In 2017, in the Netherlands, 773 children were born still after a pregnancy of 22 weeks or more.
That’s what I read in the newspaper. Amanda is one of them. I read the article. My child is one of seven hundred and seventy-three. She was born after she passed away, just as seven hundred seventy-two other children.
Of course it makes no sense at all to think about that. But it still haunts my mind today. All over the world babies die. In the Netherlands in the year of Amanda’s death 773 babies died before their birth. And of those who were born alive, another 502 died. I know the names and parents of some of these babies, because we got to know each other via a bereaved parent’s group.
I read the numbers in the newspaper. They are too big to really grasp. But I carry Amanda in my heart. A small individual who was so clearly one of us. Part of me, part of our family – which became so movingly clear when I asked one of my children what she thought about me buying lilies to express the feeling of Amanda being there on a birthday. Her answer: ‘I don’t care, because Amanda is always there for me anyway.’ I was so glad she said that and bought a bunch of flowers with lilies in it, but without the feeling that I have to do it.
She’s one of us. Not one of many. She is one. The one child who is always missing. Of who we don’t know if she would have just as dark hair and blue eyes as her siblings. Invisibly present, as I wrote before.
But she is also one of seven hundred seventy-three children who went from Mummy’s belly directly to their Heavenly Father.
Yesterday I sang and played guitar in church. I really enjoy doing that, but some songs are hard for me to sing. One of them is Good, good Father. It is a beautiful song, but also very painful for me, especially since Amanda died. We sang: You are perfect in all of Your ways. You are perfect in all of your ways. You are perfect in all of your ways to us.
I woke up that morning to first have some time alone with God. It is what I am used to do: get up early and go downstairs. The children are still sleeping or playing in their bedrooms. I make coffee and sit down to read the bible, thinking and praying. I just finished reading Job and it stood out to me that it comes different to me than in the past. I used to read this book as a story of someone who was very ill, like I was when I was younger. The groaning of pain I heard through the verses was familiar to me. But now I see the father who mourns his children. I feel and see the pain that I now know myself. The deep pain of loosing a child. A pain that is still indescribable.
I continued reading the Psalms and I am so grateful that in there are so many exclamations of despair in this book. So, that’s allowed: your pain, your raw complaints: ‘God! where are You?’ Throwing all your misery at the feet of your creator. He can handle it. He doesn’t feel threatened or insulted by my emotions. I once wrote a small song about this. It is in Dutch and means something like: I am safe with You, can quietly breath in and out, I can be who I am, with You.
I got the melody in my head while reading the Psalms. It is so important to know that you can come to God with all your pain, anger, bitterness and misery. I am very grateful for that. The anger in me seems to go deep. I am so angry about what happened: First I had to wait years before I was pregnant, then we found out our baby wasn’t doing well and some weeks after that we learned she had died. In the months following I found some peace. Amanda is doing well and that is what I want. But there also has been torn something from me. It seems that my heart partly is damaged beyond repair.
They say that time heals all wounds, but that is not my experience yet. It still seems as if my grief grows bigger instead of diminishes. A little bit desperate I asked a sweet lady from church who buried her newborn son ten years ago: ‘Will this ever become less? This deep, sharp pain?’ I point to a place near my heart and she points to the exact same place on her own body and says: ‘No, it still hurts só much. Maybe God doesn’t take away the pain, but He does go His way with it.’
I said to my Love on a day that I cried a lot (fortunately, I don’t do that daily anymore): ‘I thought this would be like when you break your arm. It hurts a lot, but when it is set correctly, it will hurt less and then heals and grows even stronger than before. It doesn’t feel that way at all. I actually always miss her. She is so present absent.’ ‘Yes’, my Love said, ‘you should not compare it with breaking an arm, but with amputation.’
