Stillborn Comfort

William Blake, etching

Thanksgiving is a strange time for me.  It begins a difficult season for many–especially for those given to melancholy and for those who grieve, because it heralds the season when we are commanded by the culture to be jolly; but  for some of  us who mourn there remains  an empty chair at the table, and an aching place in our hearts.  And time doesn’t heal any wounds. For some,  grief only progresses through time,  through our hearts until it passes  its hurts into our very bones; we are crippled, but walk the best we can.  We’ll muddle through your merry little Christmas, somehow.  Please bear with us.   And bear with me now.

Thanksgiving is an anniversary  of one of my greatest griefs, and also the advent of one of my  greatest comforts.  I recall how securely the Father’s arms  were wrapped around me as I suffered, yet I wince when I remember the indifference shown by some, and even an incident of utter cruelty.

So this will be a long, ruminative post, and if you are of the sort that has  an attention span of three hundred words you are fairly warned.   I am not in a  hurry!   It has been eleven years but still I want to move leisurely through my story.  We who grieve must not be hastened. Sit Shiva with us. Say  Kaddish on all the anniversaries.  Look at the photos of our loved ones. Our greatest fear is that our memories of our loved ones  will vanish–as they have done–from this earth, so please talk about them, and let us talk if we will. Those in the  Happy-Clappy sects of Christianity might borrow something from these Jewish rituals of mourning; if nothing else, the patience it shows  a mourner.  Learn to bear with our sudden tears that seem to come from nowhere.  Bear with me now.

It was eleven years ago and a few days before Thanksgiving when I went to a routine ultrasound, and learned that our son, eighteen weeks preborn, had died in my womb. — Is that his face– I said,  as I saw an image, ghost-like and unmoving,  on the screen.  — Yes–the technician said, and she continued quietly to make her measurements as I turned my face away. I don’t think she was unmoved by my grief, but she didn’t know what to say.  I ran from that radiology department as soon as I could, and in the privacy of my car, I opened up my Bible, and cried out to God — oh speak to me!– And though I do not believe in Scripture roulette, I was in  such a desperate condition, and the Father is kind and compassionate to such a bowed head.   And my hope was not disappointed, for immediately I read, (oh bear with me now):

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.  For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.  For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope  that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.  And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.   For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?   But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8: 18-25)

Sometimes a moment is so holy it cannot be expressed save in the  heightened and compressed speech of poetry;  and indeed, I think the Spirit agrees with me that poetry is the best means of expressing these strong and spiritual moments because fully one-third of the Bible is the most glorious poetry ever conceived.  And I can find no other way to express that exchange of life that happened in that car.  I did try other kinds of words, but they failed, so bear with me now:

My son went  home too soon–

and I echo creation’s laboring groans here–
mourn my boy’s liberation
from corruption to His likeness:

how he  must have yearned,
and been impatient as I am
to be swallowed up by Life.

Oh the image of that face, so blurry
even as it changed to glory,
with his adoption as a son, and I

do not understand this though
I will patiently wait, though I wait long,
with all creation in bondage,

wait  for the revealing of the sons of God.

For one sight of that Face
and the voice of  His love, that is
‘so wonderful, so infinite, so abiding’
that now speaks to me so clearly!

Though I still mourn for my son,
Oh, he went home too soon!

In the  strength of this food from God, I cooked and served Thanksgiving dinner for two dozen relatives and nobody  even remembered that I sorrowed. But I was not embittered — I  had looked on Him, and I was radiant. Perhaps that is why there was barely a mention of my ‘unpleasantness.’ His unfailing love continued to sustain me throughout the grueling days that followed as well.

Because immediately there was pressure on me to just be rid of my little problem. I had, for the medical community in those days, an unseemly determination to go into labor instead of enduring a D@C, which was the usual procedure for cases like mine. Now, remember this was eleven years ago, in San Francisco, and  I hear that mothers of stillborns are given more dignity, that things have changed. But I was unusual in San Francisco in those days, and I was collateral damage in the abortion wars.

Because I wanted to give birth to my dead son.  I wanted to hold him and mourn for him and grieve his death with dignity and invite the comfort of family and friends in a memorial.  And I wanted to look in his face one last time to assure myself that he was really dead.  His life, though short, was not insignificant.  But for the medical community my insistence was inconvenient, expensive and a needless reminder that the battered bodies they routinely vacuum away would be valuable to some.

