Stephen J. Tracey
Emily Sarah Tracey was stillborn on June 6, 1987. She was our first child. Sharon went into labor at thirty-six weeks. We knew Emily would not survive the birth. We had known from the eighteenth week that Emily suffered from anencephaly (a defect in the development of the neural tube). For eighteen weeks, Sharon carried that little life within her, knowing we would not bring a baby home at the end. I am still overwhelmed with admiration for my wife’s quiet courage and the dignity with which she carried our little Emily.
It is now a quarter of a century since Emily’s birth, and I am still lonely for her. I am afraid even to write this, since my words often end as tears. I write this with the encouragement of Sharon, my wife. It may be that this will encourage a mother or father, a doctor or nurse.
The first thing we wrestled with was the shock when we went in for our first ultrasound. We were full of life and joy, skipping into parenthood. A cold blade cut through us. It was plain to see that there was an abnormality. We were sent home and told to return the next day to make arrangements to terminate the pregnancy. It was the British National Health Service. One did as one was told. We cried. We felt numb. We cried.
Sharon spoke plainly. She said that since this was all the life God was giving our baby, we had no right to take it away. We cried. And she was right. So we made our decision not to abort. In the short term, it was the harder decision, for it meant extending the sorrow for several months. We cried.
Not everyone agreed with our decision. Some felt that since there would be no life outside the womb, there was no sin in “terminating the pregnancy.” But it was never merely a pregnancy to us. It was always a child. Sharon’s GP, who had cared for her all her life, clearly let us know he did not agree with our decision. He, thankfully, was not typical. God brought several wonderful nurses and doctors across our path. They treated us, and Sharon particularly, with great gentleness and dignity.
I clearly remember the day Emily was born. A midwife and nurse delivered her. The nurse cried, but said nothing. But I have not forgotten that she cried with us. Before we had a chance to see anything, the midwife placed a little hat on Emily’s head. She handed me my little girl, but with that little hat she had done her best to make it easier for us. It was a small thing, but it was gentle and thoughtful. I have not forgotten.
Not long after Emily’s birth, we received a letter inviting us to the genetics clinic. We were not sure we should go. We felt labeled, and perhaps we were afraid of genetics. But we went and found ourselves under the care of Professor Norman Nevin and his team. It was folic acid. His work showed that higher doses of folic acid reduced the risk of neural tube defects.
I began to learn the nature of grief. I wanted to know if people felt what I felt. I picked up a copy of A Grief Observed, by C. S. Lewis, and found him saying, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” And, “No one ever told me about the laziness of grief.” I grasped hold of the words no one ever told me. I too felt that shock.
I found my way, over the years, to poems on grief, especially on the loss of children. I grasped hold of Wordsworth’s poem, “She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways”:
She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!
It was not difficult for me to change “Lucy” to “Emily.”
Robert Frost’s painful poem, “Home Burial,” captured the agony of burying a child. I have felt no pain like that day. I carried a little coffin, myself. My father turned to me as we approached the grave, and, hardly able to speak through tears, he asked, “May I carry her?” Years later we buried my father-in-law in the same grave. I was unprepared for the pain of that open grave. I have begun to learn, not simply what it means to mourn, but what it means to be poor in spirit. I am frail, of the earth, easily crushed.
I have begun to learn the nature of faith. God says, “It is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the Lord” (Lam 3:26). It may not seem clear to others, but from that point onward, each time my wife was pregnant, I was full of fear. I was afraid of grief. I was afraid to carry that pain again. I was afraid to place that grief on the children God had given us. It was in the crucible of that pain that I began to learn to trust God, day by day. I would say things like, “Did you take your folic acid today?” The answer was always the same: “Yes, dear.” Sharon was always well ahead of me in faith, and that faith was never reckless. Hope and quiet waiting are not easy. God graciously granted us four children, a daughter and three sons. I was like the man crying, “I believe; help my unbelief.”
I have begun to learn the nature of providence. Not only is it “good that a man should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the Lord.” In the very next breath, Jeremiah also says, “It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth” (Lam. 3:27).
I could not see how it was good for me. But now that I am older, I might say that it was good for me. I could say it prepared me for pastoral ministry. I could say it helped our marriage. I could say it pierced my pride. It probably did all those things. I do know it made me cling to the truth “that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). It made me cling to this truth: “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness. The Lord is my portion, saith my soul; therefore will I hope in him. The Lord is good unto them that wait for him, to the soul that seeketh him” (Lam. 3:22–25).
It also made me cling to this truth: “But though he cause grief, yet will he have compassion according to the multitude of his mercies” (Lam. 3:32). God is good. We are always more loved than we love.
Above all else, I have learned there is grace to help in time of need. In childlessness, miscarriage, stillbirth, living with disability, or anything else in life or death, God’s grace is sufficient.
The author, a native of Northern Ireland and a graduate of Queens University, Belfast, is now pastor of Lakeview OPC in Rockport, Maine. He quotes the KJV. Norman C. Nevin taught medical genetics at Queens University; now retired, he is a proponent of intelligent design and the editor of Should Christians Embrace Evolution? (reviewed in the March 2012 issue of New Horizons, pp. 12–13). New Horizons, March 2013.