Surviving the Death of a Child (a preview)
11 years ago today....
"Where is her heartbeat?"
That question changed everything.
My pregnant wife, Emily, had just returned from the grocery store in time for her routine checkup with our superb midwife, Gay. Our daughter, Nicaea, was due in just two weeks. All three of our sons had come early. Consequently, we were anticipating our first girl to be snuggled in our arms any day now. All the stuff needed for a home-birth was neatly organized in the corner of our living room. Emily had already seen our back-up doctor. We had developed a fairly thorough “to do” list from our three previous home-births and everything was in its place. We were ready... or so we thought.
As Emily sat down with Gay, I quickly unloaded the groceries and prepared the boys for our annual trip to the Monroe County Fair. I had only a couple hours before I needed to sign in at my office for work. I needed to get stuff done so we could eat Elephant Ears and ride Tilt-a-Whirls together. Our house felt like a busy city intersection. Shoeless boys ran amuck as I put celery there and salami here. Then everything went slow motion. After repeated attempts, Gay was unable to find Nicaea’s heartbeat with the doppler. Impossible! I just felt her kick last night.
"Is Nicaea alright?"
We rushed the entire family into the minivan and headed to the doctor’s office. Hudson asked me if Nicaea was alright. Maybe she was fine. Maybe the doppler was just broken. I told him she was fine. Emily’s face was long. She knew what I refused to believe. Gay’s assistant sat with the boys in the waiting room while we went into the ultrasound room. Minutes later our worse fears were confirmed. Nicaea was dead. I knelt over the edge of the bed’s frame and held Emily as she cried. Though I looked calm on the outside, inside of me was a tornado of emotions.
I walked outside the office, down the pathway, and screamed as loud as I could. It echoed through the parking lot. Then I crumbled to my knees and cried violently for a few minutes. I didn’t care if anyone saw me. I just didn’t want my boys to be scared. Once I regained a reasonable amount of control, I went to work. I arranged a place for the boys to stay, called all the grandparents, and notified our pastors. I got the boys situated in our friend’s minivan. They would be safe with trustworthy Christian brethren.
The doctor told us that we could either wait for her to pass naturally or induce the labor. We thought inducing labor would be the wisest course of action. An appointment was set for later that night at Bloomington Hospital. I made sure we got something to eat. It wasn’t easy. Neither us were hungry. We both knew we were on the verge of a very long and challenging ordeal.
We only talked a little on the drive home. We both were stunned. Our life had suddenly taken an unexpected turn. There were no warning signs the entire pregnancy. Both Emily and Nicaea appeared to be totally fine at the obstetrician's checkup the previous week. Our shock numbed us enough to be operational. Neither of us cried hysterically. At least I don’t recalled it happening that way. We both clung to basic truths from Scripture. God is good. God is in control. God is our loving father. We were met by our pastors at our doorstep. They read Scripture and prayed over us. It help prepare us for what was to come.
"Are you going to be okay?"
We checked-in to the hospital. As we walked to the elevator, the woman at the registration desk said, “Congratulations!” It stung. She didn’t know. So I didn’t say anything. I just politely nodded my head. At the Labor & Delivery desk, I purposely told the woman that my wife was here to deliver our still-born daughter. One congratulations was enough. They put us in a spacious delivery room. It had a television, a couch, and a special hospital bed. We watched Barter Kings.
My father-in-law was there. He had dropped everything the moment I called him and made a 3 hour drive in 2 1/2 hours. What father-in-law I have! I watched him love on his daughter. It was a bittersweet sight. I wanted to love on a daughter someday. Elders from our church came and prayed over us. My little brother brought me some Mt. Dew. My pastor, Tim Bayly, had turned around midway on his trip to his vacation home to be by our side. Gay was there. We had an army of friends and family. We needed everyone of them.
The Pitocin drip was doing its job. Emily was dilating. It wouldn’t be long now. Everyone left besides the hospital staff and Gay. We’d soon be face to face with our daughter.
