There’s an image that still haunts me, two and a half years later.
Last night as I attempted to drift off to sleep, I saw it again: The limp, blue form of my nine-month-old daughter, Ava.
The scene plays out: A high fever. Convulsing. Non-responsive eyes. All followed by no sign of breathing and already pale skin turning to blue.
The emotions rush back. I hear my voice calling, “Ava! Ava!” Fear and an overwhelming sense of grief envelope me. Suddenly it seems my sweet baby’s spirit is slipping away as I hold her earthly body in my arms. I long to grasp the intangible and refuse to let go, but control is beyond my fingertips.
I can’t bring her back. No matter how hard I try.
Just as quickly as her breathing stops, it starts again. Her color, though still pale, returns. Lethargic and unresponsive, she opens her eyes. I utter a tearful thank you.
On that September day when Ava suffered her first of two febrile seizures, I was given a hint of what the death of an infant might feel like. It left a mark that I have yet to erase; images and emotions I can’t seem to shed. Even so, because Ava lived, I don’t know or even begin to understand the depths of the grief parents face when a baby does die.
There are countless mothers who know these depths well.
They’ve had no choice but to make the difficult and unwelcome journey of watching their baby—whether through miscarriage, stillbirth, or infant death—cross the threshold from life to death.
Unfortunately, our having grown up in a fast-food world often puts an unspoken expectation on those grieving to hurry up and heal. Caring friends offer meals, and a card is signed by co-workers. But it doesn’t take long—especially in the case of a miscarriage—for these same friends to return to normal life. The delivery of casseroles stops, the phone calls and emails of concern become less frequent.
I know, because I’m one of the guilty. As I write this, several friends come to mind who’ve experienced miscarriages in the last year. While I have talked to them recently, I haven’t specifically asked how they are holding up after the death of their baby.
As the daughter of a hospice chaplain, I should know better. Through watching my dad and hearing his stories, I’ve learned that grief shouldn’t be rushed. It can’t be rushed. The first few weeks, when care and concern is expressed most abundantly, is only the beginning of the grieving process. Parents who’ve experienced a miscarriage or said goodbye to a cherished infant move from the initial shock and denial to pain, guilt, anger, and sometimes depression. They need their friends to remember and to offer them long-term support that allows them to slowly journey from devastation to hope. And it’s this message that it’s OK to let grief linger that Jenny Schroedel’s book, Naming the Child: Hope-filled Reflections on Miscarriage, Stillbirth, and Infant Death, gently whispers.
With little judgment or commentary, this tender message is communicated through stories from moms and dads whose babies have died. Schroedel allows each parent to share their experiences. The result is a book that encourages those reading: Take your time. Don’t hurry grief. Heal. A book that clearly shows that talking about death isn’t something to be avoided, but is instead a critical part of healing.
Naming the Child
I love Schroedel’s discussion of naming, and how it connects parents to their baby. “From a Judeo-Christian perspective,” she writes, “naming is a holy act.” Scripture affirms this. Schroedel points to the Creation story, as well as Isaiah 49:1 where the prophet writes, “The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name.”
But Scripture doesn’t stop there. We also read how God values names, even before birth, in several other passages. He sent an angel to Zacharias, who told him, “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John” (Luke 1:13). Likewise, He sent the angel Gabriel to visit Mary and say, “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus” (Luke 1:31).
Although I didn’t realize it until reading this book, I was personally impacted by the concept of naming a child five years ago. I was pregnant with my first baby, Olivia. So was Libby, a friend at church. Her son Sam was due two weeks after our daughter. Unlike Olivia, Sam never saw this side of heaven. He and Libby died in a tragic car accident in the seventh month of her pregnancy.
The funeral is still fresh in my mind. While some may remember it as primarily honoring Libby’s life, when I think of that day, I recall how the sacredness of Sam’s unborn life was honored as his name was spoken. Hearing “Sam” reminded us that even though this little boy had only begun to be “known,” he was deeply loved. His name, as Schroedel explains, moved him “from the abstract to the concrete.” It reminded everyone at the funeral that we weren’t “talking about ‘pregnancy loss’ or ‘infant loss’ but an unrepeatable human being that had already begun to have a relationship with his or her parents … even in the womb.”
A Touching Goodbye
Building on this theme of naming, Schroedel goes on to examine other ways parents can connect with their infant prior to death, as well as move toward healing as they continue to keep the baby’s memory alive after. In a fascinating chapter on touch, she discusses the Eastern Orthodox tradition of saying goodbye with our hands. She stresses the importance of parents—when given the opportunity—engaging in “farewell rituals.” She writes:
The parents can stroke the baby’s hair and cheeks, count the fingers and toes, smell the top of the head and examine and memorize every part of him or her. All of these tactile experiences help imprint the infant on the mother, help her to realize that this baby is separate from herself, a revelation that will be helpful during the grieving process.
The author continues with a look at the importance of carefully chosen words, how the love of a community is crucial, the ways death can affect marriage, and how to help siblings walk through grief. Additional chapters focus on encouraging parents to follow their instincts during pregnancy and the care of their infants, how moms and dads have celebrated the anniversary of their baby’s death, and signs that bring comfort.
Each parent whose story is told in the pages of Naming the Child journeys differently. Some put their trust in God. Some find solace in praying to the Mother of God. Others find healing apart from God entirely. And yet others are comforted by the belief that their dead infant “is mysteriously at work in their lives, helping them.” Knowing of Schroedel’s own Christian faith, I had hoped for more direction from her, guiding readers from these various experiences back to a biblical understanding of death.
While the voices of the grieving parents do point to hope and healing in the spiritual, I wish the author had allowed Scripture to have more of a voice. I would have liked to see the book move past spiritual themes to the supreme source of hope, the Great Physician Himself, Jesus.
I don’t believe this book’s lack of a spiritual anchor is problematic for readers who are firmly rooted in a biblical faith in Christ, as long as they approach it with the expectation that their convictions will not necessarily be affirmed through it. I am concerned though that there are stories included that could confuse those who are on the fence spiritually as they attempt to navigate through a time of extreme emotional and spiritual vulnerability.
Even so, there is much to love about Naming the Child.
In the end, the book’s gentle, loving tone and sensitive approach reminds grieving parents that they are not alone, offering them hope through community. It’s a book that left this mommy—who ultimately did not have to face the death of her infant—realizing that as much as we sing in church about there being no sting in death, in this life death does sting. Yes, Jesus has conquered the grave, but until the day of His return this “last enemy”—as Paul calls death in 1 Corinthians 15:26—has not completely been destroyed. The pain of it this side of heaven is still acute.
And because of this, Naming the Child fills an important need. It extends hurting parents the comforting hand of those who have walked the path of grief before them and survived.