Today is my one and only son’s birthday. If you read my Father’s Day post you know that he was, in the terminology of the latest trend, born still – a cord death. Cole did not die on the day of his birth. I always knew that. David and I were drawn to the hospital because I quit feeling him move. But even I didn’t originally know when he died.
I’m not sure how long after his death it was that I discovered exactly when he died, but it was an innocent comment made by my mother that truly rocked my world.
She was in my home and all she said was, “I remember you telling me that the baby was moving really funny.” Those words triggered that movie-like effect, you know the one where past events scroll by the screen at warp speed and a replay begins of that exact moment in the character’s past. And I was instantly transported back . . . There I stood in my parent’s living room in front of their green velvet love seat. It was about 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 18th. I can see it in my mind’s eye looking on as if I was standing mere feet away from my extremely pregnant self.
I’d driven there after work in order to bring my mom some fabric which she was to sew into a balloon shade for the baby room David and I had set up in our home. It was a simple blue and white pinstripe and matched the Paddington Bear pattern of the bedding we’d selected. And then I said it, “Mom, the baby’s moving really funny.” It echoes through my mind even 24 years later. My mother replied, “Why don’t you lay down and maybe it will stop in a moment.” Cringe worthy advice looking back, for indeed the strange movements I felt did indeed stop shortly thereafter. And only in hindsight, only when my Mother spoke those innocent words after my only child (at the time) was long buried, did I realize the significance of those words that began, “I remember you saying . . . ”
Unbeknownst to my Mother, she filled in the blanks and devastated me all with one simple sentence. It was at that very moment, now standing in my own living room in which I realized for the very first time that I not only knew exactly when my child died but that I did nothing – NOTHING! – NOT ONE DAMN THING! – to save him. It was in that instant that I could finally find words to describe the strange way my son was moving within my womb. Thrashing. That is the only word that accurately describes those strange, unnamed movements.
I knew with certainty then that I had felt my child dying; thrashing as the cord that was wrapped around his arm pulled tight around his throat and he fought life. And that devastating moment began the completely irrational guilt/shame cycle I struggled to overcome for years in spite of knowing full well from an intellectual standpoint that had I known what was happening, I would not have been able to save him. There was no way to get to the hospital, to have my son delivered, before his death. No possible way.
But guilt and shame are all too common experiences in the parent loss community. Far too common. We kick ourselves for what we perceive as poor choices in spite of the fact that there was no earthly way of knowing what was to come and therefore, intervening in the unacceptable destiny about to play out in our children’s lives. Instead, we beat ourselves up and ask ourselves, “What kind of parent/mother/father am I?” And the only possible internal answer is, of course, “A bad one”.
But we all need someone to blame, someone to be held accountable, and for many broken believers, the heart simply cannot handle even the thought that our child’s death may have been part of God’s plan – let alone His will. It is far easier to blame ourselves than to rock the very foundations upon which our belief in a loving God resides. Not that we are any more capable of preventing that either. When a large part of your world is destroyed the impact is insidiously complete as wave upon wave of grief batters the broken heart.
Just as few people knew that I felt my one and only son, my firstborn child, strangle to death within the ironically protective environment of my womb, few people realize that we debated the trip to Kansas City for Christmas the year my oldest and youngest daughters died.
Bethany, my oldest daughter, had so much going on in the days prior to her death. Tons of angst over school and changes in living arrangements she wanted to make, finances, and Alex, her boyfriend’s uncertain return to UCA. Her life was in complete turmoil and I was helpless to make it better for her. It seemed what might be best for Bethany would be for us to stay home in Bentonville that Christmas, but that was not what was best for the rest of the family and not best for O’rane (the international student spending the holiday with us). Still, I took her aside a day or two before we left for KC and asked her if she would prefer to stay home. I would have chosen to remain in NW Arkansas if that would have made her more comfortable. No one else would have been too keen on that plan, but I had every intention of honoring her wishes had she indicated that she would prefer to stay home.
What I wouldn’t give to have simply stayed home.
I’m considerably older and a bit wiser than I was 24 years ago, but those old demons of guilt and shame have still plagued my days in the aftermath of Bethany & Katie’s deaths. Despite that fact that I had no power whatsoever to prevent any of the tragic circumstances of my life the broken heart is laid bare and vulnerable to the fiery arrows Satan takes such delight in unloading upon the weak.
Maybe just revealing that truth will help another broken-hearted parent caught in the guilt and shame cycle put to rest the irrational personal judgments they have leveled against themselves or a spouse. Maybe it will enable them to see that what the scriptures say is true – that Satan is a thief and a liar bent on our destruction and there is no limit to the devices he will employ to do just that.
Maybe the disclosure of my illogical feelings will enable another parent to make peace with the equally truthful scriptural revelation that our days are numbered prior to our birth; it was never in our power to extend the lives of our children, regardless of the circumstances of their death. There are simply things in this life that are pre-ordained and while that can be a devastating truth it can also be a great comfort, because aside from parents who with knowledge took the lives of their own children; the vast majority of parents have consistently acted in the best interest of their children. And with grace, those whose actions result in godly conviction (i.e., not undeserved guilt) there is repentance, forgiveness, restoration and reconciliation through faith in Christ Jesus.
The road is long and dark – but grief embraced, worked through (not short-circuited by positive thinking) – can find health and healing.
Oh, you never forget. And there never comes a day when the death of your child is justified by spiritual growth or ministry. Those things are just the result of God taking a bad thing and performing a work of redemption not somehow transforming that bad thing into a good thing. God brings good from Satan’s evil actions and intentions, He doesn’t justify Satan’s evil actions and intentions. That’s a very fine distinction, but an extremely important one nonetheless. All things work together for good, not all things are made good.
So while this day is filled with bitter longing and remembrance it is also a day in which I know I can trust that this is not the end of the story. This Kenny Chesney song, “Who You’d Be Today” is reflective of that intense longing and bitter disappointment I feel. But it also reminds me that one day I will know who each of my children would have been because I will see them again. I will know them and they will know me in perfection, the way we were created to be before the fall of man. We will be like Him – the one who sacrificed His life and endured for the joy set before Him.
And the lyrics to “Held” by Natalie Grant remind me of the things God did not promise me — but also that He has promised to hold me through all the bitterness this life brings. “Can I not wait, for one hour (albeit a very long hour), watching for my Savior? (Paraphrased)” Partial lyrics can be found beneath the youtube link.
Partial lyrics, “Held” by Natalie Grant:
“This hand is bitterness
We want to taste it and
Let the hatred numb our sorrows
The wise hand opens slowly
To lilies of the valley and tomorrow
This is what it means to be held
How it feels, when the sacred is torn from your life
And you survive
This is what it is to be loved and to know
That the promise was that when everything fell
We’d be held
If hope if born of suffering
If this is only the beginning
Can we not wait, for one hour
Watching for our savior”