I did not experience physical amputation, so I need to be careful here. If you did experience this: please come back to me if I am making a wrong equation. I imagine that if your arm has been amputated, you learn to live with that but also have lots of times that you bump into missing your arm. You can function, you are creative, you find ways to compensate, but you also feel the lack, you see other people having two well-functioning arms and that sometimes make you feel jealous. You would also like to play piano, to cook, to play tennis, or whatever you see other people doing. And sometimes, when the weather changes, when you suddenly remember things or when you hurt what’s left of your arm, you feel the pain even physically, as bad as it was in the beginning.
If this is what it is like, then the loss of our baby indeed feels like amputation. I learn to live with it. I do what I have to do. I enjoy life intently intense because I know how vulnerable it is. But this deep sharp pain does not go away and pops up, unwanted and unexpected. I think I need to do the same as the Psalm writers did: call out to God, honestly share what I feel and meanwhile – even when still grumbling and feeling resentment – proclaim what I know deep down inside: You are perfect in all of your ways.
Or, as I had to sing on a wedding lately: ‘Lord, I want to praise your love, although my soul doesn’t understand. Blessed he, who dares to believe, even when the eye doesn’t see. When Your ways seem dark to me, I do not ask: Why. One day I will see your glory, when entering your heaven.’
With this side note though: I do ask why, because I read that Job did that and David did that and this question is in my heart and I want to be honest. But this surrendering to God, even though you don’t understand a thing, is only possible if you believe that Gods way eventually is the best way.
Life may be far from perfect and my life bumped, broken and crooked. If His ways are perfect, they lead somewhere. And then it this is really true: I am safe with You, I can quietly breath in and out, I can be who I am, with You. So I read another Psalm and feel the pain and the joy and find that this is what makes me human. Broken but real. With my anchor in the God who is perfect in His ways with me, even though it doesn’t feel that way.
You have to face it. At some point you need to cry hard, instead of running away from your emotions. I am so aware of this and at the same time so not capable of doing it. So here I am. I sit down, try to write, try to let you know how I feel so I can feel as well.
Where I am right now really is a valley and it seems darker then it was before. I miss my baby girl like crazy. My body still longs to hold her, feed her, protect her, cherish her. It is a very soft and tender feeling and so very painful at the same time. I have this special love for my other children as well and I came to realize how wonderful it is to give it to them. But there also is this love towards Amanda and she isn’t here to receive it.
I’ve never been aware of this before she was born. I discovered that as a mother you need your child just as much as she needs you. I mean, I was aware of a baby desperately needing his or her mum and dad. And when you have a child, you know you are happy to give yourself to him or her – most of the time. But when my baby was born still, I discovered I needed her just as much. At that very moment, new love was born, especially for her and only hers to receive.
I remember that when I was expecting my fourth child, I was so afraid that I couldn’t love him as much as I loved my other children. Who is capable of loving four children the same with deep and sacrificial love? However, I found out when giving birth to that precious boy that my heart grew larger, and new love was born, especially for him. Apparently you can love four children with real parental love.
When I gave birth to my fifth child that happened again. Though we knew she had died before she was born, that moment she came into the world, both our hearts flooded with love, compassion, a willingness to sacrifice, nourish, cherish and protect this precious child.
And then reality kicked in. We found ourselves having this love and feelings, but no place, no soul, to give it to. She didn’t need it. She didn’t need us.
The last few days words from a song came to my mind over and over again. I listened to it a hundred times the last few months. It’s comforting to know that I am not the only one feeling this way right now:
There were photographs I wanted to take Things I wanted to show you Sing sweet lullabies, wipe your teary eyes Who could love you like this?
People say that I am brave but I’m not Truth is I’m barely hanging on But there’s a greater story Written long before me Because He loves you like this
So I will carry you While your heart beats here Long beyond the empty cradle Through the coming years
I will carry you All my life And I will praise the One Who’s chosen me To carry you
Such a short time Such a long road All this madness But I know That the silence Has brought me to His voice And He says
I’ve shown her photographs of time beginning Walked her through the parted seas Angel lullabies, no more teary eyes Who could love her like this?
