Walking With Loss
By Clint Watkins
My wife’s words stifled me. “I’m pregnant.” The weight of Jillian’s news brought me to the floor with a deep reverence for what was before me: I was now a dad. It filled me with both duty and delight as I began to dream about the future with our baby.
But three months later, these dreams were destroyed.
The day we found out we were having a boy was the same day we learned he had a fatal condition, anencephaly. If he survived delivery, he would not live long enough to come home with us. Our first child’s birth and death would occur in the same room. We had just started falling in love with our son and he was already being ripped away.
I didn’t know it was possible to feel such agony. My son’s death sentence suffocated my soul and plunged me into a darkness I thought I would never come out from. My misery was multiplied by the fact that I had been rendered useless as a husband and father. I could do nothing to save my son’s life or protect my wife from devastation. All I wanted to do was rescue them, but I was incapable of untangling us from death’s grip.
As if the inevitable loss of our baby wasn’t crippling enough, we were expected to decide when and how it would happen, presented with the choice to continue the pregnancy or not. The horrifying prospect of making a decision tortured whatever was left of our souls. Either choice would end in devastation, further torment that would scar us forever. Do we choose death for our son now or death for him later? We were paralyzed. Termination was chilling, dark, and against every fiber of our former selves. But the cruelty of the diagnosis made continuing the pregnancy feel terrifying and impossible. We couldn’t fathom five more minutes of this anguish, let alone five more months. The stories we read of other couples who carried to term seemed to have some sort of strength that we had not been given.
So we stumbled into our friends’ home, exhausted by grief and desperate for help. With deep empathy and compassion, they reminded us of what we knew to be true: Jesus knows what it’s like. He agonized over his choice, too, asking the Father for another option as he stared down the dark corridor leading to the cross. They helped us remember that we have a commiserating King who knows the weight of a paralyzing decision. With that as our hope, our friends encouraged us with simple counsel that cut through the disorienting chaos: choose what would honor the Lord.
Although the future still haunted us, we now had a framework to make the decision out of faith, not fear. And we weren’t alone. We were surrounded by family and friends, supported by a team of specialists and counselors at the hospital, and sustained by a Savior who knows our suffering. Though we didn’t have the strength to continue, we knew those around us would carry us forward.
With trembling hearts, we made our decision. We would continue the pregnancy.
My wife and I solidified our choice with our friends’ counsel in mind. How does this honor the Lord? We each had a different reason that made the top of our list. Jillian answered the question by directing our gaze to God’s sovereignty. “We normally do everything we can to run away from suffering. But it’s clear in the Bible that God uses suffering, and we don’t have to run from it.” We could step forward with faith in God’s promises even in the midst of our pain. My response focused our hearts on God’s grace. Choosing to carry our son to term would imitate the way God has loved us. He endured suffering on our behalf, loving us before we knew him, knowing we would not be able to reciprocate. We could extend that same grace to our son.
In the midst of all the misery and confusion, one thing was clear: we chose our son. Despite his condition, despite all he lacked, despite all the pain we would have to endure, we chose him.
From that day forward, we began tiptoeing the line between life and death. We simultaneously prepared for our son’s birth day and funeral. We dreamed about holding him and were haunted by the horror of having to let him go. Joy filled our hearts as we cherished his life and sorrow stung our souls as we lamented his loss.
But while death was taking our child from us, it could not keep us from loving him fiercely.
We gave him a name that we would be proud to speak forever: Eli David, our little warrior. Our souls soared at each ultrasound as we heard Eli’s heartbeat through the monitor and watched him grow. He filled us with pride each time he punched and kicked in the womb. We sang to him through tears at night, a bedtime routine that sounded forth hope from the storm. Though our family had a distinct frailty, we were doing our best to parent our son well and make memories that we could hold on to forever.
But on November 7, 2018, we were ambushed again. Jillian’s water broke ten weeks early. What had haunted us every day for three months was suddenly happening. Labor, especially at 30 weeks, would put Eli under stress that his body would not be able to sustain. Each passing minute unraveled us into a mess of fear, despair, and rage. But as we settled into the hospital room that night, we agreed to put our anger aside so we could focus on what lied ahead. Over the next sixteen hours, Jillian braved the intensifying pain of contractions knowing that each one brought her closer to her son’s death.
The following morning, after a night of courageous endurance, she delivered our baby boy. Though we had months of anticipation, not even foreknowledge could prepare us for the silence that filled the room. The relentless agony that had tormented us for months now released all of its fury as our doctor confirmed our greatest, expected fear. “There is no heartbeat.” This excruciating moment – 10:25am, November 8, 2018 – is a traumatic memory that will forever be within my reach. The cries we longed to hear from Eli were replaced with our own uncontrollable weeping.
But the horror of death’s shadow could not eclipse the wonder of our beloved son. His beauty was captivating. We loved everything about his perfect, fragile body. Even his imperfections–signs of the condition that robbed him from us–didn’t turn us away, but deepened our adoration for him. We treasured the opportunity to hold him and introduce him to our family. Time slowed as this tribe of aching hearts filled the room fierce affection.
As we got closer to the time we had to leave, another wave of devastation overwhelmed us. We came into the hospital with our son, but we now had to leave without him. Here we were, a father and mother, stumbling away from our only child’s birth day without our only child. We returned to an empty house that echoed of the few memories we had with Eli and the countless ones we never got to make. A week later, those who would have known our son best joined us to lay him to rest. It was the final surrender to death’s merciless assault. We buried portions of our souls alongside our son that day. Though time may soften the edges of our grief, part of us will forever be occupied by Eli’s absence.
Our son’s life has taught us love that language cannot capture and his death has introduced us to sorrow beyond the reach of words. As we continue limping with this tension, we still wrestle deeply with the Lord to this day. The desperate questions about our unanswered prayers still ring out from our hearts. We know that we can only find hope in our Savior, but being stuck between the Rock and this hard place has been terribly painful.
Yet we have clung to the fact that the Bible gives voice to our groaning. All throughout the Scriptures you hear the cries of men and women being forthright about their hurt, asking the Lord tough questions, and waiting for him to heal. They do not hide their heartache or rush to tie gospel-colored bows around their tear-drenched stories. They do what the Lord has permitted them to do: they cry out, they grieve, and they lament. It’s through this honest struggle with God that deep trust is restored and true hope is found.
Clint is a husband, father, and disciple of Jesus. He serves as a missionary with DiscipleMakers, a college ministry based in Pennsylvania. He and Jillian are the proud parents of their son, Eli, who passed away in November, 2018.
You can follow Clint's blog HERE or on Instagram @clintdwatkins for more encouragement as you walk through loss.