By Matt Peeters, WRTL Region 3-4 Coordinator
October has many different meanings to a lot of people. It is special to me because it is a month I get to share Oliver with so many people.
On December 14, 2016, my son, Oliver Camillus Peeters, was stillborn. He was 35 weeks along, and there was nothing throughout the whole pregnancy that ever hinted at anything like this happening. Even the morning we went to the hospital and got checked in, everything was “normal,” and we were expecting to bring our son home with us. My wife had to get an emergency C-section because Oliver was breached, but we still expected to bring him home with us.
I can remember starting to worry something was wrong when I saw 2 nurses hurry past our room, holding a bundle of blankets. I started to worry more when no one came to get me. I knew those nurses were with Kami in the C-section room, and I knew there was no one else down our wing, so it had to be for us. I started to worry even more when minute after minute went by, and still no one came to talk to me. My fears reached frightening heights when I went to the nurse’s station, asking for an update on Oliver and Kami, and no one wanted to tell me anything. I was told the doctor would be in shortly to update me.
My world came crashing down when the doctor came in. I used to work in the medical field, so I know when bad news is going to be delivered to patients. You shut the door quietly, you have your hands busy, you look around the room… The doctor relieved one of my fears by telling me that Kami made it through just fine, and was on her way back to the delivery room soon. I couldn’t imagine what was coming next. She told me that my son didn’t make it; he was stillborn. I had never used that term before. I’ve heard other people talk about it, but surely it couldn’t happen to us. We had a normal pregnancy, normal growth, normal everything. How could my son not be here?
We came into the hospital so joyful, so happy, so excited to become that family of five. I came from a family of five; Kami came from a family of five. We were going to be a family of five. And then we were told Oliver wasn’t there. His body was, but he wasn’t. I don’t have a word to relate how that feels. Terror, agony, grief, sadness, sorrow, desolation, misery, anger, frustration, fear–you feel parts of all these and more. Ronald Reagan was on point when he said, “When a child loses a parent, we call them an orphan. When a spouse loses his or her partner, we call them widow or widower. But we don’t have a word for when a parent loses a child, for there is no word to explain that.”
A lot happened over the couple of days after Oliver passed. We had to determine whether we wanted to have a funeral for him. We decided we couldn’t. We could hardly make it through an hour without tears coming, without feeling the terrible waves of grief and sadness. How could we sit through a service for our son? We decided not to do an autopsy on him. The doctors had no idea why he died. We decided that knowing wouldn’t make anything better; it wouldn’t bring him back or save him. To the best of their knowledge, doctors think a clot formed in the placenta, and traveled somewhere important in Oliver and got stuck. Our only solace is that we hope he didn’t suffer. A quote that helped ease our pain a little was, “Jesus, I wanted to sit my child on my lap and tell him all about you. As I can’t do that now, can you sit him on your lap and tell him all about us?” Our hospital worked with Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, an organization that has volunteer photographers come and take pictures of your children. At first, we didn’t want them. It seemed awful to take pictures of this terrible event. But one of the nurses who worked with other parents of child deaths told us that someday, we would want those pictures. She was so right. We use a few of those pictures quite often in different remembrances of Oliver. We were able to have a burial service for him at a local cemetery, where we visit him frequently, plant flowers by him, paint rocks for him, and remember him as much as we can.
Kami had to stay in the hospital after her C-section because of extremely high blood pressure. I don’t blame her for anything or for that happening. But it meant that I had to leave her there while I parented our other 2 children. I remember how agonizing it was to have to tell my kids, who were so excited to meet their little brother, that he wasn’t coming home. Ben, who was 5 at the time, understood Kami being pregnant and what it meant. Kateri was only 2 ½, so she didn’t fully get it. But a whole new wave of grief and sadness came over me, watching my son’s face go from happiness in hearing mom and dad were at the hospital (thinking his baby brother was coming home), to telling him that Oliver wasn’t coming home, and watching the tears pour down his face. How hard it was over the next few weeks when the kids would ask where Oliver was, Kateri asking when Oliver was coming home.
Having to take apart the crib I had set up the week before was one of the lowest of lows during this experience. Putting the crib together, we were so happy. Oliver’s coming was getting real! Putting a crib together made the thought and possibility of him coming home so real. And taking it apart was only another reminder of what we didn’t have anymore. I remember putting it out on the curb so someone would take it, so we didn’t have to store it, or try to sell it. We wanted it gone, and people didn’t understand. How could they? People asked, “Why don’t you keep it; you don’t know what the future holds?” We do. Because we didn’t know why Oliver died, if we were to get pregnant again, we would have to be vigilant in screenings, check-ups, appointments. And, even with all that, there was no guarantee it wouldn’t happen again. Kami and I decided that we were done having kids; we couldn’t possibly go through this again. Still, people didn’t understand. How could they?