I will carry you While your heart beats here Long beyond the empty cradle Through the coming years
I will carry you All your life And I will praise the One Who’s chosen Me To carry you
You never cry alone. These words touched me deeply. ‘Our broken heart always break Gods heart in two. You never cry alone’. As usual with Ann Voskamps blogs and books, I let these words sink in deeply.
I struggle with things happening around me, again and again: ‘They split up’, ‘He’s been hospitalized and it will not get any better’, ‘Cancer came back’. And not that long ago: ‘I am so very sorry, but you’re baby passed away.’
My heart shrinks, I am feeling nauseous. Total apathy combats with total despair and because I can’t decide in which on of these states I will sink, I freeze. How do I get over this. What is the solution now. Tell me what to do. But there is nothing that I or anyone can do. This is too big. So I am just sitting there, feeling defeated. Searching for words, for a solution, a strategy to cope with this.
When I was young and needed surgery again (I had quite a lot of surgeries between the age of 3 months and 12 years), I pretended to be somewhere else until things went better. I went into a mental state of: ‘I am not here, please tell me when you’re done and I can be ‘normal’ again.’ And at some certain point, it was over. After that you were better, or not, got surgery again, but there was a certain progression. It does not always work that way. A divorce is forever. Death is forever. From some diseases you can’t heal and some situations don’t change.
And then you have to accept, mourn, find a new way to live. But you never cry alone. ‘Who knows why God allows that your heart breaks. But still the answer must be important enough, because God allowed His heart to break as well.’ This is beyond comprehension and I still don’t get it. In the past months quite some people said: God is crying with you. I often think about that, but it doesn’t really help yet.
And still, I believe that it is true. I do not understand what happens. That people have to go through such terrible losses, treatments, processes. That we lost our child. But I don’t cry alone. A peculiar kind of comfort that is. You would wish the situation changes. That relationships restore, that illnesses or behavioral disorders disappear, that the child comes alive. But a lot of times, that doesn’t happen.
Maybe He did not came to make our lives easier. Maybe He came to live with us, to help us carry the load. He Himself suffered tremendously. God lost His only Son in death. He understands us. He knows us. Somewhere it says in the Bible, that He catches our tears. No tear is cried unnoticed by Him. I must say that that is comforting to me. And in that sense it is true: you never cry alone.
Quotes are my translation out of Ann Voskamp: Gebroken leven. Franeker, 2016, p. 52, which is a translation of: The Broken way.
Twenty weeks agon we went with worried thoughts and feelings to the hospital for the ultrasound I had to have every other week from now on. We already knew our daughter wasn’t growing well and that that was most likely due to a placenta that didn’t work optimally. As soon as we had heard that, I started taking aspirin, totally slowed down and consciously enjoyed every little movement I felt in my belly. On Friday I had felt her quite strongly.
On Saturday we attended a funeral. A friend from the past had died and I felt quite unsettled. I met other friends there and told them I was pregnant again. One said: ‘wow, death and new life’. And that was how I felt. I was so happy with new life inside of me and so full of grief about the death of this dear father of young children. But meanwhile I felt insecure. That week I had had a strong strange urge to prepare. I bought clothes in premature sizes, made sure that the crib was ready and its lining washed.
Monday, exactly twenty weeks ago today. I hadn’t slept much because I was so nervous. We had prayed so hard for her to grow, to stay safely in my belly until she was strong and big enough to be born. My husband was also very nervous. ‘I feel as if I have to do a very important exam’, he said. I was relieved that we were feeling the same way, but it also made me feel even more nervous.
And then the ultrasound. Dead silence. Litterally. Shock. Disbelief and knowing at the same time. No! God, no! Lord, this can’t be! And at the same time knowing that this is really happening. Lord, help! What should we do? How do I tell my children? Will my marriage be strong enough? We already have been through so much and wonderfully overcame, will we make it through this? And how on earth should I give birth to a dead baby? What is going happen?
