40 Minutes – Kristen Ironside

But we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. —Romans 5:3

“Lethal.” The doctor’s eyes filled with tears as she uttered the word. Already, she knew the impact this diagnosis would have on me greater than I did myself. I wasn’t sure if my own tears came quickly from deep sadness or slowly for lack of understanding.

Regardless, a box of Kleenex was placed in my lap. The morning of January 14, 2019, had begun with excited guesses as to the gender of our second baby. I was 18 weeks along, a point where it seemed impossible to lose a baby in twenty-first century America.

My husband and I had toted our 18-month-old son along to the routine anatomy scan, only to be told minutes after the ultrasound that there were serious concerns about our baby. Later the same day, we had more scans with Maternal Fetal specialists, and then the words spilled from her mouth in that dark ultrasound room. “This is lethal to the baby. I’m so sorry.”

If there has ever been a time when I was grateful for lack of understanding, lack of knowing the details I would work out in the coming months, it was then. In those first moments, there was one thing I needed to process: my baby would soon die. The problematic clue to the initial ultrasound technician was a complete absence of amniotic fluid surrounding the baby. The diagnosis causing this was confirmed later that day: unilateral renal agenesis and a unilateral multicystic dysplastic kidney. This is the medical terminology for saying that one of my baby’s kidneys was absent, and the other was not functioning due to its own developmental problems. As a result of no kidney function, the baby could not produce the amniotic fluid it needed to fully develop.

The lungs take the hardest hit and become seriously underdeveloped by birth. Without functioning kidneys and lungs, a baby becomes incompatible with life outside the womb. While in the womb, the baby suffers no harm. A mother’s body completely sustains its life as there is not yet a need for functioning kidneys and lungs. There was a slight risk of stillbirth, but the doctors told me that I would likely be able to carry this baby full term, and if born alive, my baby would have minutes to hours on this earth.

My due date was a full five months away, and the thought of walking such a long road anticipating death seemed to be one of the hardest things to fathom. My heart was torn. I wanted God to take this trial from me immediately. The weight was simply too much to bear. I also wanted God to sustain this pregnancy forever. Letting my baby go seemed impossible. But because each life is precious and created in the image of God, we chose life. We chose to pursue God rather than run from Him. We chose to wait on the Lord, and see His promises fulfilled in our lives. We chose to trust the truths we knew to be true, rather than the ever-changing emotions of difficult days. And I was terrified.

Ultrasound images are very difficult to read without amniotic fluid, so in the following weeks, I learned to grieve, but still did not know my baby’s gender. My heart focused on Psalm 139:13–14. “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.” We found rest in knowing that our Creator made this child just as He intended. I reminded myself incessantly of God’s promises— that He was good, faithful, and loving; that He works for my good and His glory; that one day these tears would be wiped away. I prayed that the truth of scriptures I had known for years would transform my heart and mind.

In those first few days, the tears were constant. My brain couldn’t process the information as quickly as it came. Yet after those days and weeks passed, the fog lifted, questions were answered, and the truths of Scripture sank deeply into my heart. Somehow people seem brave when they go through things we could never dream of doing. But if there is one thing I know, it is that that I am so far from that. This trial wasn’t in my life because I’m brave enough to go through it. I haven’t walked this road because I’m more courageous than the next person. I am weak, and I am frail. This did not happen to showcase my strength, but to showcase Christ’s strength through my weakness. “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9). How good it is to be weak, for then we are made strong.

I was fearful of the months that lay before me—of seeing my growing belly, of the congratulatory remarks of strangers, of seeing my lifeless baby, of seeing it take its final breath. Life became a daily surrender of my fears, and the Lord soon gave my grieving heart joy in the journey. Nearly four weeks after the diagnosis, we received the results of a genetic test: our baby was a girl. The loss became much more real, and yet I determined that this sweet daughter of mine would live her life fully. I took bump photos regularly and on each passing holiday. I took snapshots at each place we went: the beach, the zoo, church, a coffee shop. I took video snippets of her big brother and daddy talking to her. I savored the subtle kicks she gave me. I saved each and every one of the hard-to-decipher ultrasound photos. I even went wedding dress shopping with her. We lived with her and we loved her as completely as we could for the time we had her. We named her Annabelle Hope, and spoke to her and about her by name.

