“So…..how many kids do you have?” or the more common “Do you have kids?” are pretty straightforward questions for most people. These questions do not normally cause us to struggle to provide a satisfying answer. But for me and many others, it is a question loaded with all sorts of emotion and complexity. When I am asked that question today, I want to answer with “My baby girl would be 14.” But most of the time, I do not say this. Instead, I feel constrained to simply say “none.” And then right after this, I shamefully lament of what I feel is unmitigated cruelty toward my daughter. Cruelty, how?? By pretending she doesn’t exist. Why? So that others won’t hurt me by what they say, or more often what they don’t say.
My daughter’s childbirth forever changed me. And I never even got to see her smile, or to hear her laugh or cry. But yet, I prepared for her birth the same as anyone else would when they are expecting a child. I bought her presents, I painted her room pink, and I put together her crib. We had a registry. A baby shower was thrown. And if Facebook had existed back then, I am quite certain I would have put my baby’s ultrasound pics up on my wall. I was ecstatic to one day see my baby girl! And I eventually did see her. But I never saw her alive.
I know this is a difficult topic to read about, whether you have lost a child or not. I chose the image of a headstone for this article for good reason. I wanted the reality to sink in- even just a tiny bit– for what parents of dead babies have been through, and are currently going through. Life is hard and tragic. The fall of Adam caused a ripple effect too disturbing to believe sometimes. And having a stillborn baby is one part of that ripple effect that I, and others, have experienced up close and personal.
For those of you who have had a stillborn child, you know this feeling of despair all too well. And maybe even worse, you know how painful it is when people will not even acknowledge the pain and grief you go through. You, like me, ask yourself a thousand times why they won’t even ask the baby’s name. “Do they not realize that stillborn babies have names??!!” is what you repeat over and over in your mind. You often think back to the very moments when people had golden opportunities to acknowledge your baby, and they did not. “Why won’t they at least say ‘I’m so sorry for your loss.'”?? You feel very strongly that, if you told them your child lived to be a teenager and then died, that they would act very differently about it. They would show empathy. And rightly they should. There are no words to describe the devastation of losing a child, whether the child is a baby, a teen, or a full grown adult. This isn’t about having a “who’s grieved more?” competition. It is simply to say that ALL parents who have lost children grieve. No matter what the age of the child is.
If you don’t believe me, watch a mother sometime who has just had an abortion exiting the building when she’s finished. Look at her face. She is grieving. Yes, even though she made a choice to end the baby’s life, watch her face closely as she walks to her car. The grief and devastation are written all over her face, along with guilt of course. I have seen this firsthand. I am speaking from experience. I have talked to some of these women on the sidewalks of abortion clinics. Their grief is real. They just lost a human baby. And they know it.
For anyone reading this who has lost a child at any age, empathy and compassion is what you want most from people. You want them to feel for you. To imagine what it must be like, as best they can. And when you don’t get it, my heart goes out to you. I’ve been there. I’m not comparing my grief to yours. I’m just saying that I have experienced the feeling of holding a dead child in my arms. And for all you parents of stillborn children, I know what it’s like to have to pick out a gravestone when others are picking out onesies. I know the dread of going to the funeral home, and having to pick out the right sized casket. Then……….having to go home to an empty crib.
This certainly isn’t an indictment against everyone who’s ever interacted with a parent who has lost a child. Trust me, I realize that it can be really hard to know what to say to people who are grieving. And I thank the Lord that He has given us many compassionate members of the body of Christ, in order to bring hope and encouragement to others dealing with tragedy. People who think before they speak. People who try to walk in your shoes before they jump the gun. People who don’t stay silent, when they know silence would be worse. And I am quite sure that there are non-believers who have walked the road of suffering to the point that they care deeply for the tragic circumstances of others. I admit that I am speaking quite a bit from my experiences here. But if this is something I’ve experienced quite often over a period of 14 years, then it is reasonable for me to believe that many others in my situation have similar difficulties.
The angry side of me wants to confront every thoughtless or ill-timed word directed toward me. But even more, I want to lash out against every painstaking silence I have suffered through, from those who decide not to say anything at all and instead just change the subject of conversation. “She doesn’t deserve the coldness!!” is what I want to shout at everyone who ever failed to acknowledge her existence. She is a person who existed fully alive for 9 months in the womb, and will continue to exist forevermore. She is every bit my child as any other child is to their own parents. But yet, the responses of most people are too insensitive and unpredictable for me to mention her every time I want to…….which is all the time. Did you catch that? I, and every other parent of a stillborn, want to mention our babies all the time.
