There’s a phenomenon called ‘phantom limbs’. It refers to the sensation that a missing or amputated limb is still attached, even though the limb itself is physically gone. This experience is quite common; the majority of people who’ve had limbs amputated report this sensation. And, the most common label people use to describe it, is “pain”. While research can’t conclusively explain why this happens, it’s believed to be because something in the brain and central nervous systems can’t completely grasp the absence of what should be there. So, while the limb itself is gone, the space left behind remains a very real extension of the person. It’s not just the frustration of a missing a limb that hinders life, but the pain left by what should have been. I’m going to suggest that most, if not all, bereaved parents already understand the analogy I’m about to make – but I’m going to make it anyway. Doing life after a baby dies, involves a very similar phenomenon.
Our children may not physically be with us, but they remain a very real part of us, our families, our lives – forever. We never lose the awareness of what once was, and what should still be. Our minds can understand and articulate the reality that our children have died, but the core of who we are – body, soul and spirit – can never go back to the way things were before our loss.
Although our babies have died, we are still parents to these children. Actively. Sure, it looks a whole lot different to parent a child who is no longer with us, but the work persists, and it’s hard. Much like phantom limbs, the pain remains.
I remember what this looked like in the earliest days after my daughter died. Cara passed away during the early hours of my labour. She was full-term, 41 weeks, and we were waiting for her to burst forth into this crazy thing called ‘life’. Instead, she was asphyxiated by a knot in her umbilical cord. Instead of coming wailing into this world, we welcomed her lifeless body – in all her God-given beauty. In her silence, I was the one to wail.
Reality sunk into me like a stone. Of course, as a simple matter-of-fact, I knew that she was gone. But, so much inside of me could not grasp hold of this.
In the beginning, during the disorienting moments of first waking up (on those occasions when sleep was actually possible), for the briefest of moments – I would forget that my baby was gone. With a still-swollen belly, I’d awake, and touch it, only for the crushing memory to catch up with me; this was no dream. My baby was born. She will not wake up. There will be no waking from this awful pain of mine.
It took weeks for my breasts to learn there would be no baby to nurse. On so many moments I caught myself hearing a stirring, a bustle, or what sounded like a cry – and rushing to tend to a baby that was not there. My head and heart played tricks on me. In public, panic would set in – attack after attack of anxiety, until I realized why: deep down, I was carrying on without the baby who should be with me. My inner longings to nurture her, protect her, and love her did not end when her tiny life expired. My urges to keep her close and be her mother could not be erased. But, every system within my body was disintegrated – what my head knew, my body, soul and spirit denied. My mouth could say, ‘Cara has died’, but the rest of me had not yet taken hold of that.
A big part of me never will. God just didn’t design us that way. Not only does a child bear the DNA of both parents, but after carrying a child within her, a mom’s own DNA is forever changed by the presence of her baby. There’s a term for this, called ‘fetal-maternal microchimerism’ – the mingling of microscopic bits of mother and child into one. God literally changes a mother when she carries a baby. Of course, for adoptive parents, the grafting of a child into one’s heart is as miraculous and beautiful a picture. As parents, we are tied to our children with irrevocable bonds. These are not severed when a baby dies. It is no wonder then, that their impression in our lives cannot fade with any length of time that passes.
Over and over again, in one way after another – I have felt the wrongness of this separation – of how shockingly, brutally, wickedly painful it is to carry on in life without the child I love.
Four years have now passed. The nature of this ‘phantom limb’ type of experience has changed, but it still exists. Now, the pain presents in a different fashion, but it’s just as strong. Bereaved parents may take hold, on a deeper level, of the understanding that our children are not coming back, but these precious kids of ours are never far from our thoughts or consciousness. For those who have lost babies, in enough time we stop waking in the wee hours the night hours to rush to an empty cradle, but the sensational awareness of who once was, never fades.
We are constantly aware of what should be, but isn’t.
These days, for me, the pangs of pain appear in our family photos. In the beautiful chaotic mess of children, captured in pixels, there’s always a riptide of sadness. The sting shows up, instantly and without fail, whenever someone asks me: ‘how many children to you have?’ Even the moments of my most pure delight on earth – when I watch my living children laughing and singing – there is always an overshadowing and pervasive incompleteness.
Someone is always missing.
As unwelcome as the pain is, it’s beautiful evidence of the love God gives us. The love a parent has for their children pales only in comparison to the love God has for us; in so many ways our experiences hold a divine mirror to help us see God’s reflection in our own hearts and lives. We are all, after all, made in His very image. He calls Himself ‘Father’, and through understanding the depths of love we hold for our beloved ones, we see in part His unfathomable love: a love without end.
So while our pain carries on, long after a baby dies, so too does our love. In this, we must not forget that God’s love for us persists even more. In the agony of parenting through grief, He has not left any of us alone, or without hope.
