January 16, 2017 was supposed to be a day full of joy and anticipation. It turned out to be the worst day of my life.
On that day, my wife and I were going to the doctor. We were not supposed to be able to have children, and, due to our advanced age and the risk for genetic defects that it brings, we were not trying to do so. Still, in late 2016, we found out that we were pregnant. We had been praying for God to give us more joy in our lives, and this was (we thought) His response.
Our goals on that fateful day were to have the first ultrasound and to discuss our plan of action with our doctor. It was a little late for a first ultrasound; we were at ten weeks and six days by this time. But it meant that we would get to see more of what our baby looked like. We were excited.
Little did we know the grief that awaited us. As the doctor performed the ultrasound, our little one came into view. She was a little small, but the doctor was not too worried about that. Soon, however, his level of concern began to rise. He could not find a heartbeat, and it did not take long for the awful truth to become obvious. We had lost our miracle baby.
I know that it is cliche to say it, but, at that moment, it felt like my heart had been run over by a truck. I remember asking the doctor, “Are you sure?” I knew that he was, but I just could not process what had happened. We had done a lot of thinking and praying, preparing ourselves for the possibility that our baby might have a disability. After all, we are both in our 40s, and I have a congenital eye disease. But it had never crossed our minds that we might lose the baby altogether. How could it? She was our miracle baby.
Needless to say, we went home and cried. We cried every day for weeks. We still cry sometimes. Even now, as I write this blog, I cry.
We also prayed. And in our prayers, we found our first, tiny step towards healing. We decided that our baby was a girl. We had no confirmation of this fact from the ultrasound; it just seemed right. So, we named her Rachel. (If you get to heaven before us and find a little boy running around named Rachel, tell him that his name is Joshua!) Naming our little girl helped us hold on to her, to remember that she was real. It helped us to pray for her and to talk about her. It helped us to see her as she really is—a person loved by God and treasured by her parents.
Sharing Our Story
We did something else very quickly. We told our story of grief and pain. We did it for practical reasons; we had shared the happy news of our pregnancy widely, and we did not want others to be left in the dark about what had happened. But we also did it because we knew that we could not bear this pain alone. We needed help. We also needed to know that excruciating pain was not the only facet of our reality. We needed to know that there was love, too.
The first, and hardest, telling was to our parents. It was hard because we knew that they were nearly as invested in our little one as we were. The same was true of our siblings. My sister, for example, has spent her life fighting for me. She is my hero. But this was one enemy she could not defeat, one bully she could not chase away.
We also had to tell our Bible study class at church. They were so wonderfully surprised and happy when we announced the pregnancy. Telling them that we had lost the baby was hard. And we had to tell our friends and other family members around the world. Social media made that easier from a practical standpoint, but it was still hard emotionally. Every conversation made our loss more real. Every tear and every hug made it more certain that our Rachel was not coming back.
In the process of these conversations, we discovered that what our doctor told us was true. Miscarriage is surprisingly common. We also discovered that many of our friends and family members suffered in silence. We asked (sometimes out of exasperation) why people don’t talk about this. A man in our Bible study class explained that it is because it hurts so much. You could see the pain on his face as he shared his own story of loss.
We are sure that his explanation is part of it, but we also think that people don’t talk about it because they are not sure that what they feel is legitimate. Evangelical Protestants and conservative Roman Catholics have generally argued that life begins at conception, and I think that we have rightly understood both the science and the theology of this question. But when we put it into practice—especially as we grieve the loss of a preborn baby—we feel a bit awkward. On the one hand, we do not want to assume that our grief is the same as someone who lost an infant. After all, we never got to hold our child, and her neurological development was not such that she could understand most of what was happening to her. And yet, to us it really is the loss of a child (not the loss of a fetus). And the fact that we never got to hold her, never got to bury her properly, never got to tell her how much we love her, is part of what makes it so incredibly hard.
In light of such ambiguity, it is not surprising that people choose not to talk about their miscarriages. (To be honest, I do not even like the word “miscarriage” because it does not do justice to the humanity of the one who has died or to the pain of those who miss them.) But my wife and I hope that more people will talk about them in the future. Do it for yourself, but do it also for the people like us who are coming behind you. We need your support and your wisdom.
Finding God in the Midst of Our Grief
So where was God when we were experiencing such a profound loss? It is a fair question—and one that we asked often. We knew the answers that theologians and spiritual masters have come up with over the centuries. They provided us some comfort, for they represent the collective wisdom of generations shaped by the gospel. Nevertheless, they were not entirely satisfying, especially given the circumstances of our pregnancy and the way in which those circumstances had been interpreted by God’s people.
We needed to see God at work. We needed to know that God was with us and experience His love for us. As we presented our needs to the Lord, He began to show us ways in which He had already been at work in our lives. Moreover, we saw God continue to work. It is the only way we kept our sanity.
