Q&A with Shawn

Why did you write Letters to My Unborn Children?
I initially wrote because I needed to process 3 miscarriages that my wife Kristine and I had between 2004 and 2010. Two things needed to happen before those reflections matured into a book. First, Kristine and I had to decide that we would engage the miscarriages together. Her initial response when I wanted to write the book was skepticism that someone so intensely private (me) would tell such a painful experience. But there is this common theme of feelings of isolation as we’ve talked with friends and co-workers who experienced miscarriage. A big part of how we are engaging the miscarriages together is our decision to tell people within our sphere of influence that they are not alone when they grieve silently – be it from miscarriage or something else. Letters to My Unborn Children is part of that.

Second, the story was incomplete for a long time. After our second miscarriage, I wanted to be done thinking about our experience. When I went to a writer’s group in Indianapolis, they pretty much unanimously told me that “You’ve written two letters, but you haven’t written the whole story.” Their encouragement sparked the discussions with Kristine that became the final letter to all my children. The theme of that letter is that the darkness of the miscarriages isn’t the end of the story.


How is this Letters to My Unborn Children different from other miscarriage books?
Miscarriage is rarely discussed, although that has changed even in the 8 years since our first miscarriage in 2004. When it is discussed, there are two common assumptions. The first is that only the mother grieves. This lack of attention to fathers during miscarriages exacerbates the grief of both parents. Letters to My Unborn Children is a unique resource because it legitimizes the father as a real person in the miscarriage experience.

The second assumption is that we should solve our grief by identifying steps which build towards wholeness. But if you look at the discussions among grieving parents, that’s not what they’re looking for. They’re looking for affirmation that they’re not alone, and that their loss was real. They’re looking for encouragement and support as they reorient their worldviews to respond to the loss(es) of their children. One of the most powerful ways to offer care for people in these circumstances is to legitimize their story. Letters to My Unborn Children helps do that by encouraging people who read it to resonate with stories of grief in their own lives.

It is often difficult, especially during a crisis, to come up with words that express how you feel. I certainly found that to be the case in my own processing. So there’s quite a bit of Letters to My Unborn Children that describes my encounters with words from other authors and song-writers. These encounters walk through the hopes, fears, and shock that all made up my grief. The final way that Letters to My Unborn Children is unique is that in addition to legitimizing someone’s story, it offers words they can use to articulate their own grief.


Who do you think would benefit from reading Letters to My Unborn Children?
I think there are two groups of people who would find it beneficial. The first is people who directly experience pregnancy loss through miscarriage or stillbirth. By writing something as a grieving father, I’m trying to legitimize the father as a real person in the miscarriage experience. Fathers care about this because they live with the social pressure to get on with life, and they also put up with all the “how is your wife” questions that reinforce their irrelevance. Mothers care about this because when the parents grieve differently, the mother can feel like the father doesn’t care. Caregivers (pastoral, counseling, or otherwise) care about this because they can be at the front lines of care for grieving couples who are looking for resources.

The second group is people are dealing with other kinds of grief and loss. Letters to My Unborn Children is a story about my specific experience of miscarriage. It is also a story about naming hidden hopes and fears while being forced to live through unexpected tragedy, grappling with inability to solve that tragedy through hard work and determination, and trying to own our grief redemptively. By that I mean that we are speaking creatively into this tragedy so that the darkness of losing our unborn children doesn’t become the only thing that defines their effect on our lives. Those are common themes across different kinds of challenges that people face. I hope that reading my story about living with miscarriages can help others face their own difficult circumstances.


What made you decide to write a series of letters?
I’ve used letters to journal for many years. When I started keeping my journal in 9th grade, I’d write Dear Diary for my entries. I changed that to Dear Brad when I named my journal after a junior high friend. As I grew into adulthood, I’d often journal as a prayer. So I’d write Dear Lord. There was some continuity with that habit in starting my reflections with Dear Child.

Writing letters helped me process the miscarriages for several other reasons. First, it took writing the letters for me to acknowledge how much the pregnancies and miscarriages meant. My response when a college roommate offered condolences shortly after our first miscarriage was that “I think Kristine is really the one who’s hurting.” Writing a letter helped me articulate my identity as a father and affirm Kristine’s identity as the mother of my children. Through that, we intentionally chose to view the miscarriages as losses of real people (as opposed to “potentials who weren’t human yet”). Second, I have attended funerals where, as part of the service, a loved one will read a letter to the deceased. It is their way of saying good-bye. I needed a way to do that with the miscarriages. Writing letters to process trauma was a common counseling practice in the missionary circles I grew up in Africa. The letters were rarely sent. The value was for the person writing the letter. In this case, the letter shows how a grieving parent can say “hello” and “goodbye” to their child. Finally, using a letter helped focus my reflections on the specific events of the pregnancies and miscarriages. That kept the approach of the book that in telling my story, people who read it are able to resonate with stories of grief in their own lives.


Why do songs have such a big role in Letters to My Unborn Children?
Music has been a part of most of my formative life stages. Where I grew up in Kenya, there wasn’t much we ever did which didn’t involve some type of singing. When I started learning to play the recorder as a 7 yr old, I’d sleep with it under my pillow and play from the hymnal when I woke up. Later, while finishing my undergraduate degree at Purdue, I would copy songs into my journal and sing through them for my evening devotions. That was probably when I began using songs to respond to personal turmoil and uncertainty (this case being the uncertainty around my future after graduation).

