In Memory of Luke Allen (May 25, 2012)

We gave birth and said goodbye to our tiny baby boy, Luke Allen, one year ago today. I’m usually surprised at how short a year seems when looking back on events, but this time I’m surprised it’s only been a year. It feels like Luke has been part of our life much longer. The rocks marking his grave seem ancient. Perhaps because sorrow makes us think more about eternity than joy does. And perhaps because Luke himself seems so far from us right now.

Not just Luke. Three other babies as well. Three who were lost much earlier in pregnancy and therefore seem harder to know and name.

Kerry and I wrote down our many thoughts in the days after we lost Luke. Maybe they can bring some comfort to other Mommies and Daddies.

[June 3, 2012] It’s been nine days since we gave birth to Luke. He was already gone from us in spirit by then, having died in the womb 15 weeks and 5 days after his conception.

We’re surprised (but maybe shouldn’t be) that our hearts have been so peaceful during the loss of our son. We cry at (un)expected times, and likely will for months and years to come, but we don’t (yet?) feel the anger and torn-up-ness that often seem to come with grief.

We’re comforted. For sure by near and dear who sympathize and empathize and bring meals and flowers and hugs, but even more in sweet, sweet ways by God. Our perfect Dad. His grace and mercy are everywhere in this.

It was at a routine prenatal check-up seventeen and a half weeks into pregnancy that we discovered our baby didn’t have a heartbeat. We were looking forward within a couple of weeks to finding out if we had a boy or girl.

Yet somehow we weren’t shocked by the news when it came. Instead of hitting us like a brick over the head, it felt like someone slowly reached out and handed us a heavy weight to carry. It didn’t leave us gasping for breath so much as taking a deep breath. The tears and sorrow were immediate, but we also felt like God had ever so softly prepared us, in ways we never would have seen until the context was written around them.

Had I tried to imagine ahead of time what it would be like to know the baby in my womb was dead (it feels hard and cold to say it) I would have guessed I’d be repulsed, eager to be parted.

Repulsed? No. Not even a little. I was cradling my baby for the last time. Goodbyes would be said much too soon and for much too long. I felt tender, not anxious.

We went to the childbirth center at the hospital early the next morning for induced labor. We have so many happy memories there. Four times we’d walked through the doors with excitement, and four times we’d walked out with a beautiful new baby.

This time we walked in knowing we wouldn’t be bringing our baby home. This time we were guided to a room at the end of the hall where things would be “quieter for us.” This time the nurses greeted us with sad smiles and apologized with embarrassment later for the newborn cradle that had to be quickly pushed out of the room when we walked in. We wouldn’t need it.

Those were hard, sad moments.

Our day of waiting began. Contractions started slow and small and we had a lot of time to rest and think. A lot of time to wonder about the baby we’d so soon say hello and goodbye to. We cried off and on all day, but also smiled and laughed and remembered and imagined.

The physical labor was a completely different experience this time around. Instead of being the hard part leading up to the happy ending, we were very aware that this was the only time we would get to physically care for our baby. It was sweet in ways I wouldn’t have imagined, and we were not impatient to have it done. The end would come soon enough, and it would be harder than the beginning.

Sometime mid-afternoon I was dozing off and on and a simple thought came: I’m God’s little girl. God hasn’t left his little girl alone in this. He’s here, sitting beside me, holding my hand and sharing my sorrow. And right after that thought, I became aware of the music we’d put on softly in the background, a compilation of songs put together by a friend years before. And these lyrics were being sung: “Though I feel alone, I am never alone. You are with me. You are with me. Oh, my Lord.”

Kerry was also resting around the same time and into his mind came a glimpse (vision?) of a tall, strong man in heaven. A man bigger than men here. A man he would describe as “mighty.” The man’s features weren’t clear (that would have been neat), but Kerry got the sense he was our son. Our baby boy, alive, whole. Though we hadn’t delivered yet, Kerry felt pretty certain from that point that our baby was a boy.

