April 25, 2016

Grace's Story - a stillbirth birth story

I posted on Instagram a couple of weeks ago that I felt I was ready to share Grace's story of arrival and goodbye. Not long after I posted I sat with Eden in her room in the dark to feed her. That last nighttime feeding is my time to think and pray and that night I thought about Grace and her birth and the pain of seeing her for the last time. I thought about the day of her funeral service and the homeless man at the light we were stopped at and the way my heart ached for him. I was sad for both of us. And then, in the dark while my sweet girl ate in sleepy quietness, I cried and cried and cried. But I wasn't really even crying for me. I was crying for that homeless man from three years ago. I was crying for the countless stories of hurt and pain that I've heard and known. I was crying because we suffer so much in this life and because so many suffer more than others.

It reminded me yet again at how much Grace's life and death has changed me. Yes, it broke my heart. But it didn't just break my heart for me, it broke my heart for the hurting. And I'm so, so thankful for that.

I recently finished a book called Colors of Goodbye by September Vaudrey. It's a memoir, telling her story of the sudden death of their 19-year old daughter and the subsequent wake of grief and loss they experienced as a family. I was so comforted and moved by many of her descriptions of what grief looks like in the everyday life. We often write and talk about the big things (anniversaries, funerals, hospital stays) but what does grief look like as you keep clocking in those 24-hour days?

She described an experience that she calls "body memory." Their daughter passed away at the end of May and she says every spring stirs those last memories they had with her and worse, the memories of getting the news and then the plunge into their new normal.

That's exactly how I feel every end of March/beginning of April. I can't help but be reflective and introspective. I find myself lost in thought, staring very far off as my mind sifts through memory after memory. On a regular basis I find myself stopped at the light on the road that leads to the cemetery and I'm back to that day we drove there for her service. My thoughts were so desperate, I just couldn't fathom that we were really on our way to our daughter's funeral. I literally could not bear the thought of her being buried underneath the ground. I had carried her and birthed her and held her and loved her; how could she now be buried in the ground? It was insane to me. To this day, it's something I can only think about for a moment at a time and the reason I rarely visit.

But after reading September's memoir and also the birth story of another bereaved mama, I felt like I could finally tell Grace's story. I never thought I would, quite honestly. I've rarely even spoken of it. The memories have always been too sharp, too burdensome to take on unnecessarily. But I feel like in this season, it could bring more healing than pain.

So here we go, Grace's birth story.

It was a Thursday morning and I was 29 week and 6 days. I woke up that morning and I can't explain how I knew except that I just knew. She was gone. I knew it in the deepest parts of my mama heart. Surprisingly, I didn't feel a crushing weight as it sunk in or even the deep grief that would come, just a calm, indescribable peace in its acceptance.

I had my Bible study that morning and I forced myself to go. My dear friend, Ashild (who you'll hear more about later) looked deep in my eyes that morning and squeezed me long and tight. She later told me that she knew that I knew.

I didn't call my doctor's office because I already had an appointment that day. I spent that time between my study and the appointment in a surreal state of peace. It's so hard to describe. How do you describe the work that God does in a person's deepest being? He says his peace in our hearts is like a river and yet our bodies can't contain a river. At least not like the rivers we have in Montana. It's something other-worldly, it transcends understanding.

I walked to a park with my sons and watched them play and it's as if I watched from a different world. I saw things more clearly. It was like God was bolstering my spirit, giving me a strength and grace you can't have until you need it, and you can't describe until you have it.

I met Matt at the perinatologist's office. We were brought immediately back and before the ultrasound tech put the wand on my belly, I said, I haven't felt her move, I think she's gone. It took only moments to see stillness where two days prior there had been a beating heart. The calm I'd had previously was gone. Sobs and anguished words burst out, so unlike my normally composed person.

Matt took over immediately, in the best way. He made all the phone calls, made all the necessary arrangements for the boys and his work; he contacted Sarah, my friend and photographer who would document our time with her. He handled it all with such grace and strength.

We were told to return at midnight that night to be induced. The calm and peace I had experienced that morning, when I knew that I knew, returned. It covered both of us over the next hours as we went home, had dinner with our boys, tucked them in, laid down to rest, got up and packed our things, and ultimately all the way through the coming hours of labor.

When my mom came over that night to stay with our boys, my only request was that she please remove all the things we had collected and bought for Grace. I knew I wouldn't be able to bear to see them when we returned home. I didn't have the strength to look at those things for over a year and even then it brought a wave of tears and pain.

One thing that I prayed for very strongly that afternoon as we waited was that every person that we would encounter for our time there would be kind and compassionate. And I can't even tell you how God answered that prayer. Every single person that walked through that door, from our nurses to the guy who drew my blood to my doctor, literally, physically reeked of compassion and empathy. It brings me to tears even now to think about it.

The first thing our night nurse did when she got us settled was sit down on a chair right in front of me and cry as she told us how sorry she was and that she would do everything she could to care for us in the best way. It was a tremendous answer to prayer.