The two churches Kristine and I have attended (Emanuel Lutheran in Hartford, and Redeemer Presbyterian in Indianapolis) since getting married have nurtured the role of song in our lives. I learned a lot from Emanuel about how liturgy helps us respond to celebrations and trials. The service they held right after the September 11 tragedy did a remarkable job of placing the specific events in the broader context of a world that desperately needs redemption. That’s a theme that I grappled with in Letters to My Unborn Children. Redeemer encourages its members in the creative arts, including music. That created a context where I could compile the lyrics to the Caim Prayer and put music to them. Just to be clear, I think I’ve written a grand total of 5 songs. They involved either putting new words to an existing tune or writing new music for existing words. I’m not sure I’ll ever write a song where I come up with both the words and music!

The final thing that sort of cemented this was the reading about human ritual that I did during graduate school. Essentially, participating in rituals helps people merge the rational and irrational parts of their lives. It’s also where groups of people signal their commitment to face challenges together. I was doing this reading with a focus on how organizations respond to market downturns and layoffs, but it was while we were having our first two miscarriages. The parallels were important for me. Miscarriage isn’t something that you can address only rationally. You need a way to articulate the irrational. And Kristine and I needed a way to show each other that we would face these challenges together. Compiling the songs in the Epilogue together was really important in that respect.

We’ve actually been compiling songs as a family for a while. Kristine asked her brother to mix two CD’s for us when we got married. I mixed several right after I finished at Rensselaer (Kristine said it was because I didn’t know what to do with myself without evening graduate school classes to take). She mixed a CD of songs that we listened to when Elise was a baby. I did one for Charis a few years later. When we listen to them in the car, the girls know “that’s my CD!”


Does music play a role in your family now?
It does. Our days involve family singing of some sort through meals, drives in the car, bedtime, and in between. Music has been the source of some great laughs for our family. Right after Easter one year, Elise and Charis helped me put words to the tune for Up from the grave He arose. The chorus goes “Now it is time for the ice-cream, for the chocolate chip cookie dough. You can put two scoops right here in my bowl. You can also put the ones you’d give my sister. It’s dessert, and it’s ice-cream; it’s my favorite part of the day!” I hope that song is still part of our family routine when they get old enough to realize the humor of singing it together.


How has your experience with miscarriage shaped your view of parenting?
“Where are you from” is an uncomfortable question for cross-cultural kids like me because discussing my life in Africa depends on multiple factors, including how well I know the person I’m talking with, how much I trust them, etc. “How many kids do you have” is an even harder question to answer now. I frequently talk about my three living girls, and just let people assume they make up my whole family. When I do discuss the miscarriages, it is easier to say “we had six pregnancies and three healthy births” than “we have six children, three of whom are dead.” This is an evolving topic at home. There are times during the year when my cycles of grief are stronger than others. I am learning how to discuss the miscarriages during those times. Elise understands, at least as much as a six year old can, that “Mommy had three babies who died in her tummy.”

I think one of the biggest challenges that Kristine and I face is how to not live in fear of the unknown. Letters to My Unborn Children discusses a couple different places where we have faced this. Do I refuse to become a parent because I’m afraid of my real and imagined inadequacies? Do I refuse to love my unborn child if I think we’re going to have another miscarriage? Do I barricade my home and my children from outside uncertainties because I want to control what happens to my family? It is an ongoing discipline for us to hold these and other unknowns with open hands.

Our desire to say the miscarriages happened because we were somehow defective reveals a broader narrative that affects our parenting. We are working really hard to manage this drive for perfection. Our girls want very much to do things right. Part of that is natural. It also comes from having two firstborns for parents. We have to be very intentional about living a different narrative that faces disappointments and unmet expectations graciously. Like the open hand, we are learning how to encourage each other not to give up when things don’t go as we hoped. Sometimes we point to a larger learning cycle that’s occurring (like jumping off a diving board or riding without training wheels). Other times we point to that theme of facing our grief redemptively so that our disappointment isn’t the last word. To be honest, Kristine and I need to hear that just as much as our girls do.


Does talking about a traditionally taboo subject like miscarriage help you to live authentically in other areas of your life?
The final letter in Letters to My Unborn Children discusses some of this. One of my turning points was realizing that the specific instance of hidden hopes, shattered dreams, and silent grief I experienced with the miscarriages is an extremely common pattern. This has meant a couple different things for Kristine and me. The first is the importance of situating our grief at the miscarriages in the broader context of a broken world that needs redemption. Owning our grief redemptively involves actively speaking into other areas of life where the same pattern exists. Second, we’re not just engaging these areas because we can help them. We’re also engaging them because that helps us understand our own ongoing processing of the miscarriages. There have been multiple times where walking beside a grieving friend or engaging a challenging office dynamic has helped us articulate to each other a little better what we experienced with the miscarriages.

Finally, we have to engage these areas without any demands on what happens as a result. Our offer of care may not be accepted. Our presence may not have the impact we expect. To be honest, this is not easy. I firmly believe that this approach is helping us process our grief in a healthy way. But there are times when I just want my own pain, and the pain of others around me, to go away. The lament after our third miscarriage represents probably my most painful encounter with the desire to withdraw from both the pain of the miscarriages and the pain of anything else in my life. The discussions Kristine and I had about engaging these areas together were instrumental in working through that encounter.

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