When I Think About Losing My Son

I wanted to pinch Robert’s tiny crimson foot. I wanted to hear the cry. After all the uncertainty and dashed hopes, after all the fear and suffering, Robert Louis Chrisinger came into the world without a sound. Without the joy of being alive. After all this time, it’s that silent sadness that sticks with me most of all. I didn’t expect stillness. I expected the maniacal beeping of fetal monitors and the dull hum of overhead lamps. On that humid summer night in 2017, the night we lost Robert, the nurses didn’t need the monitors. The doctor didn’t need the lamps. There was no need to search for signals of something going wrong. There was no need to analyze and reassure.

“I’m so, so sorry,” the doctor said behind her three-ply surgical mask. “I’m so sorry this is happening to you.”

There wasn’t enough room for me in the delivery room. I sat scrunched on a chair next to the hospital bed, leaned over with my elbows on my knees. I held Ashley’s right hand in mine as the doctor conducted her examination. Because she was only halfway through her pregnancy, Ashley would probably only need to push once or twice, the doctor said. Ashley nodded; I squeezed her hand. As the next contraction began, Ashley curled up into a fist, pushing her heels into the foot of the bed. Once the vise released her, Robert slipped out, and the rock-hard pain Ashley had felt lifted as suddenly as it had arrived. In her floating sense of physical relief, she began to weep.

David’s wife, Ashley, with their children, George and Henry, hiking at the Lake of the Clouds in the Porcupine Mountains of Northern Michigan, in August 2017, a couple of months after losing Robert. David and Ashley thought the trip would help reconnect them as a family before the kids were back in school. Courtesy of David Chrisinger

It took nearly six months for me to work up the nerve to look through the photos the nurse took of Robert on the day he was born. When she first asked Ashley and me if we wanted her to take the pictures, we politely declined her offer. Neither one of us could believe anyone would want photographic evidence of such a devastating loss.

The Army Made Me Religious—Even Though I Still Don’t Believe in God

But after all we had endured—rushing to the emergency room in the middle of the night, conversing with several specialists who couldn’t explain why this was happening to us, wringing our hands for a week in the hospital room reserved for mothers who were losing their babies, and after the early labor stalled and there was a glimmer of hope that everything might turn out all right—we relented. There was no more fight in us. We were as limp as pie dough, slumping against each other as the nurse powered on her digital camera. “I know it doesn’t feel like it now,” the nurse said, “but everything happens for a reason. This is all part of God’s plan.”

In the backyard of his father’s home in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, David plays with his sons George and Henry in May 2018. Courtesy of David Chrisinger

Robert’s skin was reddish pink at first. His tiny almond-shaped eyes were fused shut, his ears pinned to his head. As the nurse clicked away, I noticed Robert beginning to change color; his skin turned crimson and then became as purple as a bruise and translucent as film. The blanket the doctor had wrapped him in felt rough from too many washings; it stuck to his skin. I fought the urge to imagine how raw he would have felt if he were still alive. The medical literature I consulted months after we lost Robert said babies as young as he was cannot perceive pain. I hope that’s true.

After I handed Robert back to Ashley, she laid him in her lap and studied him with weary, tired eyes. She seemed transfixed, awestruck by his tiny fingers, his clear toenails, and the grace of his bony shoulders. She then picked him up and held him close to her chest, as if all he needed was some motherly love. The shutter clicked again as I tried for the last time to think of something encouraging to say, something wise and useful enough that it would work to untangle the dark knot I could sense forming in the pit of Ashley’s stomach.

I hadn’t written a word about Robert until the last full day of a week-long writing seminar I taught for The War Horse in November 2018. I hadn’t planned to write about him, either. I thought at the time that my despair was still too mountainous. But then one of the seminar participants, a veteran, confided in me the details of a story she desperately wanted to make sense of.

