Death of an newborn baby
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me?
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory for ever! Amen.
I had just celebrated my 25th birthday. My lovely little daughter was born after a normal nine-month pregnancy. My first child. The birth was exhausting, but not overly complicated. The contractions had become weaker but were able to be started again with medication. Then she was there. “Rooming in” still wasn’t a very common procedure in those days. A few hours after the birth, the midwife came into my room with the news that they were moving my daughter to the children’s clinic, since she “had slightly blue lips” – there was no need to worry, lots of newborns have a few difficulties adapting. The artificially advanced birth had caused a perineal tear which had had to be stitched and I couldn’t walk there, even though the paediatric clinic was in the same building. I couldn’t go until the next morning when my husband came to visit and pushed me there in a wheelchair. My little baby was connected to so many tubes and wires, surrounded by beeping devices. An assistant doctor came and said they had to do some more tests since they still didn’t know exactly what was wrong with her. I stayed with her, stroking her, her forehead, her cheeks, her arm, talking to her, and eventually she opened her eyes – with difficulty, it seemed to me – and looked at me. A short, beautiful look in her eyes. My Julie. The time that followed was a torture for me as a young mother. They had to prick her in the heels to take blood for tests. Each pinprick was a stab right into my own heart. They sent me away and told me to come back at noon. At noon the ward doctor came – with the same words I had heard in the morning: they had to do more tests; they still didn’t know… In the late afternoon the senior doctor told us that Julie was not getting enough oxygen, but they still weren’t sure why… The next morning, the chief physician transferred her to a specialist clinic – where newborns could undergo heart surgery: they suspected a heart defect. My husband drove the two-hour drive behind the ambulance and didn’t go back home until very late in the evening when the doctors there thought her condition was reasonably stable. They were trying a drug that might work. The night remained calm.
Early in the morning of the third day, the doctor on duty contacted my husband: “There is another crisis, and someone needs to come.” My husband came to see me at the hospital: “I can’t do this alone.” It took a while before they let me leave. When we finally arrived at the special clinic, she was no longer in the place where my husband had left her. Desperately, he looked around: “Where is she?” The sister came: Yes, they were very sorry, but she had just died. “And where is she now?” We followed her in a daze. A door – a kind of broom cupboard, a cleaning room. That’s where they had “parked” her in her cot. We were shocked – of course. I said, “Please leave us alone with her.” We were granted that. The storeroom door closed behind us. My husband put our child in my arms. She was still warm. We stroked her, we cried, he blessed her, and we gave our little Julie back to God.
Physical: my body
- Back on the maternity ward, they wrapped a wide bandage tightly around my chest, very tightly – this was intended to reduce the effect of the milk shooting in and prevent possible breast infections. I had been looking forward to breastfeeding and this was a real physical shock for me – completely unnatural. It also made me physically realise that my child was not there, would not ever be there – my milk would not be needed. My body had worked “in vain”, had taken on the stretch marks and discomfort for nothing, the pain and soreness after the birth for nothing – my arms were empty. My efforts were not to be rewarded.
- Due to the large, oblique perineal tear, it was not certain in all further pregnancies whether my muscles would be able to hold the child until the end of the pregnancy and there was a risk of premature births. I therefore had to have a cerclage in two subsequent pregnancies (the cervix is closed with a ring, which is removed again about three weeks before the expected birth date).
- I no longer trusted my body. Would I be able to carry a healthy child? We had agreed to an autopsy – perhaps its results could help other children. We later received a 10-page report – but no matter which doctor of the different faculties we spoke to – a clear cause of death could not be deduced for her. We also enquired about genetics and we were told that from a human genetic point of view there was no need to worry that this could happen again.
