The following post has been adapted from its original posting on a previous iteration of this website, a Facebook note, and other places it was reposted. I’m reposting it to both keep my thoughts for posterity and in the hopes that it may be encouraging to someone who can, unfortunately, relate. This post was originally written in December of 2008)
I’ve never really written much about this subject outside of a few handwritten journal entries but my heart is heavy with the subject and I grieve for those experiencing similar or worse situations as I type this. May they feel God in what will be their darkest hours.
There are many things I don’t remember about the day my daughter was born and died. But the things I do remember are burned into my memory.
Rebekah Leigh was born December 10, 2000. My wife was in labor the evening before but didn’t know it and we were busy hosting our annual Christmas Party at our house and having a blast with friends and family. Overnight, however, her water broke and we headed to the hospital thinking that the baby was just a month early.
The doctors seemed concerned because she was breech and “a little early” but assured us that she was plenty mature enough to be born, may need some support for a few days, but would be fine. She wasn’t coming out naturally, however, and they needed to do an emergency cesarean to make sure there would be minimal stress on the baby. We were scared but excited. This was our first child and she was on her way out!
During the cesarean, I watched most of the procedure standing near my wife’s head. Fascinating. I’ve enjoyed watching my son and my youngest daughter born this way too. I was talking to Rachel, however, when they pulled Rebekah out and I’m grateful to this day I missed it because she had a hole in her abdomen. They initially thought that she just had a common abnormality of the abdomen that was easily treated with a relatively simple operation. The silence in the room, however, was creepy as the surgeons and the neonatal specialists were quietly working on her and on my wife.
I reluctantly left the room with our daughter as they took her to the NICU. I was torn between staying with my wife and my new daughter. My wife virtually commanded me to go, telling me she’d settled on the name Rebekah as we walked out.
After some pleasant conversation with nurses on the very long walk to the NICU, the situation became increasingly dark. It became apparent quickly that things were not as initially hoped for. Specialists were being called in from all over the metro area. Doctors began shaking their heads as they spoke to each other and nurses struggled to hide how tense they were. My wife was being wheeled toward the NICU when I was pulled aside by a woman who said she was the doctor in charge of the NICU that morning. She told me my daughter was not going to survive the day. My knees gave way.
I remember collapsing to the floor in the middle of the hallway and saying, “No. My wife’s been through too much. Not her. Not our daughter.” My wife had experienced a close friend commit suicide a couple years before I met her and I couldn’t stop thinking about how painful losing a daughter was going to be for her and the questions multiple tragedies would bring up between her and God. It was easier to think about her. It didn’t matter how I felt. Although it was my own pain that took me to the floor.
The doctor helped me to my feet and supported me as I hobbled into what amounted to a storage closet. I wish I remembered her name. She gently gave me more specifics as she handed me tissues and asked if there was anyone we needed to call. Her conversation with my in-laws is a whole different drama-laced and somewhat humorous story. But they were on their way and I was grateful we weren’t going to be alone for long.
I already felt like I’d known this little baby for years and I hadn’t even held her yet. As my wife’s family and a few close friends entered the NICU to be with us, we took turns holding her as her life slowly drained away. Standing next to my wife watching my baby girl die in my arms was so horrific my mind softened the edges of the pain with a sense of the surreal. It was like this was all a nightmare and I would wake up anytime.
“…Just keep breathing, Eric…keep standing…be what your wife needs you to be…you’ll wake up soon.”
Her death was followed by a few days of intense grief as we waited for Rachel to be discharged from the hospital, for pathology and autopsy reports, visits from friends and family and myriad visits from doctors and nurses. We had one notable mid-night moment where God prompted us to commit to each other to get through this…together.
We learned no doctor in Des Moines had seen her condition before, it was extremely rare and not genetic. It was “a fluke.” We have a suspicion as to the cause of the abnormality but we’ll never really know for sure.
I kept it together for the next few months as my wife went through the initial process of grieving. I watched helplessly and tried to keep it all together. I also worked on keeping us together. After 3-4 months she began to function normally even if the pain was still fresh.
Then I lost it.
For almost a year after that I was angry. Really angry. I was angry at everyone for everything all the time. I hid it most of the time. When I let a little out, however, its vitriolic tentacles would reach out and try to strangle anyone in my way. A miscarriage in 2001 got complicated and was dangerously close to taking my wife’s life. This only fed my anger and made it even more potent.
By the time our son was born and our daughter two years after his, the worst of my anger had begun to subside. I had a spiritual revolution of sorts during that time as well. And I’m a better man now for having gone through the process.
But why was I so angry? It was beyond what anyone would expect would be part of “the normal grieving process.” I have never been able to figure it out. It was taken from me but its genesis has been a mystery. It’s one thing to be sad and angry. But to be poisoned by it for so long?
This week I had an epiphany and I’m not sure why I didn’t think of it before. I was angry because my grief and despair was so potent that the only way I felt like I could survive was to encapsulate it in anger. Anger was easy. My hurt was everyone else’s fault. Not God’s. Not mine. Yours. You make me angry. You make me uncomfortable. My despair was the unseen fertilizer helping this anger to grow. It was only when my son and then my daughter were born that my anger was killed off by the grace of God. I begged Him to take it away before I took it out on my family. I knew parenting was hard and I didn’t want to be an angry father. I knew how painful that could be for a child. I am inherently impatient and I still struggle to keep my cool but am grateful I don’t have that “Great Anger” living within me anymore.
Why didn’t I know that my anger was hiding such intense pain? Why didn’t anyone confront me about how angry I was? Did they do so and I don’t remember? I forgot a lot of things during that year or two. There were entire outbursts of rage I can’t remember or barely remember.
I want to warn others to grieve while guarding against allowing anger and hatred to poison their lives for as long as they did mine. I should have been more open with my friends and family. I should have been more honest about my emotional state with my wife. Someone may have been able to recognize what was happening and helped.
December 10 will always be a hideously beautiful day. No parent should have to watch their daughter die in their arms. But Rebekah’s short life and our two healthy kids are beautiful things. My wife is strong and gracious. And they fill my life with color and help me live in gratefulness.