Sara is tall, like me, and slender, like I was before college football left me with a bad back and 50 extra pounds. Her hair is brown and shoulder length, her eyes blue and piercing. She has pronounced cheekbones and pale skin, and when she smiles, her right eye brow arches higher than her left. Even though, like me, she is prone to melancholy and can be laceratingly self-critical, she is kind and has a way of making others feel comfortable in the most distressing situations.

The story Sara wanted to tell at the seminar is not an easy one. When she was still in high school, she discovered she was pregnant, and because she had convinced herself that she was “unfit” to be a mother at such a young age, she placed the child for adoption. After high school, she joined the Army and deployed to Iraq, where she produced video news packages about her fellow service members and coalition forces working together to rebuild Iraq’s war-damaged infrastructure. Sara is a survivor of military sexual trauma and an open book when it comes to discussing her post-traumatic stress.

David teaching a seminar on telling your family’s war stories, at the Arts + Literature Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin, in November 2018. Courtesy of David Chrisinger

A few months after she returned from her last deployment, Sara met and fell in love with a fellow Iraq War veteran named Andy. She had told herself that she had been waiting for someone like Andy with whom she could start a family and prove, once and for all, her fitness as a mother. Once they began trying to conceive, however, Sara learned that she would likely never be able to birth another child. Fortunately, Sara and her husband were afforded the opportunity to adopt a little boy.

She told me all of this in a common area near a stone fireplace in one of the dorm buildings where she and the other seminar participants stayed during the seminar. She wasn’t sure where to begin her story, she told me, and she wasn’t sure how to end it either.

“That’s simple,” I said in my calm, professorial tone. “What did you want? What was your fundamental goal? Was it to be a mother? To find unconditional love? To atone for whatever guilt you felt after placing your child for adoption?”

I paused, waiting for her reply. The silence felt heavy. Sara took a deep breath; her moist eyes darted to the upper corner of the room above my left shoulder. An open notebook blanketed her lap; her hands gripped its front and back covers.

“I think what I wanted was to be seen as fit,” she finally said, returning her gaze to me.

“What do you mean ‘fit’?”

“Like when I was a teenager,” Sara continued, “I wasn’t ready to be a mother. I wasn’t fit. And then, when I was in the military, the whole point of everything you do is to be ‘fit for duty.’

“And the things that make you fit for duty are not necessarily the same characteristics or qualities that make you fit to be a mother.”

“Tell me more about that,” I said. The words sounded painfully hackneyed as they left my mouth. I was suddenly worried our conversation was beginning to stray into an informal therapy session.

“When Andy and I started the process of adopting, I had to meet with a social worker one-on-one who was there to determine whether I should be able to adopt a baby,” Sara began, “and I was so worried that all of the stuff that happened with my pregnancy and the sexual trauma I experienced in the military and all the mental health issues I had afterwards were going to affect her decision. I was scared this social worker was going to tell me I wasn’t fit to be a parent … still.”

She sniffled. Her cheeks tinted suddenly with glowing pink patches as the memories swam behind her eyes.

“So you wanted to be ‘fit,’” I said. I felt a soft broken chord of muted anguish as I contemplated what to say next. “Start there,” I finally said. “Start with the idea that you weren’t fit to be a mother when you were a teenager and how you had to steel yourself against the types of thoughts and behaviors that would make you unfit as a soldier and how those experiences suddenly became possible liabilities when you started the adoption process. Without a goal like that—a goal you’re trying to achieve—the story will fall flat. It won’t have an arc.”

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She was scribbling in her notebook, moving as quickly as I spoke.

“The end of your story,” I continued, “comes when you either get what you wanted, don’t get what you wanted, or stop wanting it all together.”

When she finished scribbling, Sara’s hands fell into her lap like fallen logs. Such conversations are as physically taxing as they are emotional.

“I lost a child, too,” I said after a beat. Sara’s pale lips pulled tightly against her mouth; she straightened her hunched spine. “Last summer. My wife went into early labor; doctors don’t know why.”