Losing a child is a complicated and traumatic beast of grief. Beyond the emotional pain when a baby dies, comes spiritual anguish, negative health outcomes, social strain, isolation, and brokenness – of all kinds. The divorce rate among couples who have lost children is eight-fold of that within society at large. This kind of loss can leave a wake of destruction. But, research into resiliency and recovery from the grief of losing a child, shows something remarkable: that being able to find meaning in the life of the deceased, as well as in our own lives, is a key ingredient in the healing process. * Here, I believe research has merely caught the pulse of what God first made true.
I can only speak for myself, but for me, it has been through this pursuit of meaning and purpose that I remain an active parent to my daughter who died. I was not her mother, at some distant time in the past; I remain her mother still – and I take this role as seriously as I do for any of my living children.
In daily life, in moments of joy and pain, I search for the beauty that flows from Cara’s life. I seek to honour and grow her life’s legacy through my own life.
There is a saying by author Elizabeth Stone which goes: “Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” This rings so true to me. When my firstborn arrived, I remember being struck by the enormous vulnerability of it all. I was filled with a brilliant terror, a helplessness, an impossible desire to protect her in every way. When a child dies, it’s the ultimate realization of a mother’s greatest fear.
Since losing Cara, I’ve reflected on this quote – about the vulnerability that comes from having children, an extension of our own flesh and blood. In time, I have come to understand a different analogy along a similar vein.
It goes like this…
I have complete confidence that a baby or young child who dies goes to directly heaven. “Instant heaven” is how John MacArthur refers to it, in his book called ‘Safe in the Arms of God’. (I recommend this book to anyone grappling with questions about what happens to children when they die). **
So, knowing this, as I parent Cara, it’s not exactly that her portion of my heart goes walking about outside of my body – at least not here on earth (figuratively speaking, of course). Rather, it’s a bit like having a piece of my heart sent forth into heaven, alongside her. Through her life, my life’s focus is fixed anew onto the things of eternity. It’s powerful. My heart now beats with such a clear picture, as though I have glimpsed beyond the veil with my spiritual eyes and have had a foretaste of the glory that waits in heaven. I envision my daughter, in the presence of the Lord. I trust completely that every bit of joy and delight I longed for in my life here with her, is now to the joy and delight of Jesus. I carried her for Him. I hold to the promise of Jesus’ life poured out for me, and I accept the way He has made for me to join Him in heaven. There, one day, I will also join Cara. But it’s not just my hope of eternity in heaven that’s been refreshed. I now long for my days, here and now, to be of delight to God. I feel awakened to realize that each breath here on earth is an opportunity that echoes in eternity.
During Cara’s eulogy (should you want to listen to the whole thing, you can do so here), I shared a quote that I had just recently heard from the movie, Gladiator. It says, ‘What we do in life echoes in eternity’. When we gathered on that day, I shared the question – can the life of a child who dies, in our case, without even taking a single breath – still create a sound, a wave, an impact that will echo far beyond the moments they lived? I answered that question with conviction on that day – and have done so daily, since: absolutely.
Her life had purpose. It had meaning. She was created by God, for His glory, no less than any other person.
This is a truth that guides me to remain strong and steadfast as I endure the pain of her loss. This is the truth that emboldens me to embrace being her parent, every day, in a meaningful way.
As we parent our living children, much of our job is to seek out who God made them to be, and steer them in the paths of truth and righteousness in accordance with how God leads us. When a baby dies, we still undertake the process of discovering who God made them – only we don’t steer them, as we do the living. They have been captured into glory already, by God’s mighty hands. Instead, we seek God to reveal glimpses of how He has used, and continues to use their lives. We bear the sacrifice of a broken heart, and receive the honour of having ears which are newly attuned to hear the echoes of beauty that stem from their existence – no matter how brief it was.
Like those phantom limbs, sensed by those who live without parts of themselves, the sensation of our children’s existence is never lost on us. Nor is the pain. But, God has not left us alone in our pain.
He has not left you alone in yours. He loves your child.
He loves you.
Through understanding this, God is able to heal us in part, as we seek out the meaning in our children’s lives, and our own – beyond their death. It is there: the meaning. Seek God, and He will reveal His heart to you.
And, as my own daughter has honed my heart like a compass onto the things eternal, I can not escape this certain truth: there will come a day that “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying in pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’ …He said to me: I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the springs of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children” (Revelation 21:4, 6-7)
So, in my painful work of parenting Cara, there’s also the delightful joy of having a constant – ever present reminder – that the life awaiting those of us in Christ, beyond this world, is one of never-ending joy.
Not one hint of pain will remain.
* I am not affiliated with this book or author. I receive no compensation for recommending it. I mention it only because I believe it is a blessing of truth for those who have experienced miscarriage, stillbirth, or the death of an infant or young child. If you’re local, and want to borrow my copy – just ask!