I once watch a man die from a heart attack. His whole family was around him crying. It looked like a family reunion. The EMTs tried to push life in him. It didn’t work. My Cousin Greg died unexpectedly at 17. My Uncle Roberto, who was closer to a brother, died barely over thirty. Several of my friends died in tragic accidents when I was younger. I had just been at the funeral for a newborn in our church the previous Sunday. I’m no stranger to death. But nothing...nothing prepared me for the birth of my daughter.
Emily’s labor wasn’t too long. I had been there for the birth of all my children. I delivered one them. I wasn’t about to leave Emily alone. The anticipation was weird. I dreaded seeing Nicaea. Would she be deformed? When she came out it was worse than I ever imagined. I gasped and almost fell over when I saw her. The nurse asked if I was going to be okay. I snapped, “No.” Nicaea looked perfect. Like a little version of her mom. Her skin was paper white and covered in an unusual amount of blood. Her mouth hung open. I stood horrified. Emily pushed Nicaea’s chin up to close it and held her against her chest. We were so close.
"Why did this happen?"
Medically speaking, we still don’t know exactly what went wrong with Nicaea. All signs point to a combination of complications from a disease called CMV and a blood clotting mutation we recently discovered Emily has. The experts continue to give us muddled answers. I doubt we will ever know for sure this side of the resurrection. The medical questions really aren’t the most difficult ones. There are much bigger questions...
Why did God allow this to happen? Or, to be much more biblical, why did God cause this to happen? He is in control of everything. He opens and closes the womb. So... why? Why Father?
God has given us some answers in His Word. They have been a great comfort to me and next time I’ll share a few of them with you. Until then I'll leave with some words from Pastor Charles Spurgeon that capture my heart today:
"It is a wondrous joy to be the father of those who, day and night, wait upon God in heaven, and see his face, and serve him evermore; so be not sad or downcast if that is your case."
I saw a man lighting a cigarette at the side of his raggedy old pickup truck. He didn’t know I was watching him from a window several stories up. It was the wee hours of the morning. The sun was just starting to peak through the trees surrounding the rear parking lot of Bloomington Hospital. Behind me my wife was giving Nicaea her first and only bath. She lovingly wipe the blood and vernix from our daughter’s body. I didn’t participate. I just stared out the window and wondered if the man was like me. Was he overwhelmed by some tragedy? Was he escaping to his Chevy and cancer-stick to gather himself? A cigarette didn’t sound bad. All I had was a flask of whiskey. So I took a swig. Was he asking, “Why?”
I turned around and sat down on the couch. Why? Why did this happen to us? Why did my only daughter have to die this way? I let out a long sigh. It was loud enough that one of the nurses cocked her head as if to say, “Can I help you?” I said nothing. The fog in my brain was clearing. I knew that these weren’t the real questions for me. You see, I knew why it had happen. At least I partially knew. I wasn’t really asking why. I was saying, “How dare you God!”
The Christian God--the one and only true God--has absolute authority and control over all events of history. Nothing happens outside of His plan. God is sovereign over everything. Even the death of my little girl. He called her home before I could walk her down the aisle. This was His doing.
Verses swirled in my mind as I angrily grumbled against my Redeemer.
Who has spoken and it came to pass,
unless the Lord has commanded it?
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
that good and bad come? (Lam. 3:37-38)
In Him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will. (Eph. 1:11)
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose. (Rom. 8:28)
I knew these verses well. I had taught them to others many times. Now these verses were a source of anger. However, the more that they tossed over and over in my mind the more the Spirit confronted me. He showed me how stupid I was being. I was isolating the fact of God’s sovereignty from the goodness of His character. God is so good. He works all things together for good. So, it is true. God did take her. It was His doing. But she wasn’t stolen from me. She was never mine to begin with. Nicaea, like everything I have, was on loan. I was just an undeserving steward of the blessings of God. He gives and takes away according to His good plan.
