An Australian dad who tragically lost his newborn son two years ago to whooping cough has been sharing the bittersweet experience of having another child on his Facebook page, Dad Minus One — and his moving words are resonating with strangers across the Internet.
In his posts, 31-year-old Greg Hughes writes openly about how he copes with the loss of his son Riley, who died 32 days after he was born, while raising a new baby and his 5-year-old daughter Olivia.
“My main desire through establishing Dad Minus One is to break down some of the stigmas that society and men themselves place on one another and hopefully encourage other dads who experience loss to speak up,” he shares.
While having a new baby undoubtedly brings untold joy, Greg explains that contrary to what some may assume, it in no way makes up for losing a child. Instead, it brings with it a new set of emotions to work through.
“I definitely think that some people who are more naïve about the situation will say things like, ‘Oh you’ve got your new baby now, things are back to normal,'” he tells Babble. “Or, ‘well at least you got another one so you didn’t really miss out.’ As a parent who has experienced loss, hearing someone say things like that — even when it’s meant with best intentions, can be soul crushing.”
Greg and his wife Catherine lost Riley in February 2015 from pneumonia-based complications caused by his whooping cough. At just 4 weeks old, Riley was too young to be vaccinated under the National Immunization Program Schedule in Australia, and was extra-vulnerable to the illness’ effects.
Eight months after the couple’s tragic loss, Catherine became pregnant once again. Yet what should have been a joyful time was actually incredibly difficult on them both.
Greg himself was riddled with anxiety, telling Babble:
“In my mind I felt cheated when we lost Riley. I felt like I’d missed out on this whole incredible experience and the joy of raising a child. I think I expected that when we were pregnant with our next child everything would just be resolved — but it was actually totally different. There was a lot of underlying anxiety associated with the birthing process. You’re far more cautious and that innocence that you may have previously had is washed away. In my mind I was always preparing for the worst possible outcome because I experienced that with Riley and I genuinely wasn’t sure I could cope with that.”
In August 2016, 17 months after Riley’s passing, Catherine gave birth to Lucy, giving daughter Olivia (then 4) a baby sister. Yet despite Lucy being born healthy without any complications, Greg was understandably paranoid.
“When Lucy finally did arrive it was an immense relief,” he shares, “but you still have days where the mental demons associated with the loss of Riley come into play. I still vividly remember the first time Lucy caught a cold and she had a very minor cough to go with it — I think I slept about 10 hours in total that week for fear that something was going to go wrong.”
At a time when most parents are in a blissful new baby bubble, Greg and Catherine were counting the days.
“We were definitely counting down the milestones as Lucy progressed,” Greg tells Babble. “I think it was particularly emotional when we hit day 27 (the day Riley was hospitalized) and day 32 (the day that he passed) ticking each of those boxes definitely provided us with a small sense of relief, but with it also came the reminder that we had lost a child.”
“You have this new little miracle to look after,” he continues, “and it’s stressful, difficult, exciting, and completely amazing all at the same time. Lucy is her own independent little human with totally different traits, wants, needs and quirks. It’s not fair on Riley or her to suggest she’s there to take his place, she will never replace Riley and I wouldn’t want her to because Lucy is her own little character and I love her for who she is.”
Seeing other men struggling to talk about their own grief was what initially prompted Greg to set up Dad Minus One.
“I think one of the prime motivators for me in establishing Dad Minus One was seeing just how poorly men tend to communicate in comparison to women,” he shares. “I myself really struggled with the whole grief process and internalized much of the emotion that I was experiencing.”
After Riley passed away, Greg says he tried to get back to work as quickly as possible, but about 7 weeks later he was overcome with grief, unable to muster the energy to get out of bed or “even lift my head from the pillow.” He sought out groups for parents who’ve experienced loss and spoke openly for the first time about his personal circumstances. But he was shocked to see just how few men came to grief counseling groups in comparison to women — and just how little they were willing to open up. (“The few men that did attend communicated far less than their partners for the most part,” he recalls.)
With Dad Minus One, Greg is not only working through his own grief, but also inspiring other dads to do the same. And he’s not stopping there: He and Catherine and have also established the Light for Riley Facebook page, in an effort to urge both state and federal governments to implement the maternal whooping cough vaccine. They have also set up the Immunization Foundation of Australia, which believes that “no child in a country as lucky as Australia should die from any vaccine preventable disease.”
With Riley in their hearts, the Hughes’ are tirelessly campaigning to increase the uptake of the pertussis vaccine, too, which pregnant women can take during their third trimester. Their aim is to curb the heartbreaking statistic that about 1 in 125 infants under the age of 6 months who contract whooping cough will die as a result.
While it’s been a heart-wrenching and challenging journey these last 2½ years, Greg feels he’s channeled his grief in a positive way, creating a legacy for Riley and encouraging other parents who’ve lost a child to be open with their grief, as well.
“We were successful when we used our grief as a positive influence because we communicated why our grief was driving us,” he wrote in a recent Facebook post. “When I started falling apart, it was because I was repressing my emotions and allowing the grief to guide me. It wasn’t until I actually told someone why I was having issues that I actually began to wrestle back control.”
If you’d like to read about Greg’s story you can follow along on his Facebook page, Dad Minus One.