Unable to pull myself back, I told Sara how I had been trying to figure out how to write about Robert but that the narrative in my head didn’t make enough sense and that I wasn’t sure where to start.

“Well,” she said, “what did you want?”

David’s wife, Ashley, hiking with the kids on the Green Circle Trail in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, in April 2018, a month before their third child, Stella, was born. Courtesy of David Chrisinger

In the weeks that followed our loss of Robert, I found a way to resume my life in a universe that felt irrevocably different. Well-meaning friends and family tried to soften a grief I found unbearable. Some reminded me that at least Ashley and I both had our health, or that we already had two beautiful children. Some told us to be thankful for what we had and told me they would pray for my strength. One person told me that someday I’d look back on the day we lost Robert and realize it was the start of something better. Everything I was told was nothing but impassioned arguments mistaking conviction for evidence.

Sometimes I wonder if I even have the right to form memories of Robert. Sometimes I feel like I’m grieving the loss of something I never really had, and I can’t make sense of that. Other times I wonder what he would have been like. Would he have been thick-bodied like me? Or would he have been long and lean like his mother? Blue eyes or brown?

I want so badly to feel his breath on my bare chest as he naps there under a warm blanket. I want to teach him how to build a tower of blocks and to dribble a basketball. I want to read him bedtime stories and draw pictures with him at the dining room table and push him down the sledding hill in front of my mother’s lake home. I want to hear him giggle and talk in his sleep and yell out for a wipe or a Band-Aid or for help with fractions.

I want my son.

On the last evening of the writing seminar, Sara encouraged me to read to the group what I had feverishly written about Robert the morning after our conversation. She said reading my story first, before any of the other participants shared, would show that I was willing to do what I was asking them to do—to be vulnerable. The room that evening was dim, illuminated by a snapping fire on one side of the room and a few antique lamps on the other. The participants and the rest of the seminar staff formed an oval, sitting on antique couches, dusty wingbacks, and creaky wooden chairs.

The group of participants share their work at a week-long War Horse writing seminar taught by David Chrisinger, at the Carey Institute for Global Good, in Rensselaerville, NY, November 2018. Courtesy of Thomas Brennan

I read aloud what I had experienced, how it had made me feel, and how I was beginning to see things differently with time and distance. While I was writing earlier that morning, I realized that I was beginning to see Robert as the gift he was. I had to remind myself that all gifts are temporary. And when someone I love is grieving, I wrote, I know now that I won’t spout off platitudes; I know what it feels like to be on the receiving end. I’m not going to compare or minimize or search for silver linings or meaning to ennoble suffering. I’m going to do what we do at War Horse seminars: show up, bear witness, and grant others the dignity of their own process.

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As I approached the climax of the story, I could hear tissues being plucked from boxes and the occasional sniffle. I was afraid that if I looked up from my computer I’d break into tears as well. When I finished, there was a silence at first. Then gentle rubs on my back and arms from those sitting near me. Sara was sitting next to me on the couch. We hugged. Others whispered kind words from across the oval. 

Over the next couple of hours, nearly all the participants who spent a week with me thinking deeply about their stories read their words aloud to the group. As Sara read hers, I felt this sharp sensation, like a slide coming into focus. It was in that moment that I realized something I had always told others was true, but had not yet experienced as a writer: Stories of trauma and loss and the lessons we pull from them can lead to profound moments of understanding and connectedness when these stories are shared. By the time our gathering dispersed and each participant left feeling lighter than they had all week, I felt an almost primal connection to each of them. And for the first time since my wife and I lost Robert, I felt like I had received the response I had needed all along.

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David Chrisinger

David Chrisinger is the executive director of the Public Policy Writing Workshop at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy and the director of writing seminars for The War Horse. He is the author of several books, including The Soldier’s Truth: Ernie Pyle and the Story of World War II and Stories Are What Save Us: A Survivor’s Guide to Writing about Trauma. In 2022, he was the recipient of the 2022 George Orwell Award.

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