Luke Allen (he shares Kerry’s middle name) was born a couple of hours later. He was tiny and beautiful. Not medically perfect — he had a cyst associated with possible chromosomal abnormalities — but perfectly beautiful to me. And so, so very real and human. His hands and feet were perfectly formed with fingernails and joints. Later, his prints would show that the tiniest of details — creases, even — were already there. He had an adorable round belly, shoulders with tiny bones clearly outlined, a sweet little nose, skinny little arms and legs. Our nurse had brought us a knit baby cap earlier in the day, and I cried when I saw how easily it fit into the palm of my hand. It was still far too big for our boy, who was five inches “tall” and weighed two-and-a-half ounces.

He was Luke the moment he was conceived. A boy whose days were already known to his perfect Creator. Yet, at fifteen weeks and five days old, when his body was already perfectly formed down to the smallest detail, he was still more than a month under the legal timeline for elective abortion in our state. It’s hard to wrap my mind around this. Our boy was precious and lovely and we will grieve our loss of him for the rest of our lives. And every day little bodies and lives like his are intentionally destroyed and thrown away. I have no words.

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We held our baby, prayed over him, and said our goodbyes. But even in that moment we were filled with peace. Joy even (I wouldn’t call it happiness). Because we believe — do I dare say know? — that he’s with Jesus. He’s whole and healthy and peaceful. He awoke to the wonder of eternity and the loving face of his only perfect father.

I don’t like statements like “He was spared the troubles of this earthly life.” That may be true, but it’s only half the story. There are troubles aplenty, but there is exquisite beauty too. Beauty in getting to know Jesus through faith; beauty in experiencing day by day his redemption from corruption and sin; beauty in loving your spouse and children and growing up with your parents and siblings; beauty in forgiveness and grace.

Is it better to leave this life before you know its trials and beauties? It was better for Luke. Somehow, in ways we will never fully understand in this life. And somehow, somehow saying goodbye to our son too soon will be good for us, too. “All things…” God says.

Does that sound cold or religious? Is it an empty consolation?

No.

I hate that we will never see him grow up. As we saw his little shape on the sonogram that confirmed his death, all I could think was that I would never get to change his diapers and squeeze his chubby baby legs. My hands ache to cradle his soft little infant head and watch it bob as he learns how to hold it up. My ears want to hear those first little sounds that babies make when they’re finding their voice.

I wanted-wanted-wanted to watch him wrestle and laugh with his brothers and follow their transformation from gawky squeaky-voiced teenagers to grown men. And to see his big sister boss and mother him the way little big sisters do.

It’s not a trite and meaningless verse we quote to comfort ourselves. “All things…” It’s a desperate plea to a trustworthy God. Our baby has died. We won’t get him back in this life. It’s happened. We would never have chosen it.

But, God, please don’t waste it.

Teach us, mature us, soften us, reshape us, prune us, redeem us. Show us more of yourself. Be glorified. Help us love our living children better. You gave us this boy for a reason, his life had meaning, and we want all of it.

I did not say this right after our first miscarriage, eight months ago. (We gave birth to Luke — our sixth child — when we thought we would be giving birth to our fifth. Almost to the day.) We were just five or six weeks pregnant when we lost that baby, and I still took for granted that we could have healthy babies whenever we wanted them. We had four, after all, ages four and under. Bing bang bam. No problem.

We’d had our positive pregnancy test for about a week and already our plans were taking shape. We’d decided Kerry’s vacation schedule, thought through room arrangements for the new baby, imagined the various stages of pregnancy. And then the bleeding started and it didn’t stop. I experienced denial. This doesn’t happen to me. I almost always get what I want, and I don’t want this. God doesn’t let bad things happen to me. I didn’t really expect the confirmation of miscarriage, which came only after blood tests that measured hormone levels. God would step in and fix it somehow. But there it was. I wasn’t pregnant anymore. Our baby was gone.

Physically it was almost a non-event. Emotionally I was thrown. I felt spiritually lethargic for the next two months. I had no desire to talk to God, no desire to listen to him through his word. Just weary and sad and tired, I thought.

But it was worse than that. I was angry at him. I didn’t like the fact that he didn’t do things my way, according to my plan. I hated that I wasn’t consulted and had no control — that I couldn’t even hold onto the baby in my own womb. I didn’t like what God had allowed, and in a particular fleeting, unguarded thought, I was dismissive, condescending and rude toward my Creator and King. Whatever, God. Whatever.