And now, twenty weeks have gone by. We had to go through it. We made choices. We deliberately allowed each other to mourn in our own way, to give each other space to talk or stay silent, to cry or not. We said to each other that we would be ourselves and that we would be honest. And no, we did not feel God was near. We had no idea how this could have happened and how to live on. And we still sometimes respond in ways we never thought we would. We discovered things we didn’t know about ourselves and each other. And now and then waves of grief come washing over each of us, but seldom at the same time.
But, looking back, seeing that every week was different, seeing how I was wrestling with God and His promises that did not seem to apply to Amanda, I can surprisingly surely say that He did not leave me alone for one second. I did not feel Him. My grief was too big to feel anything but grief. But I didn’t fall to pieces. I am still here. I am still walking, although often stumbling on my journey. Every time I fell, I stood up again and decided to think about the times that I did know for sure. Again and again I prayed: God, show me that you are here. You know me, right? You know that I want to find You, but I just can’t. I can not find the rest to sit and wait.
And He did! In numerous ways. Through a whatsapp message, a postcard, an email, a song, a bible verse, a thought, something I read or heard somewhere, something I suddenly remembered. All those things together give me a clear sense now of: no, I was not abandoned. He did not let me go.
Last week I heard a song from a Dutch band called Lev and after realizing what I wrote above, I can now sing it along: Als er niets meer klopt, klopt het hart van God. God die overwint, Hij is met ons. Dus laat de hoop niet los. Los van wat er komt, komt er redding, want God is met ons. It is actually not possible to litterally translate this, because in Dutch we say: ‘When nothing beats anymore’, meaning that nothing makes sense anymore. And we use that word ‘klopt’ (beat) also for the beating of a heart. So this line would in English mean something like this:
‘If nothing makes sense anymore, God heart still beats. God who overcame, He is with us. So don’t let go of hope. Despite of what may come, there’s salvation, for God is with us.’
This week I read a different Psalm each day (using a book about the Psalms by Derek Prince). I noticed that these Psalms all started with these words: ‘Praise the Lord’. And I also found that often it says that we should sing joyful songs. I find that hard. Praise the Lord? Be joyful? I wrestle with grief and anger. My child died! And at the same time it feels familiar and it makes sense. If God is really God, He is worthy of our praise, isn’t He?
And now I read Philippians 4:4-9, because Our Daily Bread, the devotional I daily use is talking about this passage. ‘Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!’ Again, my first response is to object. Rejoice? Really? I don’t want to be glad and I don’t want to rejoice, I do not want to invite happy thoughts.
It was our wedding text, Philippians 4:4-9. When we got married in January 2001, there were things we weren’t happy about and our pastor was very surprised that we chose this text. I was chronically ill and it would not become better. I could barely walk (outside of our home I needed a wheelchair), I could not use my hands very well and the prognosis was that it would become worse in the future. I was in constant pain. With great effort, I managed to get my degree at university. It had its effect on me mentally as well. But still, on our wending day, we thought that there was a lot to be happy about. We had found each other and we saw a future together. We knew God, although in the years to come, we found out that we needed to get to know Him better. We were grateful and we wanted to stay grateful, whatever would happen.
And today, exactly four months after the birth of our stillborn daughter, our fifth child, I read this text again. ‘Rejoice’. And: ‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’
And this really is true, you know. That’s what I am constantly reminded of in the past weeks. It is really true that there is a peace that transcends all understanding. I experienced that peace when I had to that incredibly hard thing: giving birth to a child that had already died. I experienced that peace when I sat down with my little girl in my hands, overwhelmed by how beautiful she was. Grief and amazement and joy and anger, but in the midst of it all, there was peace.
Is that perhaps what this rejoicing is about? That it is not about being glad about what has happened or is going to happen? But that it is about thinking of what is good and beautiful, and then rejoicing in a good God? When I saw my little girl, I was full of admiration and pride. I could see God had wonderfully and carefully made her, although her life in my opinion was far too short. I was glad that He took great care in making her. Little nails, little hair, little eyes, little ribs, little feet, she was so complete and perfect. If I think about that, I see I have some reason to rejoice. Or, I have to say it differently: by thinking about that, I am rejoicing.