Here are the five ways that we saw God work in our lives. We cannot promise that God will work in your life the same way that He worked in ours, but we hope that, by sharing our experience, we can help you discern God’s presence and activity in the midst of your sorrow.
- Preparing the Way for Suffering — We were surprised by what happened to us, but God was not. In the year before we found out that we were pregnant, God began to prepare us for what was to come. He did this by addressing some of the emotional, spiritual, and theological things that would keep us from healing. For one thing, we read Sam Chand’s book Leadership Pain. I have always had an unhealthy aversion to pain and an inordinate attraction to pleasure. Chand reminded us that pain is just part of the bargain if one is going to be a follower of Jesus, and especially if one is going to lead others to follow Jesus. Second, I worked my way through John Walton’s teaching on the Book of Job. It reminded us that the real question we must confront if we are going to follow Jesus faithfully in the midst of our pain is not “Why do good people suffer?” or “Why do evil people prosper?” Rather, we must ask ourselves, “Does God know what He is doing?” and “Is God good?” Answering those questions in the affirmative will help us interpret our experiences properly and avoid the trap of making God our enemy when things go wrong.
- Pursuing the Presence of God — We have always prayed a lot as a couple, but our prayer life intensified dramatically after we lost Rachel. God gave us tools that we could use to pray more effectively, but He also redefined what “effective” prayer is. We learned that what we need the most is God’s presence. Communion with our Creator is the goal of human existence, and, as such, it has unparalleled power to heal.
- Seeing the Church Really Work — Natallia and I have given our lives to the church. We believe in it, and we have tried to help those around us catch God’s vision for it. The truth is, however, that we have only rarely seen it work. Before this all happened, God brought us to a place (First Baptist Church of Arlington) where the church really works. It worked in all the informal ways that a church is supposed to; people rallied around us in the various ways that fit their personalities and their gifts—some by crying with and for us, others by keeping a respectful distance, some by sharing sage advice, some by helping us with practical needs. But it also worked formally. Our Associate Pastor of Pastoral Ministries (a Carroll graduate) did the hard work of providing us with (excellent) clinical and pastoral support, and that allowed others on the staff (the Senior Pastor, the Young Adult Minister, the Preschool Minister) to do what they do best. The result was a symphony of support and compassion that embodied the love of Jesus and facilitated healing.
- Receiving Freedom from Sin — I had picked up a bad and sinful habit during early adolescence. God had been working slowly and patiently for at least the last thirteen years to help me find freedom from this unhealthy pattern of thinking, but our pregnancy really helped me take a big step in the right direction. You would think that the loss of the pregnancy would have resulted in a setback; people often revert to bad habits when they are under stress. But quite the opposite happened in my case. God used my pain to draw me closer to Him, and, in so doing, He helped me find a level of freedom that I have not known in more than a quarter of a century.
- Recognizing an Underlying Problem — Our pain also helped us recognize that my wife has an underlying anxiety issue. (I share this with her permission.) Recognizing the problem helped us make sense of some things that had been going on for a long time, and it helped us to obtain treatment for her that reduced her symptoms and improved the quality of her life. Perhaps more importantly, recognizing the presence of persistent anxiety helped my wife explore the connections between her emotional well-being and her beliefs about God. Teasing out the nature of these connections and appropriating them to create a more wholesome psycho-spiritual framework for living is a work in progress. Nevertheless, it is a work that has benefited her greatly, both in terms of her mental health and in terms of her relationship with God.
We do not believe that these instances of God’s grace constitute explanations of our little one’s death. We do, however, believe that they are important, and we believe that they are examples of God’s redeeming work in the world. God did not take Rachel’s life because I was a sinner, because Natallia did not trust Him enough, or in order to show us that we have a good church. Rather, God used her death, bringing something good out of what could have been nothing but darkness and evil.
Grief and Hope
We still grieve. We always will. And yet, we have hope (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:13). Our hope comes from the fact that we have fellowship with our Creator. He never tires of our tears. He never grows impatient with our questions. He never loses empathy for our pain. He is always with us, and He always loves us.
Our hope also comes from the fact that we share in the resurrection life of Christ, and, we believe, so does our daughter. We do not know what form her life will take in the new heaven and the new earth, but we know that it will be shaped by God’s good work of making all things new (cf. Revelation 21:1-7). If she is a baby, then we will raise her in that glorious place. She will never know the pain and the sin of this age. If she is an adult, then we will run into her arms when we finally arrive in that place (or, as N. T. Wright has rightly pointed out, that place arrives here). We will hear her say, “Don’t cry, Momma. Don’t cry, Daddy. I know your pain, but, by the grace and power of our loving God, it is over now. I am here, I am whole, and I will never be separated from you again.”