My name is Erik, and I’ve been married to my amazing hero wife Becky for 11 years now. We’ve had a wonderful adventure filled with those surprises that life and God bring along. Since you’re reading this on HelloGrief, it won’t surprise you that this is about the biggest surprise we’ve ever faced in our lives.
I’m a PhD student in History at Iowa State University. I love to teach my introductory classes in History while teaching in the summers at a Bible college in Jamaica. Going into our marriage, Becky and I understood that we couldn’t have children on our own. We both felt that we would love to be parents, but if that’s the deal, that’s the deal. We learned to be content for those first 10 years. This is our family. This is who we are. So we thought.
The first part of the surprise was an amazing thing. Over the course of a few days, Becky just couldn’t hold food down. By that weekend she was getting nauseous every time we drove around a curve in the road. She had these weird emotional swings where she would cry when she meant to laugh, and laugh when she meant to cry. It was wild, and we knew something was going on. We got suspicious, and for the first time ever, we found ourselves purchasing a pregnancy test. Imagine our surprise when we saw the results…we were going to have our impossible baby!
Since you’re here, you know that this couldn’t be the ending. Becky rolled pleasantly through her pregnancy. We laughed. We contemplated names. We got stocked up on supplies for a baby. Becky was in perfect health. Every measurement was spot on, every doctor visit was a breeze, every single time. In early August, our doctor called us his “dream patients.” We came in to each appointment happy and excited. We asked good questions, did the right things, and (in words that we all regret now) “never had a hint of trouble with this pregnancy.”
On August 17th, we went in for the last of our two week appointments. We were going full term. At any moment in those four weeks, our beautiful little girl would join our lives in the outside world! The appointment started without a hitch, as usual. Becky and I told jokes in the waiting room. She weighed in perfectly on track and measured well. We had the “welcome to full term” chat with the doctor. He was excited. We were excited. Everything had fallen perfectly into place.
Like he did in every appointment, the doctor set up to do the Doppler thing that let him (and us) hear our baby’s heartbeat. We had heard our little Doria’s heartbeat pound and echo through that room so many times already, and gotten some neat comments from the doctor about her incredibly strong heart. At this point, I noted the cheesy artwork on the walls, and kidded the doctor about his design skills. He joined in the laughter, and said that’s why he’d become a doctor and not an artist. We were all laughing and having a great time. Joy and levity echoed in the room.
Until it didn’t.
He put the Doppler thing down towards Becky’s chest, and there was silence. Nothing. Our doctor, the calmest guy I knew looked suddenly very concerned. He gave us a valiant “maybe she’s moved to a different spot” and tried that. Nothing. He left the room to get a portable ultrasound machine.
While we waited, Becky knew. Still, I tried to reassure her that it wasn’t a done deal yet. The doctor set up the portable ultrasound and ran that thing over every last inch of Becky’s belly. Nothing.
No sound. No heartbeat. No more life.
The doctor sent us to the big ultrasound. At this point, we were all really just grasping at straws. The big ultrasound gave us a big picture and the same big silence. You could see that spot behind our baby’s delicate ribs where her heart had been beating, and where now nothing was happening. The miracle story was over. Our baby girl died. As near as we can tell, she was moving that morning, and dead in the afternoon. Whenever it happened, though, our baby girl was dead.
We prepared to go across the street to the hospital for delivery. This was supposed to be an excited and frazzled walk in. We were supposed to be having our miracle baby! We had Doria’s homecoming outfit picked out. This was supposed to be the most exciting day we’d ever experienced in our entire lives. I figured that we’d be smiling broadly to every single person we passed, making sure that they knew why were so excited. We’re going to have a baby! We would be joyously basking in the wonder that was our delivery day.
Instead, we moved quickly and made eye contact with no one. What did we really have to say? We were devastated. Thankfully, if you don’t make eye contact, you can walk past about anybody. It’s a sad but merciful lesson to learn.
