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AT CARRYING TO TERM, WE HAVE HAD THE INCREDIBLE OPPORTUNITY TO DELVE INTO THE EXPERIENCES AND EMOTIONS OF FATHERS WHO EMBARK ON THE CARRYING-TO-TERM JOURNEY AND THE EXPERIENCE OF INFANT LOSS.
Witnessing the profound impact of such losses on husbands and fathers has left us in awe of their resilience and strength. While society often acknowledges a mother’s grief in such circumstances, we want to shed light on the beauty that lies in how fathers and husbands navigate this path, caring for their wives and children despite their own immeasurable loss.
In this article, we have the privilege of sharing the poignant insights and wisdom of Andy Schoonover, husband to our founder, Stephanie Schoonover. Through his words, we hope to offer connection, validation, and support to other fathers who are facing the unimaginable loss of a child.
Additionally, we believe that Andy’s perspectives will provide valuable guidance to medical professionals, friends, and family members on how to support and include fathers throughout this journey. Join us as we explore Andy’s heartfelt reflections, filled with love for his wife, daughter, and fellow fathers who walk this path.
One of the missions of Carrying To Term is to help 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.
Wow, it’s clear that you and Stephanie were incredibly intentional about making the most of the time you had with Grace. 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.
The wave of emotions you all must have felt during that time is unimaginable. Knowing what you’ve experienced, 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.
The simplicity of that is truly profound. And, rewinding a bit to 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.
“Just be present, serve your wife, and love your baby to the best of your ability.”
Agreed, and with either option, it’s no easy choice. And there is such a focus on what it is like to grieve as a mother, but there’s less conversation about grieving as a father. What did grief look like for you? 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 judgment.
This conversation we’re having about grieving as a father is so important. There really isn’t a blueprint to follow. Considering that and the journey you’ve had, 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.
Speaking of lessons learned, 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.”
“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.”
It’s incredibly insightful of you to recognize the cracks and vulnerabilities that were brought to the surface through this experience. It really serves as a reminder that navigating a situation like this can’t be done in a healthy way if you’re isolating yourself. With that in mind, could you share with us how your network of support rallied 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.
Agreed. In terms of supporting dads, what valuable advice would you give to friends and family who want to be there for them?
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.
Conversely, 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.
“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.”
People tend to talk less about their grief after the first year has passed. Can you share what the experience of grief has been like for you and Stephanie 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.
Since this time, you’ve welcomed two daughters. As parents, how do you plan to discuss Grace with your living children and involve them in honoring her memory? And in what ways has your faith played a role in shaping 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.
As we navigate the complexities of parenthood and the fragility of existence, Andy is one of many fathers who inspire us to honor and hold space for the preciousness of life, to support one another in times of sorrow, and to foster a society that recognizes the profound value of every child, regardless of their duration on this earth.