It shocked and scared me. I hadn’t known it was in me to be that way — had never seen that darkness in my heart. I knew — didn’t I? — that it didn’t make sense to be angry at God. He’s perfect, I’m not. If there’s error, it’s on my side. I’d tsk inside at people who admitted to such impractical emotion.

So it was hard for me to recognize, and admit, that I was breaking the rules of my own doctrinal logic. Hard for me to see that, despite all my “right beliefs,” I could indeed be angry with a perfect God, and pass judgment on his actions.

And then I was blown away by God’s gentle mercy in the face of my sin. The weeks after that were marked by revelation. I felt like God was teaching me one big thing after another. I could actually feel my heart changing. Things I had long considered important changed dramatically in my estimation, and not because I willed them to change or intentionally shifted my priorities. Certain things just became small. I felt humbled, but not ashamed. I experienced a freedom in areas I hadn’t even known were slavery. It was amazing and rich and beautiful.

Then I got pregnant again. A couple of weeks after the initial excitement I started to experience the first trimester in earnest. It was harder than the others. The nausea was worse by far. I was exhausted and pulled out of the few regular community events I was in because it was too much to get four kids out the door. My back started hurting, badly, almost immediately. I felt lonely, but too tired to do anything about it. Those weeks seem foggy looking back. I was self-pitying. I complained a lot, and felt resentful about the hard work of motherhood. It was time to consider “stopping” I told Kerry in moments of frustration, even though we both feel convicted to trust God to give us the children he wills.

This dark mood lifted as the physical symptoms eased, but left me very aware that I have not “arrived” when it comes to bearing up well under physical trials.

Still, the fact that my heart and mind have reacted so differently in this tragic loss of another child tells me God didn’t waste our first loss. Even without my willing participation and studious application, he taught my heart.

I know — not just in theory, but real experience — that I’m not in control, and that knowing has driven away the anxiety that comes with thinking I am. We didn’t lose Luke because of something I did or didn’t do. His death isn’t punishment for some past sin, and he didn’t die so God could teach me something.

The God who is sovereign over all circumstances is, in ways big and small, present and loving and gracious and gentle. I trust him.

I trust him.

Kerry and I have both been surprised to discover that we don’t feel like something was ripped away from us as much as we feel like God gave us a gift. We expected to have Luke all our lives, but when it turned out we didn’t get to, we felt glad to have had him at all. What if God had offered to spare us the sorrow of losing him by erasing the joy of having him?

No deal.

It’s no accident that he was born to us. I don’t know that I could make any theological case for it, but it seems like Luke must be aware of us. Not necessarily “looking down on us from heaven,” but he arrived there from somewhere, right? Though he awoke to the face of Jesus, it is still significant that God created his body and placed his soul for a time in my womb, through my union with Kerry. We were still chosen by God to bear him and be his parents on this earth.

It was our bittersweet privilege to steward Luke’s little body. Kerry felt this responsibility heavily, felt it was his in particular as a father. We have a friend who is a mortician by trade, who without question or fee took care of the details of bringing Luke’s body from the hospital and wrapping him for burial in one of his Daddy’s white t-shirts. We had a small cedar box made years before by Kerry’s dad, Luke’s grandpa, and it became his coffin. We buried him, Kerry and I, one evening after the kids were in bed. Again, sweet sorrow. Sweet because it was an act of parenting; sad that it was one we never wanted to have to do.

In some ways, losing a child in pregnancy is like watching one of those time-travel movies where a character changes something small in the past and things suddenly begin to vanish from the future. For us, October has lost its significance. The cradle in our room seems to have lost something that once filled it. Projected age gaps between siblings have disappeared. The maternity clothes arranged in my closet will go back into boxes. The anticipated new-baby visit from grandparents is cancelled.

But the future doesn’t remain empty. It repopulates farther out. Now we anticipate a joyful reunion with two children. We think of them together in heaven. We imagine our son fully grown and we feel strangely proud, and a little intimidated, that he will be introducing us to his world someday, rather than us introducing him to ours.

If we’re not careful, we can find ourselves being better parents to the children we’ve lost than we are to the ones who live under our roof. Luke will always seem innocent, sweet and sinless in our eyes. It’s easy to be patient with him. And we never have to feel the weight of our own failures with him, since he is beyond them.

