It turns out that fathers (quietly) grieve after losing an unborn child too

Personal

After experiencing the loss of my baby, I have learnt a hard lesson on how fathers are forgotten during this traumatic time alongside the mother. But that's rarely discussed.

By Ahmed khalifa

*Trigger warning – this post covers baby loss, miscarriage and grief*

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It has been a long journey; around four and a half years in fact.

Watching my wife Claire from afar, I could sense that the pregnancy has changed her mood for the better, since there is now hope after not knowing whether there was going to be any.

Since she has Type 1 diabetes, the challenge of managing, maintaining and getting the HbA1c to the right level requires attention for 24/7, even during the middle of the night. If she was to get pregnant, her sugar level needs to be at a safe range for the health and safety of both and baby.

So when I say it has been a long journey, it's the longest journey of our lives, which consisted of dozens of appointments, many sleepless nights, anxious moments and multiple heartbreaks. Even though I was part of it, she had to do the grunt of the work to make it happen.

Which is why when we got the official go-ahead from the doctors, followed by a positive pregnancy test, things were finally looking up after an emotional and mentally draining journey.

We had all sorts of plans on how we were going to make the announcement, but we both felt that we wanted to wait until the 12th week, just so we are sure things we were going to be fine. And after the 8th week viability scan, we were very slowly getting more confident on the pregnancy.

But things can change dramatically

Until we heard the sonographer saying to us "I have some concerns..." during the 12-week scan.

After seeing the baby wriggling, with the heart beating (and looking more baby-like instead of a blob), that sentence sent a shiver through my spine and I know I stopped breathing because I wasn't sure whether I heard it right (especially since she was wearing a mask).

We had to rush to another hospital for specialists to look into it more. That car journey between the two hospitals was filled with worry, fear, anxiety. I tried to be reassuring to Claire, but we were quiet most of the way.

Following the scan, it was confirmed that it's bad news. At first, I wasn't sure what they were saying because they were whispering and they had masks on, which removed the possibility of lipreading (I guess my hearing aids and sunflower badge were not obvious enough).

I had to interrupt them to ask them to speak up when they were speaking, and it was down to Claire to look at me, with tears in eyes and shaking her head at me.

Either way, my heart sunk.

And when we went into the cold, quiet and stereotypical waiting room, it was official. After a few days, Claire had to go through the process of terminating and removing the baby.

It's bad enough to watch her go through the journey to get to this stage. But now she has to go through this too?!

She doesn't deserve that.

Even though it's stupid (from our perspectives anyway) to have the room in the same ward where there are heavily pregnant women and newborn babies, I watched in admiration as to how the midwife team helped us, smoothing the process as much as possible, providing emotional support and giving empathy in the right place at the right time.

Throughout the process, I felt useless. I continued to push aside my feelings (though I had been crying privately) and focused on helping Claire get through it. That's how it works, right? The full attention is on the mother and I should just get on with it.

Still, it was an emotionally draining day.

Photo by Darius Bashar

The most painful thing that I have ever witness

And then came the moment which is permanently implanted in my head, the most difficult moment of my life which happened on 20th January 2021 at 2.10pm.

As my loving wife goes through the procedure, I then watched the midwife taking my baby away, with gentle, with care, with love...never to be seen again.

I didn't even get the chance to say goodbye.

You can go through many heartbreaks in life. You can even read about philosophy and learn to prepare mentally for the worst. But nothing will prepare you for that.

It's a scene that is replayed many times in my head. In real-life, I was not aware of what was going on. It felt like an out-of-body experience yet I was flat-footed with heavy feet at the same time. But in my head, it's played like a broken record.

I couldn't fault the care provided by the midwifery team at the hospital. They even suggested taking us out of a staff-only backdoor so that we didn't have to walk through the corridor past pregnant women and babies.

But as soon as we left the hospital...that's it.

We're back to square one and we were supposed to continue living our life from then on. But how do we do that? Why do we do that? What if we don't want to do that?

What choice did we have...during a pandemic and in the middle of lockdown too.

Yeah, this is going to be a breeze.

How I have been dealing with child loss?

I originally thought that the best way to deal with this is to keep myself as busy as possible and occupy the mind. So I only took a couple of days off work during that week then returned the week after. However, it wasn't until a teammate pointed out to me that I needed a break that I realised I am completely broken inside.

In hindsight, I should have taken more time off at that point. But I didn't want to admit that I needed a break.

Shout out to those who encouraged me to take a break so that I can be selfish and look after myself better, and then able to look after Claire better.

You know the old cliche...put your own oxygen mask on first before helping a fellow flight passenger.

