When a Dad Loses a Child

Author Daniel Raeburn talks about supporting men through the tragedy of stillbirth

In 2004, Daniel Raeburn and his wife Rebekah lost their firstborn child – a daughter named Irene – to stillbirth. In the months and years that followed, the couple struggled to come to terms with Irene's loss, even as they continued to build their family.

Raeburn is the author of the upcoming memoir Vessels: A Love Story. Based on his acclaimed essay for The New YorkerVessels tells the story of a marriage tested by loss and the birth of two healthy children, daughters Willa and Hazel. As Raeburn takes us through his experience of love, grief, and mourning, he reveals what many men know about grief but struggle to share even (or especially) with those closest to them.

Raeburn's story demonstrates that our society can be unkind and unsupportive to men who are grieving. It is a call to support men through loss with better communication. As a parent who also lost a child to stillbirth I wanted to have a conversation about that with Raeburn himself.

What don't we understand about the way men grieve?
It's hard to generalize. But I think society tends to assume that the man has no emotions about this kind of loss. This is, in part, the fault of men. We don't talk. Rebekah's memories of the time after Irene's death are of being surrounded. My memories of that time are of being absolutely alone.

When we lost Dylan, I remember wanting other people to help my husband because I did not feel like I could. How can others actually be helpful? 
For people who are trying to help, it is perhaps helpful to admit that there is nothing you can do. Begin with that admission – that you can't bring the child back.

I know that my husband felt abandoned in a certain way. I think he felt like most people asked after me, but few showed up for him.
Mourning a stillbirth is sort of not accepted as part of the culture. We don't have systems in place, rituals. We don't wear armbands. We don't signal our grief. This culture is very dedicated to people being happy. You go to the grocery store and all the magazines are about being happy. People tried to help. Their efforts did help. But there are limits. For example, it felt less helpful to me when people tried to cheer us up. They said, "Watch a lot of brainless TV." I see now that they were just trying to manage their own anxiety.

After the death of a baby, what can happen to a marriage?
Every marriage is different. That said, grief is a pretty universal experience. But different people mourn differently. When one parent is having a relatively good day, and the other is having a bad one, it can feel like a betrayal.

Sometimes the shared intensity of grief is good and welcome, but other times it's too much. It's almost suffocating. One partner wants to grieve together, but the other wants to try to forget about it, if only for a moment. So both feel like their needs aren't being met. That's normal, but it can lead one to believe that the intimacy is suffocating.

Something like 50 percent of marriages end after the death of a child. This is not for lack of love, but more because it feels so hard to start over. On some level, it feels impossible to stop the death of your child from becoming the one thing you have in common. Each time you look at your partner, you're reminded of that death, and you can't help but wonder: If I left my partner, would I also leave the death of our child behind?

No. Of course not. You have to live with your child's death forever. And in the long run, that realization helped us live with one another forever. Just as the memory of our child will always be with us, it helped us to realize that we'll always be with one another too. The thing that almost tore us apart eventually became the thing that bound us together. It's like a storm. You just have to ride it out.

Does it sometimes feel insurmountable?
Yes. Fundamentally, deep down you can never know another person completely. The death of a child really brings that home. You look to them to understand and they can't – not everything. Even this person who knows you better than anyone. So when you look to this person you are relying on, they are not always able to feel what you feel when you feel it.

I think sometimes in the marriages that end, it feels like the mood of the day is the weather, but the climate is the marriage as a whole. I have seen marriages fail where people have confused the weather for the climate. For a couple in grief, this can happen because of all these other factors.

How can men be supported in loss?
It might be worth trying a grief group for men. Men tend to clam up around women more than they do around other men. I have had great conversations with other dads about loss when their wives and partners weren't around.

I always wonder if it has something to do with literal roles in a pregnancy. My husband felt that he had to support me because I had carried our baby and labored.
Possibly, yes. After Irene died, I was in shock. For Rebekah, it was a literal loss. A part of her died. Irene remained, to some extent, an idea to me. Rebekah was able to do something for Irene – she labored. It was good advice the midwife gave us – that mothers who deliver vaginally are usually glad that they did.

There is nothing that a man can do. It makes you feel completely helpless. There is so much anger after a child dies. I was angry for years. I remember once Rebekah asked me where the urn that contains Irene's ashes was, and I was thinking how could you not know?

I don't have the same attachment to our baby's ashes as my husband. He did not want to bury them in case we moved, but I don't think of them in such an intimate way. Maybe asking men to be involved in the arrangements is something that would help them?
I think it could help. But beyond that, it can help to do something for someone else. Go out and engage with the world. Every year on Irene's birthday, I try to do something to help another person. When I wrote the article for The New Yorker, receiving letters about it from people helped me. It is good to look within, but it's also good to get out and engage with the world. To help someone you don't know.

Vessels: A Love Story is available at Amazon.