The doctor appointments were constant. My health was regularly checked as it would be in any pregnancy, but there were also a host of additional ultrasounds to monitor Annabelle’s growth and change. I was grateful for the extra times I had to see her gentle movements on the screen, but each visit seemed to end the same way: there is no change in her diagnosis. I also met with care teams from the hospital. I had a team of doctors and nurses that walked me through a long list of items to consider: specific plans should she be born still or alive, medications to make her comfortable for her short time, whether I wanted any intervention, how I could make memories and keepsakes with her while in the hospital. I even endured the difficult description of what she would look like in her final moments on earth. It was enough to tear my mama heart right open.

My care team sent me home with a list of funeral homes rather than the more traditional breastfeeding information and sleeping guidelines for pregnant women. My heart yearned to paint the ugly white walls of that extra bedroom in my house for a nursery, but instead, I spent time selecting a funeral home, securing a plot at the cemetery, and meeting with pastors about a funeral. I didn’t buy packs of cute onesies to fill her drawers but selected one pretty pink dress for her to wear on her birthday. I didn’t fill a box with bows in every color but selected one gorgeous white headband to match her burial dress. Each decision made my heart bleed, but the beautiful gift of time to make them was a great blessing.

At some point along the journey, I settled into what felt like a routine. It was a constant state of anticipatory grief marked by work days, bump photos, tears, joy in living with our daughter, and doctor appointments. As I slid past the 30-week mark, my heart again felt heavy. It seemed to be the final milestone, and most of Annabelle’s preparations were in place. While I thought I still had two months before meeting her, it seemed too soon. I didn’t realize just how soon it would be. One Sunday morning at 33 weeks, I awoke with slight discomfort. I adjusted my body uncomfortably back and forth during the sermon. I had maternity photos scheduled for later that day, and they would be the only professional photos I would have while our little family of four was all together alive. This couldn’t be labor.

The contractions began to come regularly throughout the afternoon, so I prepared information for babysitters and packed a hospital bag just in case. At 6 pm, our family got those precious photos taken. We were together, alive, in one photo. The pain increased throughout the evening. By 2 am, I knew it was real labor. Babysitter, hospital bag, a little extra fast down the highway—it was happening. This beautiful and heart- wrenching journey we’d been on for 33 weeks was reaching a conclusion. Soon.

As we waited to be admitted to the hospital, my husband and I reflected on even the seemingly insignificant answers to prayer—that God allowed us to do the little things in the midst of this heartache. We got those maternity photos taken just a few hours ago. I had put together complete outfits for Annabelle to wear. We had taken pictures and videos along the journey. We had met with pastors and funeral homes about a service.

I had gotten the information to the necessary caretakers for our son. I never had to go to a doctor appointment to discover that my baby’s heart had stopped beating. He gave us the strength to get through the day we heard Annabelle’s diagnosis, the day we heard she was a girl, and the day we chose her spot at the cemetery. God’s taken care of us for the big and the small. He would also give us the strength for the next few hours. Our final earnest prayer was that we would get to meet her alive.

By the time we were moved into a labor and delivery room, we were all surprised to see just how quickly Annabelle seemed to move. Before we knew it, the doctor told me it was time. It’s time? How can a mother have the strength to deliver a baby when that is exactly what will take its life? It’s like someone telling you to push your child into a busy street. It goes against all motherly instinct. Yet, it was time.

They had removed Annabelle’s heartbeat monitor by this point as planned. She was breech, and we were not planning on intervention should they notice distress. The doctors’ faces looked solemn. Though there was a large handful of medical personnel in the room, the silence was staggering. No machines making noise, no voices. Silence. For a minute, I sobbed. For a minute, complete weakness. For a minute, fear. Yet, it was time. I stared at the doctors’ serious faces, wondering if they knew something I didn’t, not daring to ask. I needed to hope. I needed to pray that my sweet girl would stay alive.

At 7:45 am, on Monday, April 29, 2019, my daughter, Annabelle Hope Ironside, was born. I finally had the courage to ask. “Is she alive?!” As the doctors placed her on my chest, I received the most wonderful answer to prayer. Yes. Annabelle, my precious daughter. She was alive. Forty minutes was all we had with our sweet Annabelle. From 7:45 to 8:25 am, Annabelle was loved unconditionally and perfectly, with every ounce of love we had in our hearts. The doctor placed her on my chest, and she cried. She cried! If you only knew how many times I had prayed I would hear her little voice.

How do you put into words what it is like to experience both the greatest sorrow and greatest thanksgiving in the same hour? How can you express the immeasurable joy of holding your crying baby against you for the first time while feeling the pain of knowing that her very life will be taken away any minute? She lay on my chest, letting out sweet but strained newborn cries. We took her in: her dark brown hair, the curve of her nose, the dimple on her chin, her deep blue eyes, her big hands, the way her face scrunched up with each cry. Our daughter. She was beautiful. I told her I loved her and spoke her sweet name endlessly.

