It was the morning after all the chaos from my wife’s sudden and unforeseen preterm labor. I was standing in the NICU staring down at my prematurely born son. His eyes were closed as his chest rose and fell with each machine-aided breath. My eyes were full of hope and fear as I looked down on this small human that I was meant to protect and nurture—but I couldn’t because, instead of being in my arms or in his mother’s, he was inside a NICU incubator with an unfathomable number of tubes attached to him. At 25 weeks’ gestational age, he was not supposed to be here yet.
Reality hadn’t quite set in yet. The trauma of the previous night’s events hadn’t lifted. My wife and I were scared. The doctors told us what we already knew—our son was incredibly premature; his lungs, heart and skin were not fully developed—the situation was not good. So much had happened, and it all seemed surreal. Twenty-four hours prior, everything was fine. Then it was anything but fine. The shock suffocated me.
Over the next 36 hours, we rode an emotional rollercoaster of good and bad news as our son fought for his life with the help of the NICU team. NICUs measure the world of tiny humans in six-hour increments. We made it through the first 12 hours with little news, but things took a turn for the worse after that.
Unfortunately, in the end, things were quite simple—our son was just too premature. On February 9, 2016, our son, Hudson Muir Overdorff, was born. Thirty-six hours afterward, Hudson passed away with us by his side.
We miss our son.
You can’t hide—grief will find you
It’s hard to figure out how you are supposed to grieve and even harder to explain your emotions and your grieving process to others. My wife and I ask each other questions like, “How are we supposed to get through this?” and “What the f–k do we do now?”
There are no answers to those questions because there is no playbook and there is no shortcut to make the pain go away. You can’t go around it, you can’t avoid it—you have to go head-first like a battering ram, straight through the tunnel of anger, sadness and grief, and come out on the other side. Scars and all. As painful as it is, embracing grief is the only way. So that’s where we are today.
To be clear, we are not walking around in a state of 24/7 mourning. More often than not, my wife and I are fine. We smile, we make sarcastic remarks, we laugh, we love each other. But when the grief does rear its head—the sadness, the anger, the despair—it hits like a f–king freight train. There is no way to see it coming, and there is no way to avoid it. So you stand there, you take it on the chin and you wait for it to pass before you continue on doing whatever it was you were doing. Survival mode.
How grief manifests in each individual is unique. In the week following our son’s death, almost every shower I took ended in tears. It still happens from time to time now, almost two months after his passing. I’m not sure what it is about the shower, but I get in, and before I can even get shampoo into my hair, I’m completely paralyzed by the wave of grief that comes over me. I can barely breathe. I can barely move. I can only let the hot water pour over me as the tears stream down my face. I’m by myself—it’s just me, my thoughts and the mental image of my now-dead son in my arms. Rinse. Repeat.
Mourning what should’ve been
We only knew our son for 36 hours. Each second with him mattered, and I am thankful for the time, albeit brief, that we had as a family. I was a father. My wife was a mother. We were a family. To have that dream and romanticized ideal ripped from our arms can only be described as cruel.
I mourn the loss of our son, but an infant death is more complicated than that. I mourn the loss of his future and, more selfishly, we mourn the loss of our future with him. I mourn the loss of what could’ve and should’ve been.
I am overcome with sadness that I won’t get a chance to experience my son’s “firsts”—his first words, his first steps, his first birthday. I’m angry. I feel cheated. Yes, we may have another child someday, but that does not replace the sorrow of the present and the sense of being robbed.
I am deeply frustrated by the fact that I will not get the opportunity to replicate the father-son relationship that I have with my father, with Hudson. I will not have a chance to give him advice when he needs it. I will not have a chance to challenge him to be a better man. I will not have a chance to be an example for him, like my father has been for me. I will not get a chance to have him teach me things that only youth, exuberance and new life can teach.
Each day it gets better
After such a traumatic event, the reality is that, while we grieve and experience sadness, we are also striving for a sense of normalcy. Even though it is impossible, we want life to go back to the way it was before the traumatic event. We are both now back at work, and every day is a step forward toward that normalcy. I don’t want to forget my son—I will never forget my son, and I will always love him—but I want the memory to be a bit less painful.
We have received immense amounts of support from our friends, families and colleagues. We will never be able to thank you all appropriately for the love and kindness you have shown us. Thank you for helping us get back on our feet and for never showing us pity, but rather showing us strength and support.
We grow stronger every day.
Finding our way forward
Unfortunately, we are not at the point in our story where there has been some world-altering revelation that has come from this experience. I don’t think there is one to be had. As a close friend said, the situation is completely f–ked. That being said, there are positives we hold onto—we had a son and experienced the joy of being parents. We are thankful for his memory. We are here and healthy and have each other to lean on. We are strong, and we know the future is bright.
For those that know us, we are not ones to stand still and wait for this experience to define us. We are full of life and love. We hope to channel our strength to raise awareness, embrace a cause and find purpose in the tragedy of our son’s passing.
Justin Overdorff works on business development and strategic partnerships at Stripe. You can donate to support programs that help moms have healthy, full-term pregnancies via his March for Babies page.