How dare God? No, how dare I! How dare I question His goodness! He has filled my life with gifts. A gorgeous wife. Three strong boys. Food, friends, money, good health, and a thousand joy-stuffed memories. He snatched me from the miry pit. He has even used terrible things from my past to be blessings. My life drips with the honey of God’s goodness. My anger melted into sadness mixed with faith just in time to take photos with Nicaea. Em sat next to me on the couch holding our little girl. I stared at her tiny face. The little bit of color she did have was quickly fading. The answers to the “whys” started to unfold in my heart.
Why did she die? Here are a few answers that have brought me some comfort...
She died for the same reason we all will die. Man is fallen. Our father, Adam, rebelled against God in the garden. At that moment, we all fell under death’s reign. In Romans 5, Paul puts it succinctly, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” All daughters of Adam die. How is this answer comforting? It reminds us that death is unnatural. Death wasn’t part of our original state. The godless materialists cannot say this. Death is the tool of evolution. Sorting out the most fit or some nonsense like that. Thankfully, that is a lie. Death had a beginning in Adam and has an end in Jesus, the second Adam. Jesus’ victory over death gives me the hope of seeing my little girl again.
She died so God might display His works. Jesus’ disciple once asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” His answer: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” The same can be said of Nicaea. God ordained that my daughter be stillborn to display His works through her. What works are we talking about?
First and foremost, the work of taking the child home to heaven. How is this a comfort? Consider this passage from Joseph Bayly’s The Last Thing We Talk About:
My mother put it this way, “If Jesus were here on earth and told you, “I’d like Danny to be with Me; I want to take over his teaching and his training,” you’d gladly give him up. And He’s done that, by taking Danny to heaven.
Nicaea is in good hands.
Second, God used Nicaea’s death to strengthen and expand His church. Her death opened the door for the proclamation of the gospel to unbelieving friends, family, and outright strangers. Time does not permit me to tell you the stories but there are stories. Lots and lots of evangelism has happened. There are also stories of how God used Nicaea’s death to strengthen other believers. I found out after the fact that she was the subject of several sermons at three different churches. Weird, right? No. God doesn’t waste death. He uses it to purify His people and glorify Himself. It is a great comfort to know that Nicaea’s life and death meant something not just for us but for others. Praise God!
She died to perfect her parents’ faith. Before going to the hospital, Emily and I prayed, “God help us face this as Christians.” He answered that prayer big time.
Nicaea’s body had grown cold. Her mama was finally ready to let go. She looked at me with disturbed eyes and said, “Let’s get out of here.” I had been anxious to leave for the last few hours. I hadn’t seen the boys in over a day. I needed to hold them. They cleared us to leave. I got all our stuff together as the nurse helped Em into a wheel chair. It was time to say goodbye to our daughter. They had laid Nicaea in a cradle. This was the last time we’d see her. Our departure wasn’t dramatic. We just left.
We made a b-line for our boys. How do you explain the death of a sibling to little children? How would they react? How would we react? How do you pick up the pieces?
There will always be questions this side of the resurrection. In Deuteronomy 29:29, Moses reminds us that, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” We don’t need all the “whys” to be answered. If you just turn to God’s Word, you’ll find that the revealed things go a long way in soothing the pain. You’ll soon find your broken heart in tune with the words of that great hymn:
"Man of Sorrows," what a name
For the Son of God who came
Ruined sinners to reclaim!
Hallelujah! what a Savior!
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
That sounded pretty good, right?
I couldn’t imagine what it was like to lose a child. I wasn’t about to say something stupid. Peter’s son, Nicholas, had died in his sleep for no discernible reason. What else could I say to a father that just unexpectedly lost a 4 month old boy?
I want to communicate so much more to him. But everything else that popped into my head seemed over the top. So I went with the first and simplest option. He firmly shook my hand as I expressed my condolences. I remember his eyes. They were wet with sadness. Poor guy.
I walked my two oldest boys across the sanctuary towards the miniature casket. I wanted them to see little Nicholas. They needed to understand what is at stake in this fallen world. The writer of Hebrew warns that, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” Everyone needs to be ready to stand before God. Even children. Shielding my boys from this reality would do them no favors. So I made it a practice to bring them with us to any funeral we attended. This was already the second one they had been to in 2012. I didn’t want it to be a weird morbid thing. I just wanted them to understand the wonderfulness of Jesus’ resurrection. Death has been conquered. We have a blessed hope.