I was unaware of time, only aware of Annabelle and every movement she made. Annabelle’s cries and movements began to slow all too soon. Her cries became sparse. She seemed to lay so still between each sign of life. With every movement, my heart was filled with joy that I still had my girl. We sang “Happy Birthday.” We loved her. Simply, deeply, truly … loved her. I don’t know the exact second that Annabelle passed into eternity. As she calmly lay on my chest, the doctor checked for her heartbeat, and was no longer able to find one. It was peaceful, simple, quiet. My husband and I embraced, our baby girl between us. Tears flowed freely. Kind and gentle words expressed to one another, now and forever bereaved parents.

If you’ve never been given only one day with your child, you likely have no idea just how tightly you want to hold them, how long you want to study them, and just how much you want to memorize what that baby feels like to hold. So we held her and loved her. We smiled and laughed. Our nearly two-year-old son was soon brought to our room, and for a moment, we were like most other rooms with newborns–Daddy holding the new big brother up to see this sweet baby that for months was simply in Mommy’s tummy. We took pictures, so many pictures. All 4 lbs., 13 oz. of her were weighed and measured. Annabelle’s four grandparents, who all live on the other side of the country, arrived to meet her.

The next morning, my husband and I held our little girl for just a little longer. We told her we loved her and that she was beautiful a hundred more times. And though I had only just held Annabelle for the first time the day before, it was now time to set my baby girl down for the last time. I placed Annabelle in the bassinet, never to hold her in my arms again. And with a final “I love you, Annabelle,” we left the hospital room without our newborn baby.

Those first few mornings, I awoke early, in tears, and read words of comfort in the Psalms. The battle between thanksgiving and sorrow raged within me. Such deep sorrow of those precious 40 minutes with Annabelle having passed so quickly and never being able to hold her again. Yet such an uprising of thanksgiving welled within my heart. Thanksgiving because I had those 33 weeks and 40 minutes along with a multitude of answered prayers along the way, and how can I possibly be angry over such an incredible gift? Joy and sorrow so intricately intertwined, a seemingly impossible coexistence, but yet it’s there. There now and until the day that sorrow is supernaturally taken away, leaving only joy for eternity.

We had a beautiful celebration of Annabelle’s life five days after she was born. Knowing I would never stand in line receiving countless hugs at her birthday party or wedding, I truly enjoyed her celebration. It was so special to have a host of people show up to see Annabelle in person and be reminded of the hope we have in Christ. I saw her physical body for the last time, gave her one last kiss on the forehead, and had to leave her casket behind me at the cemetery.

Soon the activity of those first days stopped. The silence returned. I wandered into my living room filled with flowers, stunning reminders of so many people that took part in making Annabelle’s celebration exquisite. The floral scent was striking, and I saw pink flowers in every corner. How I would trade in the scent of flowers for the scent of a newborn, and trade in the carefully placed arrangements for hastily strewn burp rags. But this is my story. A story of love and love lost. The times of weeping and mourning became messily tangled with the times of laughing and smiling, and I learned that grief is not necessarily linear. When I found myself smiling, I wondered why I wasn’t weeping, yet when I wept, I longed again for the peace that surpasses all understanding. A peace that almost seemed to weasel its way into my heart, whether my human heart wanted to accept such a gracious gift or not. And each morning, new mercies were flung on my doorstep, whether I chose to acknowledge their existence or not. The peace exists, and the mercies are persistent. Persistent because God knows no other way than to be who He is: to be faithful, good, and loving in the midst of deep hurt; to be the God of all comfort when I could sink to despair; to keep His Spirit active in my heart, giving me strength when I am at my weakest.

The vital role of the body of Christ became more real to me than ever. Since Annabelle’s diagnosis, I had received a steady stream of encouraging messages and cards that continued for months after her birth. Meals had appeared regularly at my doorstep, with a full explosion of food filling our refrigerator surrounding her death. Books, mementos, flowers, gift cards, and financial contributions poured in. We deeply felt the prayers offered on our behalf from fellow believers around the globe. The kindness of others left us humbled and in awe of God’s provisions in the storm.

In the months surrounding Annabelle’s diagnosis and death, I never felt the need to question God with “Why me?” I felt at peace knowing that I was just like every other person on this planet, a sinner in need of a Savior. I knew I didn’t deserve this suffering any more or less than the next person, so I simply told myself, “Why not me?” I felt the very real comfort of God and support of the church body giving me peace month after month, and knew that God was working for my good and His glory.