So I was given short shrift, and I went two more weeks with a corpse inside me because no medical personnel would have anything to do with me, until an inexperienced young visiting nurse was given the thankless job to attend me as I was induced after over two weeks of waiting for labor to start.

I was alone in the hospital room when my son was born.   I was standing and he slipped out and fell to the floor all forlorn, and he had broken out of the amniotic sac.  How that image has haunted me over the years– I had so desired dignity to be a part of his birth. He was like a broken baby bird, fallen out of a nest.  I felt desolate.  I picked him up, oh so tiny he was, barely stretching out over the palm of my hand.  His face was very like his brothers and sisters, his lips so finely shaped like his fathers: the same perfect long fingers and squared nails.  Yet it was a face only a mother could love, the skin so thin it was discolored from the blood beneath.  And I kissed the cystic hygroma, the fluid filled sac at the back of his neck that is common in  babies with Trisomy-18.   My husband came in and we grieved together until I began to be faint with loss of blood.

I had an emergency  D@C later to correct hemorrhaging because  placental material  still remained in my uterus,  and I will never forget the scornful look of a resident doctor  who came in my hospital room the next day as I was mourning the child my husband and I had named Thomas.  Because my child had died a week earlier than the 20 weeks preborn — though I had carried him two more weeks — his brief life did not merit a death certificate in my state, his birth was not even noted as such in my chart, only the scraping out of  my uterus.

That heedless doctor broke through the sanctuary provided by a solitary teardrop on my door to mark the room of one who grieved the loss of a baby. She interrupted my mourning with a taunt, “So you had a D@C after all.”   I just stared at her. I said nothing.  She slunk out of the room. I hope my  face  haunts her the rest of her life.  She was deluded that I was in some sort of contest with her, and her glee at her seeming triumph led her to intrude on the  very private suffering of a grieving mother.

Indeed, I pity her greatly.  What can be more horrifying than to be such a fool?  Her ultimate end without repentance is more tragic than my own loss. My son is with His heavenly Father.  Twelve years later, I have found redemptive value in my experience; my faith has been tried as gold, and I  had a privileged glimpse of the Father’s sorrow as He sees the souls made in His image treated with utter contempt.  I shared His grief.

When some don’t share our griefs, what do we do?  I heard somebody say once concerning the ministry of encouragement,  that  “Love must reach its destination.” Sometimes that love doesn’t come for whatever the reason–sometimes the world unmasks its cruel agenda, and sometimes the family of God displays their issues, and that “pity like a newborn babe” meant for another’s woe is a stillborn comfort.  Instead of the warm hug or cold cup of water the Father meant for your consolation, there is only a lukewarmness coming from those in the household of faith. These are testing moments for a saint: Will we seek to escape this added pain of rejection — with entertainment or food or alcohol or drugs or even antidepressants?    There is a way to forgive another when it hurts so bad, when we look for comforters, and there are none. Because Jesus knew this sorrow too, He says in the Psalms, “I looked for sympathy, but there was none, for comforters, but I found none.” (Psalm 69:20)

Job found the place of comfort  in his crisis.  He cried out in the midst of his misery, “Oh that I might find Him!”  Spurgeon writes here,

“Job’s desire to commune with God was intensified by the failure of all other sources of consolation. The patriarch turned away from his sorry friends, and looked up to the celestial throne, just as a traveller turns from his empty skin bottle, and betakes himself with all speed to the well. He bids farewell to earth-born hopes, and cries, “O that I knew where I might find my God!” Nothing teaches us so much the preciousness of the Creator, as when we learn the emptiness of all besides. Turning away with bitter scorn from earth’s hives, where we find no honey, but many sharp stings, we rejoice in him whose faithful word is sweeter than honey or the honeycomb. In every trouble we should first seek to realize God’s presence with us. Only let us enjoy his smile, and we can bear our daily cross with a willing heart for his dear sake.”

When we have enjoyed His smile, and our hearts overflow with a sense of His faithfulness, we can be the ones–even in our grief — to give the hug or bring the refreshments.  We can be the ones to turn the other cheek, which is the real triumph in this very real spiritual battle in the heavenlies. Because God’s enemies are strutting to and fro.  We can be like Job, who prayed for his friends who ridiculed him, or even better,  be like Jesus, who prayed for the enemies who killed him.