We got to the room, and I did the guy thing. I didn’t want for Becky to feel she had to make those phone calls. I figured, “This is the ugly news. That’s my job. I’ll man up and roll with it. That’s what we do.” I called my parents, then hers. I aimed at playing it straight and keeping it calm. That lasted until I actually had to speak the words. It’s not a surprise, but the long pauses in between words and sentences tell people a lot. I started by saying that we were in the hospital, and that Becky was OK. Of course, that left something on the table, so I just went with “the baby’s not OK. She didn’t make it.” Those calls didn’t last long, because nobody was in any condition to talk. This was not the conversation any of us had anticipated. I called one of our pastors, and started the notification process. We scheduled people in to visit, and life went on in our little disaster room. It was horrible. Many of you probably know that better than you ever wanted to, and I’m so deeply sorry that we have that in common.
A friend of ours from church was scheduled to take jubilant newborn family pictures with us that day. Instead, she came to the hospital and took lovely, bittersweet photos of us and our dead little girl. The photographer and her husband have been friends with us for a couple of years. They had prayed long and hard for us to have a baby, so it was really important for her to be involved, even at this awful stage. She had an amazing eye for what “normal” would have been, and our adorable pictures are as close to normal as could be for a stillbirth scenario. I look at those pictures, or at least some of them, every day. That’s part of our lifeline and our connection to Doria. They are the only chance that we have to look at her, so we treasure those deeply. They are absolutely wonderful, an unexpected ray of light in the loss of our child.
When we got home, I got to put my seminary education to use, and we planned a wonderful funeral with our pastor for our little Doria. Whether we wanted it to or not, our new life began. I’ve never been down this road before. We weren’t even supposed to be able to conceive, but we did. Babies don’t die at full term, but ours did. Becky and I walked into a painful new world that we never imagined, couldn’t have guessed existed. We joined a club that nobody wants to join, and there’s no leaving it. Once we’d paid the ultimate price, there’s no turning back.
Death doesn’t change. You cannot argue or reason or pray your way out of its finality. Knowing that this is new for me, I went searching for resources. I’m a researcher by trade, and I love digging for answers. I’m wired that way, and it’s important to me. It didn’t have to be statistics, just something that told me about our situation: what people thought, what happened, how we ended up in this place. I figured that anything I could learn might help me figure out where to go next, how to get through this. I wanted something that talked about what fathers did in this sort of situation, what I should do. I wanted something to hang onto, some direction, some guidance from another father who had been down this road before. I found almost nothing.
That seemed impossible, too. How could nobody write something for me? How could no one have left some sort of map for me to follow? It’s not like children happen without fathers. There had to be more of us. I had questions. I still have questions. I’m surrounded by good and caring people, but I have questions they simply can’t answer. Those questions may well always be there.
The situation brought to mind some old military leadership training, some teacher training, and some ministry books I had read. I boiled it all down to this: If you see a need, you are presented with a choice. You can ask someone that doesn’t personally have the burden to try to help you fill the need, or you can take the silence as a hint and do something yourself. My entire goal in writing about Doria’s death is simply to share my story. I’m not a grief expert. I’m just some guy walking through, figuring out how to move along with a little bit (ok, a lot) of help from my friends and family. My hope is that you can find some comfort in my Dori story, and that you’ll know that you aren’t alone. It’s horrible, but you’re not the only one, and you don’t have to do this by yourself.
Things are getting better, grief is talked about more openly now, but nobody really speaks to men on this. Specifically, men don’t speak to men about this. It’s just not our normal, but stillbirth wasn’t supposed to be our normal, either. We’re left out of our own story, and I think that’s sad. I want to share my Dori story so that you can at least see someone that’s been there before and lived the ups and downs. Apparently, those ups and downs go on for years, so I expect some victories and defeats along my way. If that happens to you, you’re not alone, man.
It’s not perfect, but welcome to my Dori story.
Erik is a teacher, a husband, and a student, and became a bereaved parent when he and his wife lost a pregnancy at 38 weeks. Erik blogs about his experiences with grief and healing.