Firewalking: My Baby Died in My Arms and My Partner Blamed Me
A man shares the story of his baby dying of sudden infant death syndrome in its sleep, and how he coped with his partner blaming him for their son's death.
At some point in the past, I heard about an activity called firewalking. Those that do it have to work for months to build resistance on their feet before they’re able to walk on extremely hot coals in places like Hawaii. It’s uncomfortable and painful but, over time, their feet adapt and are able to make it look easy.
I think that’s a good analogy for how I handle the emotional stress in my life. Most of it just feels like training. The longer I live, I build up calluses to some of the most heartbreaking and earth-shattering events, and I keep meeting people who have seen different kinds of tragedies in their life. More often than not, their experiences make me question the gravity of my own. They’ve planted an empathy in my soul that’s made me conscious and careful about whom I lend my concern but, once I do, understanding and compassion blossom in a way that makes it hard to put into words.
The Severity of Pain Does Not Diminish Its Validity
It’s taken years and a lot of good friends to teach me not to compare my own pain to others. There are people who have experienced trauma from a sibling constantly knocking their ice cream to the ground as kids, and that’s just as valid as someone who’s visibly seen a child die. We’re all subject to the perspective of whatever we experience—and no one’s process is any more or less valid than another. I wish I could repeat that sentence over and over again so as a culture we could decide collectively to never be dismissive of someone else’s experience. No matter what story people share with me, I make it a habit to understand how they process it. It’s so important not to judge the gravity of someone else’s experience because what could be an anthill to one person could be a mountain to someone else. True connection comes from seeing it as they do, not as you do.
I’ve never experienced ice cream pranks with a sibling, but I have experienced a child dying—twice, in fact—and I can tell you that nothing prepares you for that. For nine months, as your baby is on its way, it’s easy to think about the kind of parent you’ll be. There is so much joy and desire to celebrate every day because another person loves you enough to bring new life into the world with your name. To have that taken all away can really make you question a lot of things.
How My Son Literally Died in My Arms
The date was September 4, 2008. My partner and I had gone to sleep as usual, with our five-week-old son asleep on my bare chest. Every other night, when I could hold him and talk to him, I breathed over him a prayer for all the things he would be one day. I listened to his breathing so I could feel in sync with the rhythm of his every breath, for as long as I could. I was so thankful to be a dad.
When morning came, however, something was off. He was still warm as I slowly rose to wake him for his breakfast but he wasn’t moving, and his chest had stopped the normal rising and falling at some point while I was asleep. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I reached for my glasses and couldn’t find them, choosing instead to see him as best I could with my nearsightedness.
Was that blood coming from his nose? My partner, in a frantic yelp, exclaimed that his face was blue. When did that happen? Where were my glasses? I tried to do whatever version of CPR I could remember, being careful of my strength so as not to crush his fragile chest. My partner was screaming something. Cover his nose? Breathe into his mouth? I felt for the air entering his lungs to come back out, to somehow let me know there was a chance of reviving him, but I knew. I looked at her. She was still panicking, but I already knew. He was gone.
Acknowledging the Close Connection Between Grief and Blame
I stumbled woodenly out of the bed and through the bedroom, trying to find the lights. Where was the phone? I had to call 9-1-1. The power was out, my phone was non-existent, hers hadn’t been paid. I needed to find a phone. I made my way through the little apartment complex to the payphone on the street and dialed. I didn’t know what I sounded like, and there weren’t any words to share. I had no idea what to do next, and even now remembering it, I still don’t know how I made myself finish that call and walk back into the house. My partner had wanted me to save him and I couldn’t, and now, once she figured out what happened, I knew what was coming.
As I said, nothing prepares you for that. I wasn’t ready for Devin’s death, and I wasn’t ready for my partner thinking I killed him. By the time the paramedics came to ask me what happened, I had resigned to a few outcomes that were not good, and I was still processing a lot. If this was my fault, I was prepared to face the music. It would have been nice to have the person who I loved to offer a word of support and some belief that maybe there could be another answer. But it wasn’t to be had at that moment. I had a partner who was also grieving but didn’t know what happened and thought I was at fault.
It would be another two weeks before I’d discover we lost our son to SIDS. But for two weeks, in her mind, I was a murderer. That was a mountain for both of us, and the choice I made to do my best—to be my own support rather than ask her to have a little faith that there was another answer—took more inner strength than I ever thought. To look someone in the face who is accusing you and choose to love them rather than lash back—to look for clarity and understanding rather than bitterness and indignance—takes a kind of inner fortitude most people only discover they have at a moment like that when they need it.
Coping With Losing a Baby to SIDS
One of the things that helped me get through it was actually heartbreaking at the moment. I had to forcibly tell myself that it wasn’t my fault and that expecting anyone else to support that understanding wasn’t their responsibility. Let me repeat that. Even if you’ve been with your partner for years, and have shared everything together, it’s not their responsibility to give you the support you’re looking for when you go through loss. We all have to decide to be responsible for how we feel about anything.
In part, I think when tragedy strikes, a lot of people want someone to understand, and for people to empathize, and it’s nice when that happens. But what about when it doesn’t? What about when you go through the hardest things in your life and nobody understands? Or worse, they ridicule you for it? As long as I was susceptible to others’ support or lack thereof, it was crippling. So I started to make a habit of realizing that I might be the only one who understood what happened and just be OK with that.
Putting that kind of pressure on someone who is also grieving may be something they’re not ready for—or something they don’t have the emotional capacity to offer. Learning how to be your own comfort when things go horribly wrong is a really helpful skill, and becoming that kind of friend to other people during hard times made it easier.
Losing a Child Doesn’t Have to Mark the End of Parenthood
When my first child died, I thought back to all the times I’d dreamed of having a son, and why I wanted to be a dad in the first place. I thought about all the things that I would do with him and teach him the way my dad taught me. Thankfully, I have a really attentive dad, so I have plenty of memories to reflect on, like riding around our small town in New Jersey on the back of a bicycle, like the kid from Peanuts whose mom is always running into trees. (My dad never hurt us, but the resemblance is hilarious and familiar).
All of those things that I wanted to become were still present, I just couldn’t be those things with him. I was going to have to wait and hope I’d get another chance. And it’s in that hope, and the belief that I’d get another chance, that helped me get through that. I immediately recognized that it could be a completely different situation. Maybe I’d have to adopt or become a foster parent, or maybe it could be some other circumstance. But being in that situation prepared me to be ready to give my all to whatever situation came.
Personally, I think that’s what suffering is supposed to do—help us find ways to support others who have gone through similar experiences, to be encouraging and inspiring to one another when we reach our lows. A wise person said to me that “We’re more alike than not,” so I’ve constantly looked at my challenges and tried to evaluate who I wish I was, were I in the other person’s shoes. I don’t recommend going through that kind of emotional training on purpose, and hopefully, whatever fire you walk through won’t be anything like that, but finding your inner strength can give hope to someone else. It’s one of the greatest gifts we can give.