On the way out to the minivan my oldest son, Hudson, said, “I don’t want Nicaea to die."
Athanasius, the middle child, quickly chimed in too. “Nicaea gonna die?”
“No, no. Nicaea is doing just fine. Boys, don’t worry. You’ll be hugging her before you know it! She isn’t going to die.”
Hudson smiled. He had been looking forward to a little sister.
Eleven days later, that exchange kept playing over in my mind as we tumbled down State Route 45 in our minivan. How wrong I had been! Nicaea, like Nicholas, was with her Heavenly Father. There wouldn’t be any hugs from her big brothers. Not in this life. And I’d have to explain this to them in just a few minutes.
How do I say this right? A thousand scenarios played out in my head. All of them seemed bad. And before I knew it we were there.
Man... I should’ve read those pamphlets the nurses gave us.
The two oldest boys were playing by a tree stump in the front yard. I walked over to them as Em went onto the porch to get our youngest, Caedmon. I sat down on the old stump and looked Hudson in his eyes. He knew but still bluntly asked, “Is Nicaea dead?”
“Yes. She is in heaven. We won’t see her until we also are in heaven.”
“How long will that be?”
“I don’t know. Probably a long time.”
He cried. We all cried. It hurt bad that she was gone. The pain was excruciating. It still is most days. However, our tears have never been tears of despair. We had plenty hurt but we also had plenty of hope. The hope of the resurrection and the life to come in heaven has been central to getting us through the hurt. Nicaea’s death brought this hope into sharp focus.
God mercifully led me to a deep study of The Epistle of James in the weeks before everything with my daughter. No matter how hard I tried, I was found myself pouring over the first chapter. My eyes were stuck on three verses in particular. James 1:2-4 reads:
"Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing."
Oh, those wonderful and dreadful verses! Why was God bringing me here? I sensed He was preparing me something. I was right. He was preparing me not just for Nicaea’s death but for heaven. He knew I loved this passing world. He knew heaven was often far from my mind. So He blessed me with a trial. Pastor Thomas Brooks said it well:
"….Surely, these afflictions are but the Lord's pruning-knives by which He will bleed my sins, prune my heart, and make it more fertile and fruitful! They are but the Lord's potion by which He will clear me and rid me of those spiritual diseases and maladies that are most deadly and dangerous to my soul! Affliction is such a healing potion as will carry away all soul-disease better than all other remedies (Zec 13:8-9)!"
He did just that. He broke me. I hate sin and death more than ever. Heaven is never far from my mind. Just few days ago, Athan began to cry about Nicaea being gone. Hudson turned to me and said, “I long for heaven.”
What a gift Nicaea has given us!
God has used her to make the entire family heavenly-minded. After all, heaven is where our treasures are. Not just a daughter or a little sister. But our glorious Heavenly Father! Listen to the words of Pastor Brooks once more:
"Such is the splendor, the brightness, the glory, the happiness, and blessedness that are reserved for the saints in heaven, that had I all the tongues of men on earth and all the excellencies of the angels in heaven, yet I would not be able to conceive nor express that vision of glory to you! That glory is inconceivable and inexpressible! It is best to be hastening there, that we may feel and enjoy that which we shall never be able to declare!
All the troubles, afflictions, and sorrows of this life, in comparison with eternal happiness and blessedness, are to be considered as nothing. They are but as the point of a pin compared to the starry heavens."
Thank you sweet Nicaea! God used you to fasten daddy’s eyes on heaven. See you soon.
Heaven was far from my mind. All I could think about was earth. By earth I mean soil, dirt, and clay. Soon part of me would be buried in the ground. Emily’s body had mixed with mine to make a new life. Joseph Bayly said it well: “In a way that is different from any other human relationship, a child is bone of his parents’ bone, flesh of their flesh.” This idea disturbed me. I would toss a handful of dirt on Nicaea’s casket. Then they would pile on pounds clay. It felt like I was locking my little girl up. Part of us trapped under the earth. Of course, this wasn’t true but feelings often overwhelm facts. And this felt true.