The next few weeks we tried to get through as well as any parent who has just suffered the death of one of their children could. It was the Christmas season, so our kids were so excited for everything that comes with it. Many of the days, we put our smiles on, held back the tears, and tried to make it as happy as we could. It was exhausting. Seeing family and friends was awful. They all wanted to ask questions; know how we were feeling; give us their sympathy. We had asked that they not bring it up unless we do; that being blindsided by it was too hard. People thought they were the exceptions to the rules. Having family compare an ectopic pregnancy to our 35-week stillborn son seemed unfair and infuriating. The grief and sadness were still too great to understand the comparison, and still to this day, I have a hard time comparing the two. Every child’s death is its own experience, and you can’t compare any of them. You learn in talking to other parents that trying to compare how you feel, what happened, the aftermath–you don’t accomplish anything.
The worst part of it all? There is no worst part. It’s all the worst part. None of this was easier to get through than other pieces. We had to somehow move on with our lives when it felt like we couldn’t. Our kids needed us to be their parents. As a man, I was expected to be that rock for my family. We protect our family. We provide for our family. But what about my grief? My sadness? My anger? What am I supposed to do with that? For a long time after Oliver’s death, I kept it inside. Yes, my wife and I would talk about it, share our feelings, talk about it. But she was a woman. She felt differently than I did. She had support groups at the hospital she could reach out to. The hospital was calling to see how she was. There are hundreds upon hundreds of groups and pages online. And rightly so! Not only do women have the emotional trauma, they have the physical trauma of birthing the child. They have so much to deal with, they need the resources. But in my search for men’s resources, I found little to none. I didn’t have someone asking how I really was. I didn’t have someone to talk to, who could even somewhat relate. I had one friend who did her research on how to talk to people who’ve suffered the death of a child. She was one of the only people I could talk to. She, at least, somewhat understood that sometimes, I just needed quiet. Sometimes, I had triggers. Sometimes, I was OK talking about Oliver, and that sometimes I wasn’t. She helped me a lot.
One of the terrible parts was how little people knew (and still don’t know) about talking to parents who’ve suffered through a child’s death. There are sites upon sites of articles telling you do’s and don’ts of talking to us. And it seemed like almost every single person we talked to, decided to do the exact opposite of what those sites said. People were telling us to “quit focusing on the negatives, you have 2 kids at home.” No, we were supposed to have three, and now we have to tell people we only have two. The question that all parents who have had a child die hate to answer. “How many kids do you have?” We have to struggle with, “Do they really want to know that we had a stillborn child? If I tell them ‘2 here with us; one up in heaven,’ will they really care? Or will they throw a ‘Sorry for your loss,’ at us? If I tell them 2, I feel like I’m ignoring Oliver’s memory, like I’m trying to ignore he happened. But most people don’t want to hear me talk about my dead son, so what do I do?” Every parent who has ever had a child die, that conversation goes through our heads every time we are asked that question. Saying, “we understand what you’re going through.” No, you do not. If you did, you wouldn’t tell us you understood, because you’d know that you couldn’t possibly understand what we are feeling, because we don’t even understand what we are feeling. Any sentence that starts with, “At least…” is doomed. There is no “at least” with the death of a child. There was supposed to be a child, not an “at least.”
To this day, there are good days and bad days. Every day, there are more good days than bad days in the tally columns. And I hope that it keeps going that way. But people don’t understand that grief isn’t a measured time. I will carry the grief and sadness of Oliver with me to the grave. I’m able to see the good in it: that he is with God, that he didn’t suffer, that he was loved so much. It makes the good days a little better, and the bad days not so bad. But I’m still the parent of a stillborn son. I will always be that.
“You are unsure of which pain is worse-the shock of what happened, or the ache for what never will.” People don’t understand what is lost when a child dies. All those firsts—crawls, steps, words, schools, boyfriend/girlfriend, dates, dances, getting married, grandkids—it’s all gone in that instant.
My hope is that this helps someone who is going through the death of a child, or someone who is trying to help people going through the death of a child, or simply to educate all of us. One in four women suffer the death of a child. That means that one in four men do, too. 50% of the world’s population is dealing with this in some way, and no one talks about it. This October, talk about it. Make people aware of what’s happening. Remember those who were taken too soon.