Charles Spurgeon once said this about suffering:
“It would be a very sharp and trying experience to me to think that I have an affliction which God never sent me, that the bitter cup was never filled by his hand, that my trials were never measured out by him, nor sent to me by his arrangement of their weight and quantity.”
Those are some of the most sobering words I’ve ever read. A month ago, I could not have known their depth nor their weight. Now I can. Here is the story of how we lost a daughter, and gained so much more.
The question people love to ask when you tell them (or they see) that the woman you’re with is pregnant is almost universally, what are you having? It’s a reasonable question, of course, because what you’re having (girl, boy, twins or more) affects the trajectory of your life almost as much as the fact you’re having a child to begin with.
My wife, Jen, and I like to be surprised by what we’re having. It adds a little punch to the birth itself (not that Jen would agree births need any extra “punch”). It was something we were certainly looking forward to this time around. We already have one boy and one girl so (for me anyway) there wasn’t the twinge of wanting a boy like there was during our first biological birth.
Both our boy and our girl are special to me in different ways. Boys are tumultuous and uninhibited. Girls are unfailingly sweet and equally dramatic. I love them both deeply. I was simply thrilled about finding out which we were adding to our family of (soon-to-be) five. The closer we got to the due date, the more excited I realized I was.
The last thing I wrote in my journal before our unborn baby died three weeks ago was this:
I’m getting really excited about baby No. 3. Really excited. I finally read the birth book and I realized how curious I am to find out the gender. I could not be more enthralled with that right now. I’m also hopeful Jen’s labor will be swift and steady.
That was on a Monday morning. Two hours later, Jen told me she hadn’t felt the baby move all morning. She was 36 weeks pregnant.
* * * * *
Our pastor, Matt Chandler, always says: “Your life can change with one phone call. You’re not exempt.” The problem is that I always thought I was. I thought my friends were, too. This is an illusion, of course, and about 100 minutes later I got that phone call from my wife, who said the midwife wanted her to get a sonogram because she couldn’t find the baby’s heart.
If we’re being honest, we didn’t need the sonogram. It was a formality. We both already knew. We both knew as we drove to the hospital. We both knew as they put her in a wheelchair. We both knew as they went through two sonogram machines thinking one was broken. The doctor didn’t even need to say it, but she did anyway. Two words that change the rest of your life. There might not be two more devastating words.
All of the emotions.
* * * * *
Our friends, family, and church were spectacularly gracious in the days that followed. It’s impossible for me to stress that enough. They were unbelievable. The weight was not ours alone to shoulder, which made tasting the unfolding nightmare at least palatable.
John Piper once wrote that he “loves the ready tears of strong men.” I now have some old T-shirts that would agree with him. My friends came and held me, and we wept. Their wives came and held my wife, too. It was a spectacular outpouring of God’s grace in giving us deep and enduring friendships.
These friends with whom we had built up 1,000 or 3,000 common days bore a part of our burden. I’m not sure how we would’ve moved forward without them, and without their prayer. The Lord sustained us throughout. We certainly did not sustain ourselves.
* * * * *
The morning after we got the news, we sat in our car at the hospital with our friend (and labor and delivery nurse) Andrea, about to go talk to the doctor about how to get our baby out. All three of us wept softly as she prayed over us.
That day felt like a thousand days condensed into 24 hours. So much of it is blurry, and yet so many moments are etched into a layer of my mind and heart reserved for the handful of days in our lives which are not mundane.
Filling out paperwork in the doctor’s office that felt like taking the SAT. A long walk with a great friend around the medical center. Weeping with our pastors. Lunch with Jen and Andrea (who stayed with us all day) while balancing on the massive bouncy birth balls littered about the delivery room.
The anesthesiologist coming in like Mike from Breaking Bad. No words, just business. Jen asking if she had elephantiasis after getting the epidural. It was the slowest fastest day I’ve ever had.
It was also the most emotional. Before leaving for the hospital early that morning, Jen said, “God willing, this is the hardest day we’ll ever go through.” You always feel like you’ve emptied yourself of the emotion, and it just keeps coming. It is exhausting.
Jen was monumental, though. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how wonderful she was the entire week. I was (mostly) a disaster. A mess of tears and emotions and intense pain. She was calm and confident. In the Lord. In herself. And in me. Our marriage may have been pronounced five years ago, but it was seared into my heart during this week.
She eventually gave birth to our not-breathing child. The doctor showed me the gender. I looked down at my wife and told her. We had a girl. We named her Kate Noelle. Jen grabbed her out of the doctor’s hands.
“Oh, my baby, my baby. She’s beautiful.”
* * * * *
Stillborn births are not necessarily unique. That doesn’t dull the sting or erase the pain, but it at least reminds you many parents have walked this path. My mom had a stillborn child. Some of our friends’ parents did too. One out of every 115 pregnancies ends with a stillborn.
We don’t want to cry out “Why us?” when this is so common to so many. Instead, we want to say “Yes, us—and thank you to everyone else before us for walking this path with grace.”
There is a couple from our church, Ben and Ashley Barr, whose son Thomas died in a similar fashion in the exact same hospital room, just one week before. They had literally walked the path we walked, and they walked it well. We took great hope in such great faithfulness.
* * * * *
Jen asked what my lasting memory from the day of Kate’s birth was. There are many. One that sticks out is walking with Andrea from the delivery room to the hospital waiting room after Kate was born to face our friends, families, and kids.
“You married a great woman,” she said. “I know,” I replied.
We walked in silence. A thousand-yard stare and a million-mile walk. We finally rounded the corner. I looked for my kids, but found my parents. The background was a myriad of people and tears. I think I saw our pastor on his knees. “We had a girl.” I could barely get the words out. “She’s so pretty.”
We got to introduce Kate to her brother and sister. We got to read as a family and had Hannah sing our EFGs (in lieu of our ABCs). Hannah and Jude got to pray for baby. We told them baby was going to live with Jesus.
Hannah could not have been prouder. Jude gave some questionable pat-pats to Kate, as he is prone to do. They loved her as much as they love each other. Of all the griefs we had, the toughest is probably not being able to give them something they had been looking forward to for months.
They didn’t understand, but someday they will, and we wanted to have photos and moments to point to to remind them. I told my friend Josh I don’t want to protect my kids from difficult things. I don’t want them to only know good moments. I don’t want them to only see our good side, because they will be mightily disappointed when they leave home. Both in us and by how the world actually works.
One of our greatest joys the entire week was sharing these fleeting minutes with our momentary family of five.
Jen and I also got to spend a night in the hospital with our child. The juxtaposition of desperately needing to sleep and not wanting to waste the minutes you have left before you never see your kid again is a strong one. I slept fitfully. Everyone in hospitals does. I held Kate close while her mom rested. It was a good time. One I’m thankful we had.
It was also a bittersweet night, knowing we’d never physically lay eyes on our daughter again. But Psalm 139:16 says the Lord has already numbered all our days.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.
I’ve received about 11,500 of them thus far. Kate only received about 250. That seems unfair. But the Lord wasn’t surprised when she passed away, and we take comfort in knowing that.
* * * * *
As we prepared to go home the next day, more friends visited and held our girl. More tears. But also a joyful farewell knowing we would see her again someday.
I asked Andrea to come back to the hospital. I’ve known Andrea off and on since we were in elementary school. She is a terrific friend. I never thought I would be texting her as an adult to come help us say goodbye to our baby. Jen wanted to put Kate in Andrea’s arms. Nobody else.
I told Jen her job was done and that she had done it well. It was finished. That brought peace. We kissed her face and whispered, “See you soon, sweet girl.”
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