A Grief Observed – Lucas Henry, on his due date

A father’s raw, stream-of-consciousness thoughts on a son lost far too soon.

Trigger warning: infant loss, grief

The saying goes that a picture is worth a thousand words. For those lucky enough to be blessed with a child, born or unborn, a picture is really worth a thousand dreams. The picture above certainly is. Infinite dreams spring to mind when a child becomes a reality. What will they look like? What will they be like? Dreams of kicking a soccer ball around, playing with Legos, reading to them, holding them, watching Star Wars and dueling with lightsabers, just goofing off, having “big talks” about important things, guiding them in life, weddings, grandchildren…the mind of a parent goes deep on dreams. Or so I have personally found.

Pictures can also represent the death of those dreams.

Our son, Lucas Henry Small, was born on November 9, 2020. It was also the day he died. His due date is today, December 19, 2020. It is a day of infinite sadness. I think it always will be.

We call him Luke. He weighed 4 pounds, 12.8 ounces and was 18 3/4 inches long. He was so much bigger than I thought he’d be, and yet so much smaller than he should have been allowed to become. He was the most beautiful and perfect little baby I’ve ever seen and will ever see. He looked like me, or so everyone tells me. He had my hair and nose and ears. I think he was going to be sweet and gentle like his mother. We didn’t name him until he was born, but Lucas seemed to fit him. We had a couple of choices, and both were what we consider “nerdy but also normal.” Needed a nerdy name that didn’t seem too out of place; Kelly didn’t seem to appreciate my over-the-top ‘suggestions’ of the likes of Jabba, Aragorn, Mega Man, and Gimli-son-of-Gloin! Henry was always going to be his middle name. Henry is Kelly’s grandpa’s name, who we lost last year. We wanted to give him a piece of her grandpa, so he would grow up brave and strong like him.

Luke was born sleeping – which is our way of saying stillborn. He never lived outside of his mother’s tummy, and yet he will live within us always. I’ve learned more than I ever wanted to learn about this, and now realize it affects far more people than I thought possible, yet still seems a subject often spoken in whispers and hushed tones, if spoken of at all. This club we’re now in is small and every single member wishes they weren’t in the club, and would do anything to not be in it. The dues you pay to get into this club are a price beyond value – and yet you get nothing in return but pain.

It was our 34th week of pregnancy, which is about 8 months into it all. You figure you’re in the homestretch at this point. The first few months are supposed to be the scary part, but that first trimester danger is so far in the past you’ve almost forgotten the constant fear that something would go wrong. The nursery is pretty much set up – you’ve converted the guest room into a nursery and spent about 2 weekends painting the room to make it just perfect. You had your friendly neighbor help you haul the bed to your in-laws’ house. You have a crib, a dresser, a gliding chair, clothes, baby rockers, playmats, diaper bins, toys, books. The car seat is installed, ready to be inspected to make sure it’s shipshape. The car itself is new, an SUV big enough to carry around your new and growing family on all kinds of adventures. More items are on the way, because you want to be prepared if something were to happen; like, if the baby comes early. That’s pretty much the “worst” thing in your mind at this point. You don’t expect the unimaginable.

The unimaginable. Just typing that out brings my mind to the musical Hamilton. There are certain things I used to love that I find incredibly difficult and painful now, including parts of this great musical. There is a song in Hamilton, “It’s Quiet Uptown,” where Alexander and his wife Eliza live in sorrow in the aftermath of their son’s death from a duel. While the circumstances are vastly different, I can relate. I certainly wish I couldn’t and wish the feelings they were going through is still the unimaginable – but it’s all too real now.

There are moments that the words don’t reach,
There is suffering too terrible to name.
You hold your child as tight as you can
And push away the unimaginable.

-It’s Quiet Uptown, Hamilton

Other well-loved songs of mine are like this. Namely Les Miserables and the tragically beautiful “Bring Him Home.” I’ve listened to it over and over recently, trying to draw strength from it and overpower the pain. It is difficult.

Nothing can prepare anyone for this. There is no roadmap to navigate life going forward. Every step is slow and every minute can be agony. It’s only been a month, but feels like it happens every day all over again when I wake up, and every night when I go to sleep. Loss like this is not “in the past” or something you can “get over.” It will be with both of us until we die.

There is grief, sadness, and also anger. I am so angry all the time – I feel like Bruce Banner turning into Hulk. “That’s my secret, Captain [America]. I’m always angry.” Angry at everything and nothing, all at once. There is no one to blame and nothing to pin anything on, so the anger is just there, festering. The sadness and grief are often overwhelming. There is also jealousy and, with it, shame. These are some of the hardest things to face. It is a terrible feeling to be jealous of your friends’ and family’s (and strangers’) happiness, especially since many of them have faced their own challenges. But it happens – you see a picture of a happy, vibrant, smiling family, and you are enveloped by a wrenching jealousy and then you feel ashamed. Or you see a random person on the street, pushing a stroller (sometimes the same stroller you have stowed away) and a wave of jealousy and sadness overcomes and cripples you momentarily. I’m so happy for others – I couldn’t not be. I love seeing others’ growing families and the lives they are building. But there is now a cloud and a pall over this happiness that was never there before. I want to not feel it, but I can’t.

I could write and write and write on this right now. The words just flow because the grief is so raw. Maybe I’ll write more going forward. There is a catharsis to the writing and to the sharing with the world, even if no one reads the words. It’s freeing, in a way. I keep a journal (in fits and starts), but this sort of writing is different. Intimate but also communal.