- In my second pregnancy I had premature contractions from the 21st week. I was scared. Again and again I had to be put on a drip with medication to stop the contractions because the switch to oral medication just wouldn’t work and every time they tried, the contractions just kept getting stronger again. The morning my husband wanted to take me home, the doctor said: “We’ll see what the CTG says.” When my husband came in, he looked at the machine, saw the peaks and said dryly, “They’ll just send you right back in.” An older, very experienced midwife came in to get the device and she quickly assessed the situation and said: “Go on, just go home! It’ll stop.” We went home – and indeed the contractions did stop. Today, after all my experiences with five pregnancies, I know that pregnancy and birth reveal mysterious secrets about how the body soul work together in a very special way, rarely seen anywhere else.
Psychological, spiritual: my soul
- Powerlessness: Each time I came to the ward in the children’s hospital, the next-highest ranking doctor came to me. The feeling of being completely at their mercy. Not being able to do anything. Pure helplessness.
- Anger: When I returned to the maternity hospital, I had to pass the lounge and saw pregnant women smoking. I didn’t smoke. I didn’t drink alcohol. They did and yet they could keep their children.
- The young doctor in the special hospital tried to comfort me: “You’re still young, you can still have many more children. If she had survived, she would certainly have been disabled due to the lack of oxygen.” For me, that was like a slap in the face. It wasn’t about other children, it was about this child that I had just born, this child that I had wanted so much and would have loved to hold in my arms. Handicapped or not, I loved her!
- The shock, the sadness – I was “frozen” inside. Not until six months later – my husband and I were attending a reading in a church community – did this numbness start to dissolve in me. At the beginning of the event, an old chorale was sung (I hadn’t been able to sing for a long time) – the words and melody of which I knew well. It went “straight to my heart”. Healing tears could finally flow.
- Members of our own congregation did not show any particular sensitivity, but rather put further burdens on us with their view: “There must be sin in your life, God is obviously trying to tell you something with this!” These long-standing Christians did not know their Bible, for it says in John 9:3: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.”
- My image of God had collapsed. I grew up in a Christian family, helped out at church myself from the age of 14. How could God disappoint me like that? How could he let this happen? We went on holiday right after the funeral – to a lonely cabin high up in the mountains. I felt like I needed to climb to a summit and shout at God, shout out all my anger and powerlessness and accuse him – but in my eyes he was “too holy” for that. I should have done it. Today, I think it would have saved me three years of detours. So many psalms show that God “endures” the lamentation of his children. That is part of life with him and need not be excluded. On the contrary: He can only touch and heal my heart in its depth where I am completely open and completely me.
- For three years I struggled with myself and with God. Is God kind or cruel? Omnipotent? Do I still want to live with this God? If not, what about my marriage? As a minister’s wife? At this stage, in this crisis in my life, I experienced a silent God. It was unbearable for me. Today, I know that my childlike faith shattered then. I had to make a new decision, as an adult, whether I wanted to live with this God. I remember the moment well, at the crack of dawn, sitting on the sofa, when I defiantly shouted out: “God, as far as I can see, you have made a huge mistake. I know that I want to be faithful to my husband when he makes mistakes. Now you, my God, have really messed up in my eyes – but I want to be faithful to you too. You can’t get rid of me that easily, so just get on with it and deal with me!”
- My healing process took twelve years. It meant being stripped naked emotionally, right down to the bone. Step by little step, God found ways and means (people, books, seminars, articles, nature, the Bible. Later I became aware, for example, that God himself is an “orphaned father” – his child was murdered), to lead me very carefully, just as much at a time as I could bear, and gradually take away my false images and lead me on into his great freedom.
- Among other things, I have learned that it is not my own strength that holds on to faith, but it is God holding on to me.
- My whole way of thinking was challenged: In my western world, so many things seem so predictable. We easily forget that all good gifts come from God. Absolutely everything. From God alone.
I have no answer to the “why?” question. But I know today, 35 years later, deep in my heart: God is good.
Sometimes there is still a distant pain, but this pain belongs to me now. What would she have been like, my little Julie? One day I will see her.
Translated by Karen Kersten