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Stillborn, Still Living
by Brad Stetson
bstetson@chapman.edu

Grief-the bitter fruit of death-has always been one of the greatest challenges to faith. Even though the piercing sorrow of loss is the painful call faith alone can best answer, in some cases it poses such ferocious questions that it threatens to annihilate the very capacity to believe. This is particularly the case with stillbirth, a crushingly sad phenomenon affecting more than 30,000 babies (and their parents) each year in the United States. That amounts to about seventy couples every day. One in every 116 births experience this disorienting tragedy, so cruel in its ambush of paradox: death before life, the ending before the beginning, a funeral instead of a christening, the stale pall of death over the young body of new life, a first hello as a final goodbye.

Even now, some nineteen years after my encounter with stillbirth, it seems so odd, so unfair and so out of order. All my wife and I did was go to our obstetrician for a final prenatal check in the 38th week of pregnancy. There had been no gunshots, no terrible car accident, no horrible fall. We were fine when we walked into the doctor's office, but when we left an hour later, our lives had been shattered. Our precious baby boy, our treasured first child, had inexplicably died in the womb.

Stillbirth sentences the lost child's parents to a lifetime of mystery. Who would he have become, what would he have done, how would our lives have been different? There is something inherently haunting about a lifeless baby's body. He represents the archetype of promise and innocence, yet he has no destiny, he will never be able to realize himself, to tell his own story, to express the humanity he embodies. Hopes for him and for all his life are condemned to curiosity. In who he might have become, how his life would have affected us or caused us to grow or change. A baby was lost, and a measure of self-knowledge, as well as intimacy between spouses who will not share the precious moments of parenthood together. And there is the subtle fear that he may somehow represent a judgment on you, a rejection by God of your humanity.

He becomes a silent witness to your sorrow, and his muteness depicts your utter inability to answer the urgent and recurring question "Why?" In the peculiarity of stillbirth, Mark Twain's observation of grief is most true, "Losing a loved one," he said, "is like having your house burn down; it takes years to realize all that you've lost."

While the death of an infant is often irrationally considered by our society to be more of a "mother's issue" than a father's grief, it is a haunting, silent partner in many men's lives, affecting their psyches and relationships in subtle and mysterious ways. Abe Lincoln lost two young children, one during the Civil War; John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan both had their already complex selves enduringly altered by neonatal death. Still today, President George H. W. Bush cannot discuss the death of his three-year-old daughter, which occurred about sixty years ago, without a tearful, inarticulate stammering.

Yes, those who grieve child loss form a secret society of psycho-emotional vertigo. The fact is the terrain of the psyche is not as well-charted as we like to believe. The dawn of the twenty-first century sees us mapping the brain and reading DNA, yet the dark tunnels of psychic trauma into which the vortex of great loss conducts us remain largely unexplored.

The tendrils of grief can creep in to the psyche, influencing one's personal and political manner: the melancholia and fatalism of Lincoln, the reckless hedonism of Kennedy, the strange familial detachment of Reagan, the emotional aphasia of George H. W. Bush.

But even amid psychic ravaging, a paradox of loss emerges: by being reduced we grow. It represents a strange point of contact with the ultimate purposes of life, with the true nature of life and the reality of life hereafter. I never felt closer to God that I did after my son died. Ironically, the end of a life can bring to those around it a new fullness of life. In grief, faith becomes both refuge and puzzle. It preserves meaning to life and the universe, but it also seeks an explanation, and it searches for answers.

After we lost our baby, I found we thought more carefully about life; we sensed in a clearer way its value, and we were more sensitive to the pain and suffering of others. Our acquaintance with deep sorrow had sensitized us to the sufferings of other people. Our ability to be compassionate grew. Frequently, we would see on the news that some child had been killed in an accident or murdered, and my wife and I would send a sympathy card to the grieving family. Or we would pray together for people who had been victimized in some horrible way.

Certainly these were not earth-shaking acts of humanitarianism on our part, but they were things we never would have done before. It never would have crossed our minds. The deaths of strangers and the sufferings of their families had new meaning to us. Our souls had grown, and we could now perceive the agonies felt by other people, whereas before our unwanted encounter with personal devastation we would not have been capable of such empathy.

Our souls, which had been sites of such complete, scorching devastation, in time began to sprout new buds of life. The emotional ground of our lives, which had been plowed under by sorrow, in time started to be fertile again, and to an extent that far surpassed its previous capacity. Our pain had begun to change us for the better. Indeed, it seems that sorrow, the pit of grief, is perhaps, one of the more under-recognized proofs of God, the plausibility of his existence, that at our lowest moments we either turn to him, or rage against him. After all, why should our experience of pain turn us into his prosecutors, unless we had a natural, prior moral knowledge and expectation that matters ought to have been different.

"Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness," Dostoevsky said. And it may well be that in the pitch darkness of our greatest losses we are best able to see the still steady light of God's reality and presence.

Reprinted with permission from Grief Digest, Centering Corporation, Omaha, Nebraska, 402-553-1200.


The Mourning News - February 2011

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