opportunity to talk about Olivia, I want to control the narrative. Olivia was more than her death, and I as her father am more than a grieving dad.
I am the dad that wouldn’t let her mom fill her gas tank for 9 months because we read somewhere that the fumes might be dangerous.
I am the dad that joked about having the hockey game on in the delivery room, so she would be a fan since birth, I am the dad that was always able to calm her down by putting my hand on my wife’s belly and saying that I loved her.
I want to and deserved to be defined by more than our loss, and these conversations define us as loss parents, and not as parents as we so desperately want to be and deserve to be.
Nobody, especially loss parents should be defined by the worst moment of their lives, a moment for which they had no control.
When you have these conversations with those that know what happened, you become defined by your loss. You are no longer the person you once were to them, you wear the scarlet letter.
While interacting with people who know of your loss presents its own challenges and anxieties, it is worse to interact with those that do not know.
In our society, it is commonplace to ask overtly personal questions to couples. The most common small talk after what do you do for a living is ‘do you have kids?’ or ‘are you thinking about having kids?’ This question now sends a chill down our spines.
Each time I have been asked this question, I find that I cannot make eye contact with the person who is asking, and my voice drops to a much more quiet tone. I always respond that I have one daughter who was born with her angel wings, but it is not easy to tell a stranger your reality.
The conversation gets so much harder from there. Either the person asking awkwardly tries to end the conversation as quickly as possible, leaving you alone thinking about your loss, and perhaps others at the event seeing someone leave you so quickly, left wondering what was said to so abruptly end a conversation.
Or, the person asks the probing questions that they really have no place asking, what happened, are you trying again, or anything of the like. It is simply not their business as to what took my daughter from this earth, and where they come off asking such a question to a stranger is beyond me.
Again, you become defined by your loss, on someone else’s terms rather than your own.
When you lose your child no matter what age they were taken from you, it becomes a seminal moment in your life. It robs from you all of the hopes and dreams you had for your child, and the future you wanted to share with them.
It also defines you and paints the scarlet letter of child loss on you, one that cannot be washed away, and this letter controls conversations and interactions in ways that only exacerbate your most terrible of losses.