In search of escapism and clarity, I did the following:

  • it's no secret that I like to read...so I did plenty of that
  • go on plenty of long walks, regardless of the weather
  • play some video games (Assassin's Creed Valhalla to be specific.)
  • writing and reading poetry
  • writing in my journal
  • talking to friends and families (virtually of course)
  • writing this post

I have always been a bit of a conservationist and look to provide a way to make a positive impact to planet Earth's natural world. One way is to plant trees, something which I have always wanted to do. We have decided to start our own tree grove in the Scottish highlands in memory of our baby, but also to celebrate moments or to donate on behalf of someone in the future. This is a way for us to create a memory that is also long-lasting and creates a positive impact to the world.

This is done by a charity called 'Trees for Life', and you are welcome to plant trees (only £6 each) to celebrate or commemorate any moment in your life via our very own tree grove in the Scottish Highlands.

Another service that I highly recommend is the baby loss charity called Held In Our Hearts. We have been making use of their befriending services individually, where I was speaking to fellow fathers who have gone through the same process. They also offer counselling, which I may also take up in the future depending on how the befriending goes. But their service has been outstanding for both us and they have really helped us to deal with the pain.

If you want to contribute, I would appreciate if you would donate to one of the two causes above.

Over time, I have come to learn more about how other fathers grieve, whether it's through the charity or reading articles online. But I've spotted a common trend, which is it's rarely talked and at times, it is ignored.

Why I feel fathers are ignored when losing a child?

There is already a huge stigma when a mother has lost a child, whether it's via a miscarriage, stillborn or otherwise. The fact that the former can happen to 1 in 4 mothers just shows how common it is, yet it is rarely talked about.

Personally, I don't feel like we have gone through a miscarriage. Not only do I not like that word, but it's not like we had a choice. The baby would not have survived when born, so we had no choice but to terminate the pregnancy.

But I have noticed that fathers are perhaps more likely to be ignored in this conversation. I may have subconsciously played a part in that movement because I have always believed that the number one focus should be on the mother who had to go through the physical AND the mental ordeal. For me, my immediate assumption and priority is to focus on Claire and put aside my feelings.

Little did I know, I began to experience my own pain, which was bubbling away underneath. It's like a pan of hot water, simmering away and getting warmer. I dared not to allow it to get warmer. My mind is focused on helping Claire to recover. My internal and instant belief is that she has it worse, she deserves more care, more attention, like any mother.

But then that pan of water is starting to boil aggressively, and the lid is not staying in place.

I was also very confused about how I was "supposed" to feel. I tried to get through the process by telling myself that it's "only" 12-week so I shouldn't feel like that. I was actually critical of myself and blaming myself on how I felt. But I didn't know any better, nor was I sure that I am allowed to feel how I feel.

Call it societal expectation or disjointed masculinity, but that seems to be a common trend. During a befriending call with a fellow father who has talked to dozens of men in similar scenarios, I have learnt that fathers are often left out of the equation when people are asking mothers on their feelings. This leaves us left out and to figure it out on our own on how to go through the process.

You see, it's not about wanting more attention or diverting the focus away from the mother.

It's about having empathy.

It's about acknowledging that we exist alongside the mother.

It's about understanding our grief and the unique nuances that come with it, as it's different to mothers.

It's about asking fathers how are they feeling on top of asking how are their wives, girlfriends, partners.

It's about being part of the conversation whenever anyone talks about losing a baby.

Instead, we are left alone.

Black and white photo of man sitting on ground beside wired fence with his head on his arms
Photo by Mojtaba Ravanbakhsh

What you should never say to grieving parents?

I'd like to think that I am self-aware of how to talk to other people when they have lost a child. There is some awareness out there, though the stigma still exists for both mothers and fathers.

Now with my new first-hand experience of going through this trauma, I have learnt that there are many things you should never say if parents are grieving, for example:

  • "You will get pregnant again" - right now, that's not what we are thinking. It might have already been a really hard journey, so to get back on the bandwagon is not as straightforward as one might assume. For us, we have other diabetes-related complications to deal with first. But most importantly, now is the time to ignore what just happened. When you lose your baby, yes we want to move forward but we don't want to dismiss that the baby existed.

  • "Things will get better/you will feel better soon" - saying this means that you are dismissing and invalidating what we are feeling right now. We are allowed to feel the pain and that is an important part of grieving. Again, we know it will get better, but we don't need telling.
  • "It happens/it's common" - we knew this already in advance, but even if we didn't, it will not that make a person feel any better.

  • "It's not like it happened after the baby was born" - this is not relevant at all. It doesn't matter how it happened, as a person will find it a hard experience. Saying this will remove the human aspect of the baby, as if it's not a baby. As if it's not human...

  • "You've got a child ready" - this is completely irrelevant again. At no point was the other child ignored, dismissed or not appreciated. Nor does it mean it's easier to deal with a baby loss if you already have a child/children. It is a big deal, whether you have already have children or not.