It came several months after Annabelle’s death. I finally broke down through tears, “God, why? Why me?” I had avoided the questions all year long, and finally, as the cards and meals stopped coming, and it seemed that everyone else moved on with healthy babies, I finally asked. “Why me? Why did my baby have to die?” I knew I would never fully know the answer. I knew my finite brain could never wrap itself around the mind of an infinite God. Yet as I mulled over what seemed to be a rhetorical question, my heart settled on the same question in a different light. I didn’t like asking the question. I felt selfish for asking why. So I began to wonder from a different angle, “Why me? Why would the holy God of the universe save someone such as I? Why would my God go through His own pain of child loss to rescue a despicable sinner like me?” That is the truth I would never understand. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8).

If I can find rest never fully understanding why a merciful God would lavish on me the eternal gift of salvation, shall I not also trust the same God in my temporal pain? If the eternal security of both Annabelle and me is placed in His hands, shall I question His perfect timing in her number of days? How could I dare shake my finger at God when He has broken His body for mine? I have seen God provide for me in miraculous ways as time passes, and each day He has renewed my strength, allowing me to move forward, stay active, get back to work, and care for my family again.

But I realize my journey with Annabelle is not a finished chapter in my life. I didn’t make it through her first Christmas and first birthday only to close her memory box and slap a naive grin on my face as I continue through life. Annabelle’s life is an open- ended chapter, and it seems I’ll never quite know how it will end. The grief over her death, the joy in her life, and the hope that she has pointed me toward are a part of every day. The grief stirs compassion in my heart, the joy lets me shout about God’s provisions from the mountaintops, and the hope draws me toward Christ. Life has become a daily surrender of my plans for His, an often-renewed prayer of “Not my will, but Yours,” and an expression of the most genuine joy I have been given in the midst of heartache.

And so I find myself rejoicing in my suffering. I pray that my suffering continues to sanctify me toward more endurance and character, and I most certainly see that my suffering has produced hope. Hope: a strong and confident expectation. It is a fitting middle name for my girl as I reflect on the hope that I have, our strong and confident expectation that Christ will fulfill His promises and that we can find strength in His faithfulness. Hope, not in the doctors or in my precious baby’s life, but in Christ and our future with Him. I have hope in the fact that He paid my penalty for my sin and will welcome me into His kingdom for all eternity. I have hope of seeing my own Annabelle Hope again in perfect peace. And for the rest of my life here on earth, I not only have hope of what is to come for eternity, but for a peace that surpasses all understanding even in my lifetime. I have hope in the promises of God, that this is for His glory and my good, and that I will be able to encourage others who go through similar suffering. Hope that God plans to prosper me and not harm me. So. Much. Hope.

Hope & Helps

Scripture I clung to on the hardest days/nights:

Psalm 139; Psalm 145; Romans 8; Joshua 1:9; Romans 5:3; Philippians 4:7; Jeremiah 29:11; Revelation 21:4; Matthew 26:39; 2 Corinthians 4:16–18; Ecclesiastes 3:1–4

Helpful things people did to minister to me:

  • People brought meals both before and after Annabelle’s birth.
  • Gift cards and financial contributions.
  • Fellowship through walks/coffee dates/lunch.
  • Gifts of books to help with devotions or grief.
  • Gifts of unique mementos to remember Annabelle.
  • Encouraging texts and cards (especially on difficult appointment days).
  • People made phone calls for us (to funeral homes/cemeteries).
  • Simply asking about how we were doing or about Annabelle herself.

What you should NOT say to someone in a similar circumstance:

  • Saying nothing at all.
  • Phrases that downplay the situation or simply try to cheer up the person. “You’re young.” “At least you already have a son.” “It could be worse.”
  • Phrases that aren’t true or provide false hope. “It’ll be ok.” “God will work a miracle.” “Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll have another kid.”
  • “Let me know if you need anything.” This puts the burden back on the one suffering.

Hymns or songs that comforted me:

  • It Is Well with My Soul, Spafford/Bliss
  • Blessings, Laura Story
  • Yet Not I But Through Christ in Me, CityAlight

The hope Jesus has given me through my loss of Annabelle:

The loss of Annabelle has given me hope in the eternal rather than the temporal and the unseen rather than the seen. It has taught me that the worth of my own plans for my life pale in comparison to the plans the Lord has for me. As precious as each family member and friend in our lives can be, our hope in both this life and the next cannot be dependent on them, but only our Savior. Turning over those temporal gifts to God allows us to rejoice in the hope of one day living with no tears and no pain altogether.

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