I’ve wanted for some time to share Zack’s perspective on losing a child. He has endured some unusually bizarre and insensitive behavior from colleagues and friends, and I want to let the world know that it’s not OK to be an asshole like that, especially to a smart and kind and decent guy like my husband—a perpetual fixer who has found himself without any tools to repair or undo the most horrifying of tragedies.
Zack doesn’t think of himself as a writer, so I sat down with him and asked him some questions. Our interview follows. Caveat: Some readers may recognize elements of themselves in this post. If that’s you, as another baby loss mom recently wrote, it’s not too late to repair things.
But at some point, it will be.
How have your colleagues supported you after Luke’s death?
I went back to work just two weeks after taking the phone call, at my desk, that Luke had died. At that time everything was still so raw, and it was hard to talk about without bringing up all those emotions. I was just trying to make it through the day at that point. So right before I went back, I emailed my boss and asked him to put out the word that I didn’t want to talk about it.
I wouldn’t have ever guessed the consequences that this would eventually have.
On my first day back, I was extremely nervous—it was a feeling of blood pressure dropping, like getting really antsy your first day on a job. I didn’t know if anybody was going to say anything or if they would treat me differently or how they would look at me. I don’t know what I expected—just people being overly emotional or super concerned. And I couldn’t process my own emotions back then, let alone someone else’s.
But apparently my fears were unfounded. No one said anything. At all. Basically ever. It was like they went too far in the other direction. As time went on, it would have been nice for someone to at least acknowledge that something had happened, but only two guys bothered to do that even briefly, and they both had also lost a child. The office sent me a group card, so it seemed like they all figured they had checked off that box and didn’t need to do anything else to help a fellow human being in need and in pain. They were using my initial statement as a copout to get out of doing that hard work of being nice, caring people.
But they even got the card wrong: One signer addressed me as Mark.
Do you feel like Luke’s death is the elephant in the room?
Yeah. About two months after the loss, we went to dinner with a colleague and his wife, who was pregnant at the time. We endured several hours of conversation in which they did not once mention Luke. It really bothered me; even if I say I don’t really want to talk about it doesn’t mean you can’t say you’re sorry at least or express any kind of emotion about it or maybe ask what went wrong.
My coworkers also went beyond just ignoring the loss to having some really insensitive conversations within earshot. One colleague had a daughter just a few weeks before Luke was born and would talk openly about how she was keeping them up all night. And I would think, Good for you, because my kid’s not going to cry at all. And I would have to get up and go to my car for a few minutes just to get away from it. I can’t even begin to understand why not one person, especially the women in the office, would think that maybe it wasn’t OK to talk about these things so soon after our loss.
Around Thanksgiving, I sent a note to the office saying that in this time of thanksgiving, I wanted to express my gratitude for people abiding my initial wishes, and then I added that if anyone wanted to talk to me, I was open to that. I said, Please, no lookie-loos, and maybe that was my mistake. But still, no one came. I got only one response, a quick “Thanks.” I had thought maybe they were all just waiting for me to say something and if I sent this note out, somebody would say, Oh, thank you, I’ve been wanting to talk to you for so long but didn’t know what to say. Now nobody had any excuse for not saying anything, and yet still they kept silent.
After Christmas, two people asked me how our holidays had been. When I gave the honest answer that actually, it kind of sucked, they quickly changed the subject. I guess they really didn’t want to know. When we went to see Dr. Kliman, I left a note on my board that we had gone to see a placental pathologist at Yale. I wanted someone to ask me about it. When I got back to the office, two people did. One person said they hoped we got answers. The other person wanted to know how the drive was.
I’m disappointed, to say the least. It’s a subhuman response; they’re all just so wrapped up in themselves.
How have your friends outside of work responded to Luke’s death?
My close friendships have been forever altered. Friends I’ve known for a long time put up an initial attempt at support and then quickly disappeared. I know what they wanted—they expected me to reach out to them to start talking. But that’s just not the mode I was in.
I think for a lot of my friends, it’s because they’re introverts—at least, that’s what I’m blaming it on. But that doesn’t make me any less angry at them. Seeing a friend lose a child should force you of your comfort zone. We’re introverts too, but I think that if the situation had been reversed, we would have gone to visit no matter what the schedule looked like or what was going on. True friends just deserve that kind of support. For as Christian as all of my friends claim to be, none of them came to us in our time of need, and that bothers me more than anything.
Then there are the foot-in-mouthers. One friend’s initial paltry attempts at support included a lengthy email about how his son almost died shortly after birth—something about how he couldn’t have imagined not being able to take him home. Of course, he did take him home. I suppose it was an attempt at showing empathy and how he’d been in a dark place too. But that’s like telling an amputee you stubbed your toe. I’m sure an amputee would love to stub their toe again. Another friend asked us what name we were “planning” to use—as if Luke somehow wasn’t a real person just because he never took a breath. I’m sure the person didn’t mean it that way, but it’s just an example of people not thinking about what they’re saying. People don’t pay attention to the words they use when they say crap like that.
Still, saying the wrong thing is much better than not saying anything at all—it’s at least an attempt to show you care. When people don’t say anything, you feel like they don’t care about you at all.
I can’t ignore the fact that I’ve known these friends for so long, but at the same time, they’ve dropped several levels in my estimation. I’ll continue to see them, but it’s not like nothing happened. In fact, I can’t think of anyone I know without being reminded of their lack of support.
As one baby loss mom recently noted, it’s not that difficult. Google “what to say to someone that lost a child” and you’ll get 1.09 million responses. So there’s a lot of options there—including clues about what not to say.
A lot’s been written about the differences between how males and females grieve and the different types of support they need. What’s your perspective on male grief and how people respond (or don’t) to guys who are grieving?
I think people don’t think that I would feel long-term grief over Luke’s death because I’m a guy, or maybe they don’t want to find out and that’s why they didn’t say anything.
I read a book called Grieving Dads: To the Brink and Back. It felt like the author just wanted to write a bunch of stories about dads who have lost kids. There were points where it would talk about the grieving process and how nobody supports dads, but all the dads had people around them who cared and so it just wasn’t relevant to my situation. I don’t even really remember the aspects of how they got helped being in the book that much. It was just a big warning that Hey Dad, you’re probably going to be alone in this; these other dudes were and you can talk to them. But that didn’t help since I’m not the writing type; I’m not going to reach out and share my experience with a stranger. It wasn’t very solution-oriented.
Therapy didn’t help much, either. It seemed like the grief counselor just wanted to talk about how I could support you. I wanted her to tell me, do this and this and this. I didn’t want to talk about how it made me feel. My son died. It sucks. What else can I say.
At this point, five months out from our loss, what do you want to see from people?
I would love just an acknowledgment that something happened. That’s what I’m most upset about in the end. If there were one person who said anything at this point, they would go up in my book above everyone else who didn’t say anything. If they say it and it actually sounds sincere and then they never bring it up again, even that’s fine. But at this point, I would also be happy to talk about it openly and often, and to answer questions about it. The rawness has gone away and it’s actually harder not to talk about Luke. In the end, I just want my son to be honored and remembered.