If you are a parent, think about how often you want to mention your kids in conversations with others. I mean, really think on it. Ok, now, that amount is just about the same for parents of stillborn babies. But because our babies did not live outside of the womb, somewhere along the way it was determined to mean that we don’t really grieve that long, or that hard, over our loss. This is a destructive mindset that will end compassion before it ever begins. It is much easier to have compassion when you learn something about a person’s situation and really feel for them. You listen to them. You bear their burdens. And you don’t try to figure out how you think they should feel.
So………..let me tell you a little about my baby girl, Ariana.
It was February 19th, 2002. The woman performing the ultrasound wouldn’t say anything. Really, she wasn’t being rude or anything. I really don’t think they’re allowed to say much at all. I suppose they often don’t want to say anything. “You’ll have to wait to talk to the doctor,” she said, somewhat calm and detached but with a slight hint of sensitivity. I never even asked her any questions. I guess she just assumed that questions were coming. I was looking at the ultrasound screen and saw Ariana, my baby girl at about 37 weeks. She had stopped kicking for about a day, and we wanted to see what was going on. As I continued to stare at that screen, I can still picture it in my mind as clear as if it were yesterday. She was lying flat. I didn’t know why this was. “Do babies sleep in the womb?” was a thought that crossed my mind at the time. “Do they get physically tired sometimes and just lie still?” I was hoping either of these were the case. But……I heard no heartbeat either.
But I started feeling my heartrate thump. Fidgeting like crazy. Eyes darting around the room. Breathing faster and faster. I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. “Move baby girl!!” “Move, please!!!!” “Just kick, kick, PLEASE kick, PLEASE GOD MAKE HER KICK!!!” Somehow I stayed composed enough to only shout inside my own head. No one heard but me. And God of course. I was a professing Christian, but I wasn’t saved. So I don’t know really. All I know is that Ariana would not listen to the first command I ever gave her. “Kick, little baby, kick!!!!” “You have to move!!!” “You just have to!!” “I want to play with you.” “I am terrible at putting things together, but I finished your crib.” “I painted your room pink, really bright pink.” I don’t like pink, but it was for her- not me. She didn’t listen to her daddy. She would not move. Her heart would not beat. I didn’t want to look at the screen any longer. I couldn’t look my baby’s mother in the eye. I wanted the nightmare to end. At any moment, I was waiting for the soothing words of the technician to say, “Oh, and by the way, it’s quite normal for the baby to lie still with no sign of movement. And the heartbeat, don’t worry about that either. Sometimes our equipment barely picks up even the faintest sound of the baby’s heart.” But the technician was eerily silent. And it was deafening.
Then the technician left. She left. Walked out. She said, “Be right back.” I don’t know how long she was gone. My posture became tense and my mind was pacing rapidly. It was like tunnel vision or something. Everything else in the world just shut off. Paralyzing thoughts entered my mind. She finally came back in, after what seemed to be an eternity. Ironically, I was hoping she wouldn’t come back in………..ever. Have you ever purposely stalled when you knew someone was soon going to give you really horrific news? You can only delay so long before you have to face reality. You know that the truth is going to be scary. “The doctor is ready for you,” she said matter-of-factly, almost in the same way she would tell any other couple. But as far as I can remember, we weren’t even supposed to see the doctor. I don’t think we were even scheduled for it. But then, all of a sudden, we had to walk to the doctor’s office to see what this was all about. I was like Sean Penn on his way to lethal injection in the movie Dead Man Walking, as I gingerly staggered my way to her office………hesitation with every step. Inside I felt something unlike anything I had ever felt before. Just moments away……my heart thumping, louder and louder. My eyes dart around the hallways of the hospital, but yet I see nothing. I am unable to focus my attention for a single solitary second.
Then, my baby’s mother asks, “Is she dead?” The doctor nodded up and down, “Yes, she’s gone.” Joy and tranquility were sucked out of me like a vacuum. Little did I know that it would get worse. It would get worse, because many people would not acknowledge my stillborn. And to a lesser degree, the problem still exists today. And by lesser degree I simply mean that time has helped me to cope a little better. God saved me in 2007, and He has graciously given me comfort from His Word. And in 2008, He graciously gave me my wife Leah, who has been an amazing source of compassion to me. She even suggested visiting Ariana’s gravesite together when we visited my family. And she went with me and held my hand. My immediate family back in Pennsylvania has also been a great source of love. They always remember my baby girl. They know how special she is.
All of this matters. It really matters. Every time someone acknowledges Ariana’s value as a person created in the image of God, it matters. Every time someone imagines what it would be like to never get the chance to see your baby girl smile……..not even once, it matters. It matters to me, and to many thousands of parents who suffer from the way others respond to the loss of our baby boy or girl.
My daughter’s birth really mattered to me. It was the only day I would ever hold her.
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