A huge aspect of the entire list above is when people start their sentence with the words "At least...". Claire and I have an important rule in our house; if one of us is sharing a pain, struggle or a problem, we are not allowed to start our response with the words "At least...".

The person who is feeling that pain should feel validated. Removing that pain away is dismissive and ignores what the person is going through.

For example, a close friend of mine has experienced a horrific baby loss towards the end of her 3rd trimester due to unfortunate complications through no fault of her own. But even though she already has a happy toddler, I would never say "at least you've got a child already". That is completely irrelevant to the hugely painful and traumatic experience that both herself and her husband have gone through.

The hard part for me is (to try) to understand that people are trying to say it with good intentions. But truthfully (and trust me, it's not just me who thinks this), it can be hurtful I have always disagreed in the past when I hear comments like those mentioned above passed around. But now I can officially say this can cause more pain than relief.

Be aware of what and how you are saying.

What you could say and/or do to help grieving parents instead?

I can appreciate that it is not easy to provide support and comforting words when someone has experienced this. But ignoring is not the best solution either.

Here are some of the things you can say and/or do if you want to support a parent who has lost a child:

  • "I am here for you"
  • "You're not on your own"
  • "What can I do for you?/Let me know if you need anything"
  • "I'm really sorry to hear that"
  • "I can't begin to imagine how difficult this must be for you"
  • Offer to cook food, carry out errands and handle daily tasks
  • Send messages to keep in touch
  • Be aware that some parents may require some space
  • Do not expect instant responses to your phone calls or messages
  • Do not feel insulted if you haven't heard anything back (it's not about you, you know?)
  • Be aware that you may need to be in a private room if you have a child in view or with you when chatting to the parent

I have personally received a wide variety of messages from close friends and families. A few of the best ones I've received are below (and they will remain anonymous):

"I just wanted you to know that you're not on your own and that we are on your side and we care about you. I don't know why bad things happen happen to good people, but I'm sure you've got a lot of happiness in store to overcome this sadness. That's what you deserve my friend."

"I cannot begin to imagine how you feel, nor will I pretend to know. I'm sorry to hear that."

"...what an incredibly raw, painful and scary time. I'm so, so sorry so hear that and I'm sending lots of love to Claire too. Thank you for your openness and courage, and know that you are not alone. I know this can't have been easy to write, to share - if there's anything specific that you can think of that could offer you support, then you know just to drop a line."

"I didn't call you when (my mother) told me what happened because I didn't know what to say....Still, I don't know what to say, but I know that I love you both".

And of course, there were personal phone calls from family members and friends too.

Photo by Jonny Clow

One final and important advice

If you ever feel the need to ask a woman when is she going to get pregnant, when is she going to have another baby, why has it not happened...stop yourself immediately. This also applies to fathers too, albeit in a slightly different context.

You have no idea what that person is going through or has gone through. Asking those questions is a huge intrusion of their privacy, and can be a huge trigger for some people who has gone through painful moments in their lives.

I've had a couple of people asking me that question before in the past and I'm wary that someone will ask that to my wife too.

Frankly, it's none of your business.

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I'll be honest; I was not desperate to have a child. My philosophy was whatever happens, happens.

We know enough people within our close circle of family and friends who would love to have a child but they are not able to for whatever the reason. That has added a sense of awareness and cautiousness to how I approach this, which was "if it happens, great. If not, that's fine".

So why has this been a difficult experience if I had that attitude, you ask?

This is very different. We have both applied a huge amount of time, energy and emotions poured into the journey and had the end goal in sight, only to have it snatched away in a cruel manner. Even with my philosophy on how I approached this, you will still experience pain.

Would it have been more traumatic if I was desperate to have a child? Perhaps. But you know that scene that is been replayed in my head? That's not something you can just delete like an email in your inbox.

Part of the reason why I decided to write this post is create a voice, speak up about it and raise that awareness for all the fathers out there who have experienced the loss of a baby. As I already do this when I talk about deaf awareness, I have seen how powerful and helpful it can be to other people when you make them feel less lonely because of what I have written or recorded.

Everyone has their own backstory. It's not always as straightforward as "we tried to have child, got pregnant quickly and we lost it". There are so many stories out there that happens in the background. Whether it was a successful pregnancy or not, the journey can still be incredibly stressful.

But if there is one thing I ask, it's to be aware that people may be quietly struggling. A simple check-in can make a big difference.

If you have any comments or if you want to share your own story, feel free to leave a comment or you can contact me privately.

Thank you to the midwife team (including Marion and Chloe) at the Royal Infirmary Hospital in Edinburgh and the Held In Our Hearts charity (thank you Gemma and Mikey) for their outstanding support, as well as our close friends and families, who tried their utmost when it is especially hard to do so at a distance during a pandemic.