But we have four beautiful, healthy kids. And this too is sweet mercy. There’s not much time around here for marinating in our sadness. It will leak out in tears over the coming months and years, but it will not consume us. The kids don’t understand the loss of their brother, though they ask with wonder about where the baby has gone, and accept without question that he is with Jesus and we will meet him again. Our five-year-old son always tells people we have six children in our family, but that two of them died in Mommy’s tummy. (Yes … awkward.) And then the next minute they’re oblivious and rolling on the floor in a pile of boyness and snorts and laughter.

It was easier to speak softly to them in the few days after Luke’s birth. Life’s fragility was very near then and the thought of losing any of them, even as a distant worry, was like a punch in the stomach. Cleaning up their messes, breaking up their fights, wiping their wet noses… these seem wonderful when thrown up against the possibility of being without them. But as the wound heals and becomes less raw, will it be easy to forget our awe that we have four little lives just as precious as the two we lost? Will it be easy for gratitude to give way to entitlement? Will it be easy to raise our voices impatiently as four sinful little people exhaust us without mercy and step all over our comforts?

Please, God, don’t waste this loss. Teach us. Help us to love our children well.

Our children. Luke’s death has impacted that big question we’ve been wrestling with: “How many? How will we know when to stop?” Before our miscarriages, I took for granted that we could have as many as we wanted. They came every year. Our thoughts were more about how and when to limit these blessings than how to receive from God the grace necessary to love them — the unknown, unnumbered “them” — well.

Not too many gifts, God. Not sure what we’d do with them all. Love the Duggars, but don’t think we could be them, ya know?

No matter how much we’d go around about it, we always ended up where we started, with the conviction that we need to trust God to open and close the womb, when and how he chooses. We’ve never closed the door on participating in that decision, but always with the understanding that he would let us know when it was time.

Now we’ve lost two babies. Our arms ache to hold them and we’re suddenly unsure if we will even be able to have more.

If we do get to have more, the risk seems higher that we could have children with physical or medical issues. It’s not really though, is it? It’s no higher or lower than it’s ever been. Our story is already written. If it includes children who aren’t perfectly healthy, it’s always included them. They are already ours to love and conceive. We just have to — get to — trust God. With fear and trembling. And anticipation.

I’ve gotten to know God differently through the loss of our two babes. He has been very present, very comforting, very gracious in the midst of loss. I knew that about God before, but had never known it from experience. It’s different. It’s deeper. It provokes a deeper love and trust of him. And I can see why people say, “I never would have chosen this suffering, but I’m so thankful for it.” God is present in suffering. And his presence is very, very sweet and wonderful.

It’s easy for me to feel sadness about Luke. Kerry said the other day in bed, “I know Luke is with Jesus, but his body is buried outside, and I just think it must be really cold out there.” I can cry just thinking about it. The thought of our baby, cold and alone, is horrid. But he’s not. And I have to remind myself of that. He’s alive. Right now. With Jesus. Embraced by a warm and beautiful family of saints.

My sadness is for myself. The loss is ours to bear. And we would gladly bear it for him. While I was writing these notes in church, the band started singing that wonderful song, “All My Tears.” These are the words:

When I go, don’t cry for me
In my Father’s arms I’ll be
The wounds this world left on my soul
Will all be healed and I’ll be whole.

Sun and moon will be replaced
With the light of Jesus’ face
And I will not be ashamed
For my Savior knows my name.

It don’t matter where you bury me,
I’ll be home and I’ll be free.
It don’t matter where I lay,
All my tears be washed away.

Gold and silver blind the eye
Temporary riches lie
Come and eat from heaven’s store,
Come and drink, and thirst no more

It don’t matter where you bury me
I’ll be home and I’ll be free
It don’t matter where I lay
All my tears be washed away

So, weep not for me my friends,
When my time below does end
For my life belongs to Him
Who will raise the dead again.

It don’t matter where you bury me,
I’ll be home and I’ll be free.
It don’t matter where I lay,
All my tears be washed away.

We feel the grief of our loss. We always will. But the burden is so much lighter when we feel also the full weight of the joy that Christ has set before us. We’re not lost. Luke is not lost. Our other baby is not lost. We will meet again. We will meet the mighty man who is our son.

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