Ah, Reader, if you have reached the end of my two thousand words, thank you for bearing with me!  I have said my Kaddish.  It was cathartic, as all such rituals are.  Do not worry for this mourner, I have been amply comforted; I am a happy mother of children.  I gave birth to a beautiful daughter exactly one year to the day later on the anniversary of Thomas’ stillbirth.  Yes, it was a little confusing, the mix of tears and elation on that morning when joy came.  And when I asked, and kept asking Him, what that was all about, the Lord told me some years later why she was born on that day of all days.  , He graciously replied, “To give you a double portion.”  And blessed be Him whose ways are not our ways, who makes everything beautiful in its time, who makes of our lives His own sweet poem.

And so the memory of the comfort of  my lovely daughter makes a merry little ending to an especially long and very sad story.

 

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7 Comments on “Stillborn Comfort”

  1. Megan Says:

    I am so touched to have read baby Thomas’ story… your story. What a precious little soul. I gave birth to my Sam in February at 30 weeks–he was born still. He had triploidy.

    I so identify with your desire to give birth to Thomas. Everyone told me that it was so sad that I had to go through labor for nothing. But I went through labor for something–I had to help him finish. Just as you kissed his cystic hygroma, the sign of his broken body, I kissed my Sam’s cleft lip. He was precious to me, even in his brokenness. Going through labor was so healing for me. I know Thomas’ birth wasn’t perfect, but it was beautiful, and somehow it will be made perfect. I believe that.

    I also believe that mothers like you, who stood up for the value of the process of birth, cleared the path for women like me to have a dignified birth experience despite loss. May the healing that you’ve found in these years continue to grow exponentially for you because of the dignity you desired for your son.

    I am pregnant with Sam’s little brother or sister now. We expect his/her arrival in June, and I am finding that I have begun a whole new exploration of the Valley of the Shadow, in all its beauty and pain. Bless you for sharing. It has spoken to me in my place in the Valley.

    One more person knows about Thomas today, and knows what a treasure he is to you. I hope that comforts your heart.

    • Karen Butler Says:

      Megan, I had to get up and walk around a little bit after I read your comment. I was overcome with emotion, and it was here, …”the sign of his broken body, I kissed my Sam’s cleft lip. He was precious to me, even in his brokenness”, that I wept.

      Thank you for sitting Kaddish with me, and understanding. It means so much. I will defintely be following the progress of your pregnancy–I rejoice with you in God’s good gifts!

      But about Thomas’ birth, here you said, “and somehow it will be made perfect. I believe that.” I prayed for years in my confusion about Thomas’ undignified entry to this world, and I really do think it was a Holy Spirit moment when the insight came that I was given a look at the Father’s grief at the callous treatment of the pre-born in abortion. He feels the same tearing pain for those broken babies that I felt when I saw my own son lying on the floor. There was one crucial difference, in that my baby’s fall was cushioned by his still intact amniotic sac, and so his fragile body was not shattered, but still whole. So Thomas did have his dignity still. (Thank you, Lord! Such mercy for me.) So, in many ways, the privelege I was given, to share the grief that grips the heart of God, made Thomas’ birth perfect. But in its time came that understanding, was his birth made perfect.

      I just briefly looked at your blog this morning, and I will revisist–I have always been interested to know if things have changed for those who miscarry, and for those who choose to carry and not terminate the pregnancies of their critically ill infants. I see you are a link to this community, and for another reason I am glad you visited my blog!

      I pray all goes well in the birth of Sam’s little brother. What a gift the Father has given, again, to you, Megan. And your comment has been a gift from His hand, to me!

  2. Katie Says:

    I’ve just read your post with tears streaming down my face. Giving your son the dignity of birth & burial was one of the most touching stories I have read to date. Isn’t it wonderful how our Lord comes & gives us exactly what we need when He knows our heart grieves. I am on-line tonight (Thanksgiving Eve) because my heart has been breaking over the loss of our beloved daughter-in-law…not by death, but by divorce. This is our first year without her and I am going through the mourning process. Romans 8: 18-25 was as a balm to my soul. Thank you, thank you!

    • Karen Butler Says:

      Welcome, Katie, to my blog, and I am so glad the Spirit led you here and gave you comfort through His Word in the scripture I quoted from Romans. It means the world to me that you were touched by my story, and that you were comforted through it in your grief at the loss of fellowship with your daughter-in-law.

      We serve an amazing God–how is it that He just opens His hand and satisfies the hearts of all who cry out to Him!

  3. beky Says:

    moms i have no words just luv xoxo


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