I was given Cervadil and some pain medicine to get my body laboring and also to be able to sleep. Matt's mom and sister arrived in the middle of the night after flying and driving all night. Morning came and there had been slow but steady progress made. Matt and I mostly spent time alone with the occasional visit from our families.

I remember so vividly lying in bed waiting hour after hour for her arrival, but my spirit felt so strong and prepared, even in the middle of such profound sadness and I knew that people were praying for us. Prayer is incredibly powerful and to this day I don't downplay my ability to help others when "all" I can do is pray for them. It does something in the supernatural that we'll never fully know until Eternity.

As late afternoon came I felt my body changing and preparing to push. I didn't want anyone in the room except Matt so everyone left except Matt and our nurse, Ashild.

Yes, the friend I mentioned earlier. She's a labor and delivery nurse and she "just happened" to be working that day. She asked the night before if she could be my nurse when she came in the next day. I couldn't say yes fast enough and she ended up having an irreplaceable part in our story. I never think about this part of our story without thinking of Ashild too.

When the urge came for me to push, it came fast and strong. It was my doctor, Matt, Ashild and me. The lights were all dimmed except for the one directly overhead. I have to describe this part because it's the one memory I treasure and visit in my mind over and over again. My doctor is in front of me, ready to deliver. Ashild is to my right and Matt is to my left. We had already talked about what it would look like and what my desires were, and my desire was to have Grace given straight to me.

I have immediately held and loved all my children and she would be no different. I felt extremely strongly about that. I wanted her in my arms and held against my chest in my love just like all my other children.

I pushed only a few times before she was born. Ashild wrapped her in a blanket like we had talked about and placed her directly on me. And this is what I remember and treasure. I cried and cried as I told her over and over, You're so beautiful, you're so perfect. And you know how in those profound moments in life, you take in a hundred different details at once and store them away as a memory, though the moment itself only lasted seconds? That's what it was like. As I was totally caught up in meeting her and holding her and taking in her face, I'll never forget Matt's face as tears streamed down as he did the same, the way he pinched his thumb and finger over his eyes to stop the flow. I see my doctor's kindness as he did everything as unobtrusively and gently as he could. I see Ashild's tender face and firm resolve to make every moment count with her as she helped deliver her. It was only moments but I see everything played out as if a full-length film.

The hardest thing of that moment that many stillbirth mamas will say is the silence. Where there should have been a crying baby and constant chatter about who she looks like and rehashing to one another those final pushing moments and laughter and finally getting that Ginger Ale, there was only heartbreaking quietness.

I held her for a long time before I asked them to bathe her and then I watched from the bed as Matt and Ashild worked together to bathe her, the way Matt has done with every single one of our children.

After a long while, we called Sarah (my friend and photographer) and our families in. Everyone had a turn holding her. The boys got to meet her and hold her. They still talk about it to this day. After what was probably less than an hour I was weary to my core. I wanted only to hold my baby and to sleep. We said goodbye to our families with lots of tears shed by everyone and then Matt and I collapsed in total exhaustion into a deep sleep. We took turns snuggling her close and when I was awake, I constantly traced her face and hair, telling her over and over how sorry I was. I was so sorry that she had a broken heart. I was so sorry that she had to endure anything other than a whole heart and a family that loved her desperately.

Because she had so much swelling from her heart failure, her skin was very delicate and peeling in a lot of places. After spending most of that day with her, I saw that it was nearing the time to let her go. Matt asked me if I was sure and I managed to say I was, though no mama is ever ready for that moment to say goodbye for the last time. We called our nurse in (the same night nurse we had the night before) and she asked me the same. I knew we had to do it, whether it was then or in another five hours, I was still going to have to say goodbye for the last time.

I kissed her for the last time, said I was so sorry one final time, and then Matt had his turn. I can't even write this part without crying. He held her close, kissed her one last time, wrapped her in her blankie, set her in her bassinet, and then just stood and stared at her while his tears fell. It was beyond heartbreaking, it's a pain you can't imagine unless you know.

The nurse wheeled her away and I literally collapsed onto the end of my bed, totally unable to comprehend the pain and magnitude of it all and the fact that I would never see her again. I managed to send a message to my Bible study group asking them to please pray because it was a pain I couldn't fathom. We were discharged that night and we headed home to adjust to our own new normal.

And that's her story. Much of it at least.

This was as hard to write as I thought it would be. Many tears were shed but I prayed today as I sat down to write, Lord, let me write truthful words that honor her life. And that's what I've done.

If I could beg you to come away with one thing, it would be this: Jesus is the greatest delight of life and there are no good substitutes. If you read this story and thought to yourself, I could never do that, please know I thought the same thing! But we could only never do that because we've never had to do that but when we do, His grace will be all-covering, all-filling, totally and completely enough to sustain and bear fruit even in the most arid of lands.

I'm not just saying that. I hate Christianese, feel-good verbiage. I mean it with all my heart. I spent time in his Word just now before I sat down to finish this and it so moved me to praise him out loud, God, you are so good, so beyond description. Thank you, Father, thank you!

He is worth it. You will never walk through anything so hard you can't endure. He will sustain you, he will empower you, he will redeem everything in his time.

He is making all things beautiful.