The stark sadness could have been enough to destroy anyone.

Staring at a twin set of baby swings, knowing only one would ever be occupied.

Living in a world of half happiness for a blue-eyed baby boy who survived, while mourning a baby girl who never came home.

Most of us have heard the accounts of what losing a child can do to parents and marriages. For some, it tears apart the core of their relationships, culminating in divorce.

Grief over the loss of a child has the power to consume and destroy relationships and marital vows once held sacred.

But this Father's Day, it's good to remember a Valparaiso dad who pushed past immense grief and continues to stand tall in support of his wife Amelia, a blue-eyed little boy named Alex and countless other parents who've buried infant children.

Region dads take note: If you want to see what "stepping up" looks like, Joe Kowalisyn is your man.

Joy to sorrow

In 2014, Joe and Amelia Kowalisyn were over the moon with both excitement and nerves as they prepared to become new parents.

Amelia was pregnant with twins — a boy and a girl, they learned from ultrasounds leading up to the birth.

Premature birth, while a scary prospect for any parent, is common with twins, triplets and other multiples. Many infants who arrive in multiple sets require longer stays in neonatal intensive care units after birth.

So in October 2014, it wasn't unusual when Amelia went into labor about two months ahead of the babies' due date.

Beautiful twins Alex and Emma were born.

Typical of premature children, Alex held his own, requiring NICU care but with a good prognosis.

Something was severely wrong with Emma, though. She had suffered a rare stroke prior to birth.

Joe will never forget the whirring chopper blades as Emma's little body, hooked to a ventilator, was flown from Porter Regional Hospital to Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis.

For the next three weeks, Amelia, who Joe calls Amy, said her husband, though grieving himself, was a psychological rock as the couple took marathon drives between Alex's Valparaiso NICU and Emma's crib-side at Riley in Indy.

But on Nov. 5, just over three weeks after her life began, Emma died in the embrace of both her parents.

Strength through tears

Amelia and Joe remember so many grieving moments from the fall of 2014 — saying goodbye to Emma, burying her and then bringing a healthy Alex home from the NICU.

When I interviewed the couple for a November 2014 column after Emma died, they gazed at twin sets of everything in their Valpo home, once thoughtful gifts and now painful reminders of a baby who never came home.

When I interviewed them again last week, Amelia also recalled the strength through tears that Joe exhibited in the wake of tragedy.

"He was always my rock," said Amelia, noting the presence, support and comfort Joe provided at their darkest time and continues providing today. "Joe's been awesome about anything I need. He always steps up and helps out."

A big part of Amelia's grieving process led her to seek positive ways of memorializing her daughter.

With Joe by her side, she created Emma's Footprints, a nonprofit group funded through the Merrillville-based Legacy Foundation.

Joe, 37, and Amelia, 35, remember regular care packages provided to them during long stays in the Valparaiso and Indianapolis NICUs after the twins were born.

Emma's Footprints repeats that thoughtfulness, with volunteers assembling care packages of snacks, toiletries and other comfort items for parents of children hospitalized in Region and state NICUs.

The group also helps organize events and outreach to bereaved parents.

Stepping up

Emma's Footprints is in its third year, and Facebook posts recently showed Joe helping to cart some 400 NICU care boxes to various hospitals.

Joe has lent both brawn and marketing tools to the Emma's Footprints effort. He also has provided a sympathetic ear to other fathers grieving the loss of children.

The reasons are an example to all husbands and fathers.

"I love my wife. I love my family," Joe told me last week. "When faced with loss and when my wife was hurting, it was time to step up and be a man.

"It hasn't been easy, and it still isn't, but it's important that Alex sees me in this light."

Joe said his wife's efforts to remember their daughter by helping other struggling or grieving parents has been infectious.

"It just chops your knees out as a parent when you get this kind of bad news," Joe said. "When we can do something to remember Emma and help others, it's all so worth it."

New hope

Amelia said Joe's steadfast loyalty as both husband and father ensured the couple's relationship has grown stronger in tragedy's wake.

And soon, Joe will have the opportunity to be a role model to more than just little Alex.

Amelia is again pregnant with twins — boys already named Christian and Cameron.

Though the pregnancy awakened fears and memories of past tragedy, it also has provided new hope and happiness for this Valparaiso couple.

Amelia is further along in this pregnancy than she was when Alex and Emma were born, and tests continue to show healthy, developing babies.

Joe continues as a calming force throughout the process, present in every way, Amelia said.

When I spoke to the couple Wednesday, Joe had been scheduled to be standing in his younger brother's wedding in Florida.

But because of Amelia's high risk of premature delivery, Joe skipped the wedding to stay by his wife's side.

It's a sacrifice consistent with a man who knows how to put his wife and children first.

"I couldn't leave. I can't not be here," Joe said, looking at Amelia. "I love you. In no way would I not be here for you."

The simple statement is a credo for all dads and husbands on this Father's Day.

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Editorial Page Editor Marc Chase can be reached at (219) 662-5330 or marc.chase@nwi.com. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/marc.chase.9 or Twitter @nwi_MarcChase. The opinions are the writer's.

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Local News Editor

Marc is a veteran investigative reporter and editor of more than 15 years, including 10 years at The Times, where he is the investigative editor. He is also the founder of the Calumet Region Civil War Preservation Project.