It came without warning, but also not without warning. We were in the hospital for almost five days before the tragedy struck. Kelly started having contractions and they didn’t know what was going on. We were in two different hospitals, and the main goal was stopping the contractions to keep Luke healthy and happy inside for a bit longer, so he could develop more. The doctors were successful in their efforts, and we were relieved to leave the hospital on Saturday, November 7. Things looked good then, though Kelly was still in a great deal of pain. Luke’s heartbeat was strong, and had never faltered at all during our 5-day hospital stay. Mommy and baby were both monitored closely day and night, and all was going well. Monday morning, November 9, things didn’t seem right. We rushed to the hospital, but it was too late. No heartbeat was found. There are no real answers as to why. It makes it so much harder knowing we were under great hospital care for so long, and then when we were released, things took an inexorable dive into an endless abyss.

I will relive that day over and over and over again, forever. You hear people talk about “the worst day in their life” sometimes, mostly in movies, I feel. I never could relate – I’ve been blessed with a relatively good and easy life. But now I get it. It’s not something I wish I understood, but wishes are useless in the face of the harsh reality of life. The “life IS pain” quote from The Princess Bride certainly rings truer now than ever before.

We held him as long as we could. We dressed him in his adorable going-home outfit, to make sure he was cozy. His outfit had animals on it and it was comforting knowing he would be surrounded by his little friends. We baptized Luke with our nurse, who was a godly woman. I have faltered in my faith over the years, though it still shines through from time to time. I read Matthew 19:14 for him: “Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these.’”

Luke date, hat, and feet

Then after it happens, the next day, you have to come home to a house that is ready for a baby. You have to slowly and sadly pick everything up, and put it away. Maybe you collapse in the entryway of the nursery you’ve set up, unable to enter on legs that have failed you. Gifts and baby items continue to arrive for a few days after, important items purchased in the hospital knowing that things might happen sooner than expected. You pick up the boxes and you put them away. Out of sight, but not out of mind. Then you have to go the funeral home, to say your goodbyes…and later, you pick up a small urn that holds the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen in your life. It is all that’s left.

Then the questions come. First and foremost, the useless and unavoidable why? Then the equally useless why us? Questions with no answers. Sometimes people try to give you answers, in a well-meaning way. They don’t realize that this is not something that someone overwhelmed by grief wants to hear in the depth of their despair. There is no comfort in useless platitudes like “God has a plan” or “your child was too beautiful and is now in heaven” or “now just wasn’t the right time.” These are some of the most hollow words that can be said. The doctors and nurses warn you about this in the hospital – you try to remember people sometimes say the wrong thing because they don’t know what to say. How could they? There is nothing to say.

Other questions continually bubble up too – what if questions. What if the doctors hadn’t “succeeded” by stopping the early labor? Why couldn’t Luke have been born and given a chance in the NICU? Why couldn’t they figure out something was wrong earlier? Why didn’t something wrong happen during the 5 days we were constantly monitored and surrounded by healthcare professionals, instead of when we were home and alone and supposedly in the clear? Why couldn’t something, anything, have gone differently to keep our son with us? Infinite questions. Zero answers.

Our family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors have all been so kind. Even strangers who have heard our story have sent cards, with their sympathies. Our house was blanketed in love and cards and plants and food. We have Doordash and GrubHub gift cards to keep us fed for many weeks to come, which is a blessing. The act of self-care, like feeding and showering, is sometimes an afterthought. Though I must admit it has gotten easier with time. Nothing else has, but that has at least.

To anyone and everyone who has sent us something, or thought of us, or reached out, or said a prayer: thank you so much. It means the world to us. You may never know how much it truly has touched us and eased our suffering, but it has. It is a terrible way to find out how much you are loved by many, but it doesn’t take away from how much the love means.

To the nurses and doctors and hospital staff who cared for us during our stays, thank you from the bottom of my heart. Even though you will never read this. We had amazing people looking out for us. I don’t blame anyone for this, least of all the caregivers and medical staff who felt everything with us, and cried with us, and tried to give us comfort.

Our cat, Eevee, is the greatest blessing right now. She has been caring for us with her play and cuddles and love. I cannot imagine facing this without her by our side.

We’re both back to work as well, which is a welcome distraction but is also very difficult. We shouldn’t even be working right now, so focusing on the task at hand is harder than it should be. And my mind wanders when I need to focus. I am doing the best I can, but it doesn’t seem to be enough. I’ve been at the same company for over 10 years – many of my co-workers are like an extended family. I’ve watched them get married, have children, grow their families. I so wanted to join them.

Holidays will never the be the same again. Especially this year. Christmas seems so hollow when it was supposed to be so joyful. We aren’t really celebrating. Will we ever be able to? I don’t really know. There will always be a hollowness – an emptiness. Every family picture will always seem to be missing something. There is a void that will never be filled.

Maybe there is hope, though it seems in short supply on days like this. We will move forward and continue living as best we can. Life goes on, but it will never be the same. Whatever “normal” is will be different now and forever.

I wanted to write out some important things about Luke…we have so little of him:

  • Favorite Song: Hey Jude, The Beatles – Mommy would sing it to Luke in the shower, so he’d know it when he came into the world. Honorable Mention: Disney songs sung by Daddy
  • Favorite Book: The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien – Daddy read it during pregnancy, though didn’t get to finish (to his sadness). In the hospital, we watched The Two Towers and Return of the King, so Luke found out what happens to the Ring and that Sauron was defeated in the end. Good conquers evil.
  • Favorite Thing to Do: Dance with Mommy – Luke would kick and punch up a storm to songs with a good beat. Shakira is best. Michael Jackson is good too.

To my beautiful son: Luke, I love you and will always love you. Your mother too. We will always love you, our sweet little boy. You are our angel, now and forever.

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