Survivor’s Guilt: The War After the Battle

By Matthew Monk

I don’t know if I shared this with anyone other than my wife.

I don’t know if I’ve had the words until now.

I still don’t know if I really have the words.

Since becoming a father, I’ve been asked numerous times by parents-to-be, those thinking about becoming parents, newlyweds, and even some of my bachelor friends, “What’s the most difficult thing about being a parent?”

I’ve given various answers. The standard stuff about letting go of control, the delicate balance between meting out discipline but not turning your child into a robot who is scared to try anything of their own accord. I’ve even told people it’s the lack of sleep, or the switch from putting your needs behind you to focus on the needs of the child and family. Or maybe I said, watching your child be sick or injured and there’s nothing you can do about it. All are good standard answers, I suppose. I would even say they are true for the most part.

But I haven’t been completely honest.

I haven’t been completely honest because I didn’t know how to put into words what my truthful answer is.

The hardest part about becoming a father FOR ME has been survivor’s guilt.

“It is not unusual for the survivor to think that he was spared at the expense of another and feel a heavy sense of debt to the one who is gone. Some survivors… may feel some distorted sense of not being worthy.”
Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, On Combat

Let me explain.

My daughter did not come into this world in the normal fashion. Smiles, Lamaze classes, the swerving through traffic when the contractions start, the push, the scream, the glow and taking the baby home all bundled up a couple of days later.

That didn’t happen.

6 weeks in we were told my wife had a miscarriage, we were encouraged to schedule a D & C to get rid of “it.” A week later they found a heartbeat.

At that same trip to the emergency room they discovered my wife had a tumor.

20 weeks in, my wife’s water broke. We were told that if we could hold on for another 4 weeks my wife could be checked in to the hospital because then our daughter would be “viable”. We were consulted by one doctor to go ahead and “terminate” because most babies in our daughter’s situation have a hard time surviving.

At 26 weeks, after two weeks in the hospital there were more complications. The doctor made the call to prep for delivery around midnight. I’m calling people on the phone to let them know, but no one is picking up. I’m all by myself as the doctor starts giving me a rundown of both real and hypothetical scenarios, some of which involve both the death of my wife and daughter.

They cut my wife open. Pulled my daughter out, then I followed them back into a room where they stuffed her full of tubes and hooked her up to a ventilator.

In the room the doctor says there’s a good chance she’ll make it past the first week. They’ll re-evaluate after that. If she makes it.

I don’ get to hold my daughter for 8 days.

And the days progress. 149 of them. Teams of doctors. Countless nurses and nurse-practitioners. Countless plans, evaluations, theories, hours, sitting, waiting in limbo.

Finally we get to come home.

Why did I get to come home?

During our time in Neo-natal Intensive Care with our daughter we saw a lot of babies, parents and families come and go. Some were in and out. Some progressed more quickly than our daughter. Some did not.

Some of the babies never come home.

Want to know what the most gut-wrenchingly awful place on the planet is? The waiting room of a hospital with a family whose child has died.

Why me? Why us? Why did we get to live, come home and be happy?

That has been the hardest part of my journey into fatherhood.

Why do I get to come home and watch my now 3-year-old daughter’s face light up as she yells/laughs “I got you” when we play tag? I get that. We walked through death to get it.

Why not those other families?

But sometimes there’s a tug at my heart, because we saw families who didn’t get to take their babies home.

Still there are others, today, that won’t get to take their babies home.

Count your blessings. Take no man for granted. Take your uncomfortable pregnancy nor your misbehaving child for granted.

Count it good.

Because somewhere there’s someone else who would literally lay their life down to be in your shoes, who would change places with their child who didn’t make it.

What was the hardest part for me becoming a father?

Getting to come home everyday to a happy and healthy child.

Survivor’s guilt.

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