For the month of June, I have the beautiful privilege and opportunity to dedicate this blog to the experiences and grief of fathers who walk the carrying to term and infant loss journey. I have had the true and humbling chance to witness the achingly beautiful, powerful, and gut-wrenching affects infant loss has on husbands and fathers. I have a profound respect for the men I have seen rise up in the face of unbelievable suffering and tragedy.
There is something so awe-inspiring about a person who can love, sacrifice, and care well for someone else in the midst of their own unimaginable and incalculable loss. Society recognizes this, and it is evident in the way we acknowledge a mother's grief over the loss of her child. Yet, we often lose sight of the beauty that lies in how fathers and husbands lead and care well for their wives and children despite the magnitude of their own loss.
A father's grief is a wonder to behold. It is a privilege to hear the raw emotion, pure love, and unadulterated strength on display throughout the pregnancy, delivery, and life after loss.
This week, I had the opportunity to ask some in-depth questions of Andy Schoonover, a husband and father I respect tremendously. As a writer, words are my main method of expression, and it is truly hard for me to find the words to properly express my gratitude and emotional response to the insights Andy shares below.
He has graciously put words to his experience, and I believe his wisdom will serve as a point of connection, validation, and support for other husbands and fathers facing the loss of their child. As a wife and mother, I have learned so much from this conversation with Andy, and I know other grieving mothers will find these insights invaluable. Medical professionals, friends, and family, you will find beautifully expressed and clearly laid out advice for supporting and including fathers every step of the way.
I truly could not be more excited for you to read Andy's words and hear his love for his wife, daughter, and other fathers walking this path. I hope you resonate with his words and find such freedom as you grieve as a father or walk alongside a grieving father.
One of the missions of Carrying To Term is helping families make the most of the time they will have with their baby. You and your wife, Stephanie, were very intentional about your time with Grace during pregnancy and her 10 hours and 32 minutes of life after her birth. What advice would you give to men as they navigate memory making?
Men bond with others through activity, so it's normally really difficult to bond with your child prior to birth. When you get the diagnosis, you have to reframe your thinking to be able to bond even though you can’t directly touch or see your baby. My advice would be to ask yourself what you would do with your baby if she was born. You’d talk to her. You’d take her to the park. You’d play with her. That’s what we tried to do. I’d talk or sing to Grace often. We went to the park to swing. Once I could feel her move, I would press on her hands and feet, and she would press back. Take every advantage to interact and create that father/child bond. They were the sweetest times during Steph’s pregnancy.
What was it like watching your wife deliver Grace, knowing that your time as a family would be short? What about your wife in those hours made you the proudest?
It was beautiful, yet heartbreaking. To hear those cries after being told that Grace wouldn’t be able to talk to us were the most beautiful sounds we had ever heard. The way Grace stabilized her breathing and got comfortable knowing that she was cuddled up with her momma was the sweetest thing. We felt the presence of God in that room that night. Yet, it was heartbreaking when Grace left us. It was heartbreaking when we had to say our final goodbyes. It was an entire lifetime lived in 10 hours and 32 minutes. I was so proud of Steph during the entire pregnancy but especially during those few hours we had with Grace. Imagine being in labor for 20 hours, having had no sleep for two days, and then staying up with your baby overnight for 10 hours. The only thing that can fuel that endurance is a passionate love for your child and the value you put on every minute of that time. Steph loved Grace so well, and she did value every minute. I think they locked eyes the entire time. She caressed Grace’s hands and feet and cheeks. She loved on her like a momma who knew she would only have a few hours with her.
What advice would you give to husbands and fathers on delivery day?
I felt like our day was best spent together as a family cuddled up on that bed talking, reading stories to our daughter, praying together, and telling Grace that we loved her. I tried to soak in every moment. In short, just be present, serve your wife, and love your baby to the best of your ability.
Reflecting on the day of diagnosis, is there anything you would change about how the news was delivered and explained to you and Stephanie?
Our OB was amazing, and the way he delivered the news was loving and compassionate. In fact, he called us that night, and when we told him we were going to carry Grace to term, he offered his support. My only issue is what the doctors are taught in medical school. From what I understand, they are taught to say that our daughter had a condition “not viable with life.” I saw Grace on that 12-week ultrasound, and she looked alive to us. My second change would be when we saw the perinatal specialist. They recommended we “terminate, and try again.” I’m so proud of my wife for taking the lead in being the change maker when it comes to these conversations through Carrying To Term. Families need to be notified of all the options they have when they encounter a prenatal diagnosis. They have the choice to terminate or to carry their babies to term. Both choices should be communicated clearly and without bias.
There is such a focus on what it is like to grieve as a mother, but there is less conversation about grieving as a father. What did grief look like for you following diagnosis? Following Grace’s passing? As a husband and father, what would you say to other men as they start their carrying to term journey?
Grieving as a dad presents a very difficult tension. You want to be strong for your wife. You want to take on her burdens, and you would do anything to keep your burdens from piling on her. Yet, there is an absolute need to be weak, to be vulnerable, and to express the emotions that are weighing on your heart. Without satisfying those needs, you will collapse. I collapsed.
