On New Year’s Eve 2015, Christopher Longo of Bethel, Conn. got a phone call that would forever change his life.
“I’ve got some bad news,” his mother-in-law explained. “I don’t know how to say this, but the baby is gone.”
Longo’s wife Lynne, 35, who was 22 weeks pregnant with the couple’s third child, was at the hospital for a scheduled ultrasound when doctors discovered that the baby had no heartbeat.
Once he arrived at the hospital, Longo, 38, immediately comforted Lynne and then asked for an ultrasound to confirm that the baby had passed away. Since Lynne had had a normal, healthy pregnancy up until that point, the baby’s death came as a huge shock to them.
“It was surreal to say the least,” Longo, the interim assistant principal at Schaghticoke Middle School in New Milford, Conn., said. “My feeling behind it was utter disbelief.”
The next day Lynne delivered their baby, a daughter they named Angelina. Shortly thereafter, Longo decided that despite their tragic loss, he was going to find a positive way to cope through his grief and maybe even inspire others along the way.
Although he was a full-scholarship athlete in college and ran in two consecutive NCAA Division 1 cross country championships, 12 years had gone by before Longo hit the pavement again last year to train for his first marathon in September.
Although he finished the race, the pain that started to set in around mile 22 seemed too hard.
“I said to myself, ‘I’ll never run a marathon again,’” he recalled
Yet as he thought more about Angelina, he realized there was no better way to honor her and find a source of strength than by running 22 marathons, one for each week of her life in utero.
“The pain that I experienced in the marathon— that’s temporary pain,” he said. “Losing a baby is going to be pain endured forever but we have to find ways to cope and this is my way.”
When couples lose a baby, men suffer too
Between 10 and 25 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage and about 1 in 160 pregnancies result in stillbirth, defined as a loss after 20 weeks.
When loss happens, it’s common for men to experience sadness, irritability, anger, anxiety and even guilt because although the death wasn’t his fault, a man can feel like he failed to protect his partner and their baby, said Dr. Will Courtenay, a psychotherapist in Oakland, Calif., known as “The Men’s Doc.”
Plus, men can feel helpless in their inability to “fix” the problem when the reality is they can’t do anything to change what happened.
The natural tendency is for family and friends to offer support to the mother and for good reason.
“The moms feels more connected to that child no matter how early on or late she loses the baby,” said Dr. Christina D. Hibbert, a psychologist in Flagstaff, Ariz. and author of “This Is How We Grow” and “Who Am I Without You?” “Mid-term or late-term pregnancies can often bring more grief for the father because they may have felt the baby move or seen an ultrasound.”
Although men are dealing with their own set of feelings, it’s rare that they’ll receive the same outpouring of support and it’s unlikely that anyone is going to ask a guy how he’s coping.
Plus, women are more likely to talk to their family and friends about their feelings while men tend to stay quiet. Some men may also feel that they’re supposed to put their own feelings aside and be the rock for their partners.
As a result, men tend to go through grief later on, about six months or even up to a year after the loss. In fact, studies show that men have more stress over a longer period time than women do.
“It isn’t until much later— perhaps when their partners are doing better— these men feel it’s OK for them to feel sad,” Courtenay said.
Men may also develop unhealthy ways to try to cope with their feelings by spending extra hours in the office, drinking excessively or gambling.
Depression is the most common experience for men after a baby dies, even though there’s a myth that men don’t get depressed.
“That myth is so powerful that even trained mental health clinicians are less likely to correctly diagnose depression in men than in women,” Courtenay said.
Finding healthy ways to cope
When a baby dies, it’s important for partners to grieve together but also support each other’s process.
“The experience of grief and mourning is as unique and individual as each one of us,” Courtenay said.
And like Longo, finding an outlet such as exercise, artistic expression, or journaling can help.
Although they may be hesitant to do so, experts say men should find someone to talk to, whether it’s a friend who suffered a loss, a support group or a mental health professional.
Men should also give themselves permission to cry, because their grief means that they loved the baby, even if they didn’t know them.
“When you grieve for somebody it’s really a sign of love, it’s not weakness,” Hibbert said.
Running toward the future
With two upcoming marathons planned for February and March, Longo has been training hard for Angelina, Lynne and his family.
“To know that I’m running for a reason, being resilient, trying to be a role model and live her name, I sometimes over-train,” he said.
In addition to running, Longo and Lynne have found support through family and friends, through their church and by grieving together. Plus, there’s the joy they experience every day with their two sons, Andrew, 5, and Dylan, 3, is perhaps the most important source of strength.
“They bring a smile to our faces and they get us through,” Longo said.
Julie Revelant is a health journalist and a consultant who provides content marketing and copywriting services for the healthcare industry. She's also a mom of two. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com.