A New Reality on Father’s Day
Do you remember in Kindergarten, when the teacher would ask what you wanted to be when you grew up?
While everyone else said, “a fireman!” “a doctor!” “an astronaut!” I said, “a Daddy!”
I thought a dad was the coolest job in the world! Mostly because I was fortunate enough to have a great father myself, who was present, loving, and always there for me.
Last year I got my wish when my wife and I became pregnant with a baby boy.
I was so excited and nervous at the same time. It really hit me when I heard his heartbeat on the ultrasound for the first time. I had helped create a new life.
At that moment, I leapt into full Dad-prep mode. My wife didn’t have to tell me to get any baby books, I went out and bought four off of Amazon immediately!
I was on Consumer Reports and watching YouTube reviews every day on baby strollers, car seats, pack n plays–everything. I had diapers and changing areas on every floor of our house. I attended all the classes at the hospital along with my wife and had two different apps on my phone for contraction counting.
I wasn’t growing my child inside me, so I wanted to make sure I was doing everything I could to prepare for his arrival. I was going to figure out how to do this Dad thing.
I couldn’t wait to meet him.
August 21, 2018
We had a textbook pregnancy and had no issues with mom or baby. But then, at 38 weeks, his heart was no longer beating. He had passed and we had to deliver him stillborn.
I drove my wife to the hospital in a daze. The car seat was still in the backseat. We had our hospital bags in the car. We were going through all the motions of what we had trained for in the 6 weeks of classes we took at the hospital, but it wasn’t supposed to happen like this.
Nine hours of labor later, we met our beautiful baby boy, Ethan Alexander Schutte, delivering him into a world he would never know.
We left the hospital with a blue box that contained his onesie, a hat, and a teddy bear, having to walk past happy new parents clicking their living babies into their car seats in the back, beaming with pride, love, and excitement.
We were faced with our new reality and forced to walk through a difficult journey.
We were part of the 1 percent of pregnancies that end in stillbirth.
The Journey Begins
I took two weeks off work and focused on being there for my wife and helping her heal – physically and emotionally. She had gone through all of the pain of childbirth with none of the benefits.
Adding insult to injury, her milk was coming in, so I found myself setting timers, with Alexa calling out “change the boob cabbage”. Somehow my wife and I were able to maintain a sense of humor in all of this.
I found myself just doing. I was finding ways to stay busy. I took care of the funeral arrangements, packed baby items into the basement, built a new bar cabinet, and even installed a little decorative fountain bubbler in our backyard.
I was doing doing doing, but not being or feeling.
This is often how men react to grief. Many grieving men throw themselves into work or doing physical activity. Others become more silent, withdrawn or distant, while many become angry, lashing out at the smallest annoyance or even attempt to cope by abusing alcohol or drugs.
These are all common responses and some are ok for a period of time, but these can all become unhealthy if we don’t allow ourselves to acknowledge and feel our grief.
Leaning Into and Learning from My Grief
My wife and I went to 6 weeks of grief therapy. The therapist acknowledged that not many men attended therapy.
In one session, the therapist was asking my wife how she was doing and my wife said, “hey, you tend to focus a lot on me, but I want to know how Alex is doing. He lost a son as well.” The therapist was stunned. Most of the focus had been on my wife (understandably of course), but we never really spent any time on my experience.
When men experience loss, they often get overlooked. We’re always the support person, but never the bereaved.
The therapist gave me an assignment. I had to write a letter to my son. I sat on my front porch on a windy Fall day and began to write. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I grappled with my emotions.
A man’s grief is often connected more with the future than with the past, especially when the grief is the loss of a child.
I wrote to my son that I felt “trapped in a deep well filled with wishes and wonder”.
I wish I could have saved you.
I wonder what your personality would have been like.
I wish it was your tears I had to dry instead of my own.
I wonder what your first word would have been.
I wish your mom didn’t have to experience so much grief.
I wonder what kind of parent I’d be.
I wish you were here. With me.
I was still dealing with all of the “why’s” and figuring out where to go from here, but I realized I was faced with a choice.
I could bury my feelings and act like nothing ever happened, I could live in anger, or I could become a beacon of hope for others.
I chose hope. I’ve been able to move forward through Gratitude, Relentless Positivity, and by Living Intentionally.
Gratitude forces you to step outside of what you’re feeling in that moment and put things in perspective. I’ve been fortunate to have had a pretty good life with mostly wonderful high peaks, but have had a few really low valleys. It’s in the valleys that depression lies and is so easy to get caught in the craters of darkness where you can no longer see or remember the beautiful summits of your life.
Forcing yourself to adopt a gratitude mindset can bring much needed comfort. Here’s what I’m grateful for:
I’m grateful I got to feel the unconditional love of being a parent and a father.
I’m grateful I got to see and hold my son. Many who miscarry don’t get that chance.
I’m grateful to have such a strong wife, amazing friends, and a wonderful support system.
We raised $10,000 that went towards local charities, rehabbing a local park, and a commemorative bench and tree with my son’s name on it that we can visit.
The butterfly has become our symbol for Ethan and we think of him every time we see one.
“A butterfly lights beside us like a sunbeam, and for a brief moment, its glory and beauty belong to our world… but then it flies again, and though we wish it could have stayed… we feel lucky to have seen it.” – Unknown
Much like gratitude, it can be tough to be positive when going through immense grief. However, if you can find gratitude, the next step towards healing is leaning into the future with hope and positivity.
It’s hard not to think of the world as cruel and to cower in your sorrow, but on the other side of pain is love and joy.
Happiness is a choice. While some days are easier than others, I try to wake up each day and choose to make a positive impact on my world and those around me.
I’m still standing. My wife, friends, and family still need me. I still have work to do while I’m on this earth. I’m still a father who gets to celebrate Father’s Day.
Still not fair
Still with me
Still my son
Even though I’ve experienced great loss, I believe tomorrow will be better than today.
The pain never goes away, but you must forgive yourself and allow yourself to live.
After the loss of my son, I’ve tried to hug more, love more, and live more. Nothing is promised and at the end all we will have are the memories we’ve created and the stories we share with each other. I’ve tried to create more of these memories.
One way to help move through grief is to plan something you’re looking forward to in the future. Two months ago, my wife and I took a trip of a lifetime to Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. We also brought along friends and family, with 10 of us in Ireland and 7 in Scotland. We had a blast!
If you feel stuck in your own grief, find something to look forward to. It doesn’t have to be a trip around the world–just a new positive memory to create a new high peak in your timeline to pull you out of your valley.
My Father’s Day Wish
This year is my first Father’s Day since losing my son and very different than what I ever could have imagined. I’m 10 months removed from my greatest low point, but am walking through my journey in the best way I know how.
Through this experience, I’ve realized men and women process grief very differently, and I’ve also seen the impact that overall society has on the way men in particular grieve – whether that grief is from the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, or the loss of a relationship.
In talking with other men who have had similar experiences, I’ve uncovered positive and healthy ways of overcoming grief, but have also seen the negative impact when men are unable to process grief appropriately.
Today, I ask you to reach out to a man in your life who may be going through a tough time, but doesn’t show it, and allow him space to grieve in his own way.
Let’s make dialogue about male grief more common, so that men who need to grieve can begin their journey.
Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there, whether all your children are here with us or not. I see you.
Helpful Resources for Men Dealing with Grief
Written by Alex Schutte, Ethan’s Dad