I got frustrated by the raw emotion of grief because it didn’t register with my logical way of trying to solve problems. Then I started seeking out things that would spike my dopamine levels. I am an entrepreneur, so for me it was to seek new, exciting business ventures. Unfortunately, your filter during those grieving times is unpredictable, and I made some really bad business decisions. All that to say is this: surround yourself with a great group of men with whom you are willing to be vulnerable. Communicate with your wife what you are feeling. Don’t problem solve. Give your wife grace when her emotion doesn’t align with your logic, and don’t make any massive changes to life without the guidance of people you can rely on for sound judgement.
Do you have any regrets?
None. That’s not because I didn’t really mess up during the pregnancy or while grieving our loss. I royally messed up on multiple occasions. It's just that our culture is keen on avoiding pain and avoiding mistakes. I have learned so much about myself, my faith, my wife, my marriage and what is really important to me that any regrets would steal those learnings. I’m a better man, a better husband, and a better father for having learned those lessons.
What have you learned from your experience about marriage and fatherhood?
I got married pretty late. I was in my mid-30s and was successful in business, established in my faith, and after a bumpy twenties and early thirties, I thought I had life finally figured out. Steph and I lost Grace within the first year of marriage, and it was clear that I was a broken human being. I thought I was patient. I thought that the outcome of my life was in my hands. I thought my faith in God was impenetrable. I thought that I was an awesome husband. All of those things turned out to be false. I’m impatient, my faith was weak, and I was a self-centered husband. Just as the physiological pain of stepping on a nail highlights that something is wrong, for me the emotional pain of losing Grace shed light on some gaping holes. I have tried my best to take the steps necessary to fill those holes, but it is surely a journey. Romans 5: 3-5 states it best, “…rejoice in your sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”
How did your network of support rally around you?
We found out about Grace’s diagnosis right after moving to a new city, 1,000 miles away from our family and friends. It’s hard to feel support from 1,000 miles away, and it's hard to get support from people you barely know locally. I think this exacerbated our grief journey because we basically hunkered down for 18 months. Support networks are so, so important to the grief journey.
What advice would you give to friends and family about supporting dads?
I would advise friends and family to continue to pursue grieving dads. Ask if they would like to come over for dinner, have a drink out on the deck, or go do their favorite activity. They will probably turn you down, but continue to ask. Once you get them out, give them space to process if they want to, and if they don’t want to, be ok with that also. All you can do is pursue them. Ask them how they are feeling. Ask them how their wives are doing, and tell them that you love them and are there any time to process. We all just want to feel loved, and that’s hard when you are living in the fog of grief. DON’T pretend like nothing happened and avoid conversation about their loss. I really wanted to talk about it. I wasn’t sure how, but if I had guys pursuing me, I know I would have gotten better at expressing those emotions.
What advice would you give to medical professionals about supporting dads?
Very simply, dads are grieving, too. The focus should, rightfully, be on the Mom, but it was really powerful when our OB asked how I was doing. I think doctors should be as concerned about the psychological health of the patient as they are the physical health. Check in with the dads to make sure they are seeking out other men for support.
What advice would you give to husbands about supporting their wives?
Their desire to express emotion and your desire to seek logic will collide. Be patient. Don’t problem solve unless asked. Lastly, the best thing you can do for your wife is to take really good care of yourself. The first sign that I was not doing enough self-care was that my sleep was inconsistent. I started to get migraines for the first time in my life, and my patience was short. Those are glaring warning signs that your shoulders are getting heavy, you are carrying too much, and you need to release some of that burden.
What advice would you give to wives about supporting their husbands?
Wives, your guys are grieving, too. Give them some space sometimes, and give them grace when they try to problem solve. They are doing it because all they want in their heart is for you to have peace. That is the intention, so try and reframe his annoying problem-solving as his attempt to love you well.
Few people talk about their grief after the first year has passed. What has grief been like for you in the years since the one-year anniversary?
Our first year was really difficult, but it has gotten progressively better. We think about her daily, but our grief is most noticeable around the anniversary of her birth and death. We try to celebrate her life on those days and her rebirth into heaven, but if we were to be totally honest, it's still hard to celebrate. We miss her dearly. Even though we know she was never meant to be 3 years old, we still ask ourselves what she would be like. We do take comfort knowing that she is in heaven, so we don’t grieve for her necessarily. We are grieving the missed memories that we had dreamt we’d have with her. Steph was supposed to be putting her hair in pigtails. We were supposed to be teaching her how to ride a bike. I was supposed to walk her down the aisle. We don’t get to do those things, and in reality, she wasn’t supposed to do any of those things. She was supposed to live for 10 hours and 32 minutes, and that time was more purposeful than any other 10 hours and 32 minutes I’ve experienced.
How do you plan to talk to your living children about Grace and involve them in honoring her? How has your faith played a role in that plan?
Our primary purpose as parents is to raise our children to love God, to understand his character, and to glorify him in everything that we do. Grace’s life is a perfect reflection of how God loves us and pursues us during times of hardship. We live in a society that has a really difficult time with pain. In fact, our society avoids it at all cost. Grace’s greatest gift to our family is an understanding of how to process pain and how God uses pain to refine us. In fact, we are told in the Bible that we are to find joy in tragedy because God uses it to make us better people. One of the verses we often fell back on during our grieving was Romans 8:28 - “He make all things good for those who love Him and are called according to his purpose.” ALL things, not just the good things, not just the wins. He uses the hardships and the losses for good as well.