couples

Why Father's Day breaks my heart

I am lying on the picnic blanket, enjoying it all. James, 7, is kicking a footy around, Alexandra, 4, is dancing and Elia, 1, is crawling.

My wife Sarina is putting lunch out and keeping an eye on everyone. Just a normal Father’s Day picnic scene that is probably being replicated in hundreds of parks around the country and still my mind keeps drifting back to the son we lost five years ago.

Our second son Thomas was stillborn on the 24th October, 2008. It was a normal pregnancy. All the tests and scans were normal. Sarina was just going to the obstetrician for her last check up before our planned caesarean scheduled the next week. I had attended all previous appointments but this time we decided I would go to work as I was preparing for six weeks of paternity leave and the appointment was not going to take more than five minutes anyway.

I was sitting at my desk when I received the phone call from Sarina telling me there was something wrong and she passed the phone to the doctor who told me our baby had died. From that point on it becomes very hazy.

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I organized my parents to look after James and raced to the obstetrician. We decided to have Thomas the next day.

We went home not knowing what to do. My mind raced trying to find a fix, an option, anything that would change the outcome. Nothing. I just sat there stunned.

The next morning we had Thomas. Compared to James' delivery the silence was unnerving; the doctors weren't talking or making jokes, the nurses weren't laughing or asking to take photos for us and there was no baby crying. We spent the next week in hospital spending as much time as possible with Thomas, taking photos, painting footprints and trying to create memories.  We were discharged from the hospital on Thomas' due date.

That is the beginning of our story and the beginning of my life as a grieving father.

We all dream about the moment that will be ‘life-changing’ for us. We all assume that it will be a good moment. My life-changing moment was hopefully the worst of my life. I am now defined by who I was before Thomas was born and who I am now.

When Thomas was born in silence I quickly realised there was no ‘fixing’ anything this time. I was now traveling on the official grief pathway which started with denial, moved on to anger and then ended with acceptance.

By the time of the funeral about a week after Thomas’ birth I had accepted that we had now become a statistic, one of the 2000 stillbirths in Australia each year. What no one told me in the beginning was that the feeling of loss was life-long and the grieving process will have to run its course over and over again.

There are many mornings when I wake up, now five years on, and still don’t believe what has happened (that would be denial). There are many times when I hear a story on the news about children being mistreated and I become furious. ‘Don’t people realise how precious every child is? Why did I have to lose Thomas?’ (that would be anger).

There are many days when I am just feeling sad but come home, look at Thomas’ portrait, take a deep breath and smile (that would be acceptance).

Stating the obvious, it is hard to express emotions as a man, I won’t try to explain, it just is. Luckily I have been able to share a lot with my wife and she is amazing but sometimes I just need to be alone with my thoughts. This is okay. Again, stating the obvious men and women do grieve differently and on different timelines. This is also okay. We have found it makes it a lot easier to support each other through the really difficult times, especially through our two subsequent pregnancies.

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Those were the longest and most anxious nine months of my life. Every time – and I mean every single time – my mobile rang or a text message came through I expected the worse. This is where I learned to literally take it ‘one day at a time’ and to appreciate every minute that something did not go wrong. Which brings me to the biggest difference I see in myself.

As I sit here on this picnic blanket I look up at Thomas’ picture and feel immense sadness and loss. I can also hear the laughter of his brother and sisters enjoying a lovely afternoon in the sun and I feel happy and content.

These simultaneous emotions do indicate to me that I am both missing Thomas as I should and also celebrating my other children as I should. This simple understanding of how to recognise and appreciate the important things in my life is Thomas’ gift. It is quite life-changing.

These are the words I read today as I look up from the picnic blanket. These are the words that we have engraved on Thomas’ headstone.

“Thomas, Our Precious Son And Brother

You Can Never Truly Be Apart From Us

For You Forever Remain A Part of Us.

We Will Be Loving You Always

And Forgetting You Never.”

If you’ve been directly affected by the death of a baby, contact Sands on 1300 0 SANDS (1300 0 72637) or visit www.sands.org.au.

John Coutsouvelis lives in Melbourne with his wife Sarina, son James, and daughters Alexandra and Elia. His second son Thomas was stillborn five years ago making every Father's Day one of mixed emotions.

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