We were running late for the funeral. I pushed my feelings of horror deep down. I locked them away. Someone had to be strong, right? I gathered all the strength I had and got us on the road. It had only been 48 hours since we couldn’t find the heartbeat. Things had moved quickly. I had decided to fast track the funeral since many family members were already in town. My wife had crafted a tiny floral arrangement from her flower garden to put on the casket. I watched it bounce around in her lap as our minivan followed the hearse through Presbyterian Cemetery. Its simple beauty was a welcomed relief to a gloomy day.
The graveside sermon was good. I don’t recall any of the points. But I remember it being helpful. It’s what happen after the sermon that has left an indelible impression on my heart.
After the service, each attendee, one after another, came up to offer condolences to my family. It was a long line of teary-eyed friends, family, and church members. Some of them I knew quite well. Others not so much. Regardless, I resolved to give each one of them full-on hug. And that I did, but with some very unexpected results. Those locked up emotions? Well, they kicked down the door and busted their way out. So much for being strong.
Rarely, do I allow people to see me cry. My own wife had only seen me cry 3 or 4 times in thirteen years (things have changed in the last two months). So, what caused me to publicly show weakness? It took me a while to figure it out but I finally connected the dots. I felt free to cry when I hugged Christian brothers who had publicly gone through something terribly painful. One guy had confessed and repented of a very heinous sin. He dealt with it according to the Scripture. It was beautiful. The moment his arms wrapped around me, my heart was unlocked. This man knew pain. He knew his hope was in the church and in Christ. It couldn’t be found elsewhere. I wept freely. He, like so many others I hugged that day, had allowed their pain to be public property. Their weakness had become my strength.
Broken. Devastated. Needy. In the midst of that graveyard, I was being reinitiated into the community of the weak. Isn’t that what the church is to be? The strong aren’t welcomed in the church of the living God. Not the strong according to this world. Paul says, “God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong.” This was a lesson that even he needed to learn. Remember what God told the struggling Apostle? He said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” What does that even mean? Let Matthew Henry explain:
“This is a Christian paradox: when we are weak in ourselves, then we are strong in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ; when we see ourselves weak in ourselves, then we go out of ourselves to Christ, and are qualified to receive strength from him, and experience most of the supplies of divine strength and grace.”
Weakness starts its work in us at conversion. We see that our sin has made us enemies of God and that we are unable to rectify this through our own power. But weakness’ ministry to our soul doesn’t end at conversion. It remains central to our spiritual formation. In a sense, it is what qualifies us to receive, “the supplies of divine strength and grace.” Charles Spurgeon declares:
“God does not need your strength: he has more than enough of power of his own. He asks your weakness: he has none of that himself, and he is longing, therefore, to take your weakness, and use it as the instrument in his own mighty hand. Will you not yield your weakness to him, and receive his strength?”
No one wants to be seen as weak. No one. However, you many not be a child of God if you will not be weak. Heaven will be filled to the brim with weak men and women. Yet you will not find a single strong man. Their strength will carry them to hell.
Jesus commands, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” The strong just keep on keeping on.They can manage their burden by themselves. The weak know better. They need a Savior. They need rest for their weary souls. And so they find it. Christ gathers them together in his church. There he establishes officers and members to apply the gospel to one another hearts. It is a beautiful taste of what is to come. It is heaven on earth.
We found rest in the community of the weak as embodied by our local church. Church members brought us meals, watched our kids, gave us money, and poured out love on us in endless other ways. The love we received wasn’t limited to our local church or even to just Christians. I certainly don’t want to disregard those acts of kindness. My point is only that the care we received was concentrated in our local church. They helped us get through that dreary funeral and move forward in faith. Little did we know how much we’d need them in the weeks to come.
P.S. I'm going to finish this book one way or another. It's just a hard thing to write about and I breakdown every several paragraphs.