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June 15, 2018 07:45 AM

A father who experienced heartbreaking loss is setting out to let other dads know its okay to express their emotions during devastating times.

When Kelly Farley and his wife, Christine Farley, set out to have children in 2003, the couple soon found out getting pregnant wasn’t as easy as it seemed. After taking up the assistance of fertility treatments, the couple was ecstatic when they found out they were finally expecting a baby girl. They soon picked out a name: Katie.

“I was never the guy that dreamed of being a father or dreamed of having children,” Kelly, from Aurora, Illinois, tells PEOPLE. “But, man, when you find out you’re actually expecting a child, it just, it changes everything. It changes the way you look at life.”

But when Christine was 17 weeks into her pregnancy at the end of 2004, she experienced a miscarriage. The immense pain that followed led Kelly to become consumed with his work, with him spending up to 70 hours a week on the job.

“We came a long way to get to that point, and to lose Katie was pretty devastating,” Kelly, 49, recalls. “I tried to behave like I was taught while growing up in a blue-collar town in Iowa — rub some dirt on it, big boys don’t cry. All the stuff that we’re taught as young men.”

Kelly and Christine Farley
Kelly Farley

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Toughening up and being there for his wife would help him get through things quickly, he assumed.

“I was trying to get away from it as quickly and as soon as possible,” Kelly says. “That’s kind of how I responded to it.”

A year later, the couple once again took up fertility treatments and Christine soon became pregnant in 2006, this time, with a baby boy.

“We were both really scared. What if it doesn’t work again? What if something happens again?” Kelly says. “It’s pretty scary going into that. I still hadn’t dealt with the loss. I was still holding all this pain inside.”

Then, tragedy struck once again — their son, Noah, was stillborn at 22 weeks gestation.

“I didn’t respond well to it, because I was still in that mode of trying to be the man and trying to outrun it,” says Kelly. “Because I still hadn’t surrendered and processed the first loss. I just kept trying to fight through it. It just didn’t work.”

During the months that followed, Kelly found himself staying in bed as he experienced the agony of losing Noah combined with the pain of losing Katie. This sorrow was often debilitating, and Kelly says he simply couldn’t function.

Kelly Farley holding his stillborn child, Noah

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“I could see myself dying. I could literally see myself dying,” he says. “I’d look at the mirror at myself, I could see myself dropping weight. Couldn’t eat, couldn’t function. All I could think about is my children.”

Soon, Kelly was searching for help to figure out what was happening to him.

After seeing a counselor, Kelly was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, and he finally accepted help. He went to support groups and talked about his pain, learning how to channel it differently.

“I knew I had to do something or I wasn’t going to live. So I did,” he says. “I went, we talked. I left there thinking, ‘Okay, I feel a little better.’ I bawled my eyes out the whole time, but I felt the permission was there to do so.”

Learning to reflect and accept his emotions eventually led Kelly to want to help other fathers who may be going through difficult situations. He took these lessons and started a support website, Grieving Dads.

Kelly and Christine Farley

Then, Kelly spent a year and a half interviewing other men who are dealing with the loss of a child and wrote a book, 2012’s Grieving Dads: To the Brink and Back.

Speaking with so many others who have gone through similar situations has helped Kelly in his own healing — knowing, all the while, that he will never again be the person he was before he experienced the loss of a child. And that, Kelly says, is okay.

“You can’t go back to the guy you were before, but, we all have a unique opportunity here to rewrite or write the chapters that lie before us of our lives,” Kelly says. “That is, for me, I try to live my life every day in a way that would make Katie and Noah proud of their dad. That’s how I try to live my life.”

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