Last week I spent a whole day on the labor and delivery floor with my wife Marisa. The birth of our 9th child was an important day for our family, and we kept up as many of our traditions as we could. I wore my lucky hat, an English flat cap that I have worn at the births of all of my children, and I even cut the baby’s umbilical cord, as I have done for all of the others.
But this birth was different, because our baby was dead.
Labor and Delivery
I was surprised at how easy it was to deliver a 4 month old fetus, compared to a full term baby. But what this delivery lacked in physical pain it more than made up for in other ways.
Based on the ultrasound images the doctor thought the baby had probably died about a week before the delivery. Her body looked like it was developing normally, but when the placenta came out there was a damaged area that the doctor thought might have been the cause. The placenta — the unsung hero of pregnancy, the “ugly twin” — had failed, and our little girl had died.
Poor baby! She looked like a naked little bird fallen out of its nest, but much more fragile. I kept thinking of my old embryology textbook as I examined her. Ten fingers, ten toes, eyes, ears, nose, mouth. She was going to be perfect, if only she had finished growing!
And she was so tiny, easily fitting on the palm of my hand! But I didn’t pick her up. In fact, I was wearing an exam glove as I touched her, lying on the little cotton pad. I straightened her arms and legs, putting them in a more anatomical position. Examining a dead body was not really all that unusual for me, being a medical doctor, although this was the youngest I had ever seen. The experience was sort of fascinating, to be quite honest, even though I knew it was a human being, and actually my own daughter, that I was examining with such curiosity. At the time I was only slightly conscious of the fact that intellectualizing the experience was my emotional defense mechanism.
But my defenses fell down an hour or so later. I’m not the kind of guy who cries very much, but I turned over a new leaf that day.
After the doctor had finished his work, and the nurses had also left the room, two women came in to introduce themselves. They were both mothers who had lost babies of their own, and had come to help us with our baby. With our permission, they took some hand and foot prints of our little girl, then dressed her in a little diaper and stocking hat, and gave her a loose swaddle in a tiny blanket. As they worked they chatted about how cute her little hands and feet were.
“How are you able to do this?” Marisa asked them, wondering how they held their emotional composure. Clearly the service they gave was a part of their own grieving.
When they had finished with dressing the baby they crossed the room towards us, holding the little bundle. I took a couple of pictures, and they made sure I got one of her cute little foot. Then they handed the baby to her mother.
Marisa was not ready for that, and broke down in heavy sobs. I took the baby in one arm, and put my other arm around my grieving wife, as I sat next to her on the hospital bed. After a minute or so, when Marisa’s crying had calmed down, I looked down at our little girl and softly said, “Hi, Baby.”
Reaching out to touch the blanket, Marisa said, “Hi, Baby Evelyn. I’m so sorry.” We spoke with our baby girl for a while, telling her how sorry we were that she had died. But we trusted that the Lord had some work for her, and that there was some wisdom in his calling her home.
At one point I was standing near the bed with Evelyn, telling Marisa about what I had been thinking that morning. “I had a series of little scenes flash through my mind,” I said. “I saw her walking up the stairs — coming at me for a hug.” This is where I broke down and started crying, but I tried to continue through my sobs. “I saw her on her wedding day, and having her own baby.” Marisa added some scenes of her own: Changing her diaper, sending her off to school. We grieved for the moments lost, which we will not experience with our little girl. In those two hours I probably cried more than I have in the past 30 years combined.
We also talked about seeing our little girl on resurrection morning, when our family will be together again. This was not an idle hope, but a certainty in our hearts and minds. I have known and studied and taught the doctrines of the Plan of Salvation and of the afterlife for most of my life, but on this day they felt more real and certain than they had ever felt before.
Eventually it was time to hand her little body over to the man from the mortuary. But I knew that my little girl was more than just the body I was holding; her spirit was still alive in the unseen world, and would live forever. I looked down at the blanket, one last time to see the flesh of the little girl whom I would never meet in this world, and then handed her over. The time we spent with our baby that day is a sacred and tender memory.
Two days later we held a short graveside service, attended by friends, neighbors, and family members. We dedicated the grave as the resting place for the body of Evelyn Marisa Sanderson, praying that it will be protected and hallowed until the day of the resurrection. We also prayed for peace to rest upon us, that the knowledge of the Plan of Salvation would calm our souls. This was a blessing we had already received in astonishing abundance, but which we wanted to continue.
Early the next day I went for my morning run and went past the cemetery, which is only a mile from our house. I stopped at Evelyn’s grave and placed a flower on it. As I continued my run past the cemetery I spoke to my little girl, telling her how much we wanted her to come and live with our family, and how surprised and sad we were that she had died, but how much we look forward to being with her in God’s Kingdom someday. “Your life was so short,” I said. “I sure hope you got what you needed.” Then, thinking of the miracle of the loaves and fishes, I added, “You gave all that you had, and Jesus will make it enough.” I have never cried while running before; that was a new and good experience for me.
Thoughts and Applications
I have shared a very sacred and personal experience here, in the hope that it will be helpful to someone who is suffering a similar tragedy in their family. There are a few things I wish to point out as take-home messages.
My first observation from this experience is the power of service. Those angelic women who dressed our baby in the hospital were performing a powerful act of Christian love, and the precious memory of our time with Evelyn will change our lives forever. Many of our neighbors served us by preparing meals, and countless friends, neighbors, and family members prayed for us. These prayers are a big part of the reason why we have felt so much peace. We are so very grateful for all of this service we received. It was also our great privilege last week to provide service to our neighbors who suffered a family tragedy (a story I may tell in a future post someday), and we found that the service we gave in our own time of sorrow provided healing to our souls.
In the days since Evelyn’s burial I have had two images side by side in my mind. The first is of Marisa and me in the Temple of God, moments after we were sealed together for time and eternity on our wedding day. Our hearts were full and overflowing with the spirit of promise. The second image is Evelyn’s casket at the cemetery, lovingly covered with flowers by her sister. These two are really the same image in my heart, because the promise of one provides hope for the other. On the day of our marriage we made covenants with one another and with the Lord, and those covenants take the sting out of death.
I have also been thinking about President Henry B. Eyring’s address in the October 2005 General Conference. He spoke about preparing for the spiritual storms in life:
“That preparation must be started far in advance because it takes time. What we will need then can’t be bought. It can’t be borrowed. It doesn’t store well. And it has to have been used regularly and recently.
“What we will need in our day of testing is a spiritual preparation. It is to have developed faith in Jesus Christ so powerful that we can pass the test of life upon which everything for us in eternity depends. That test is part of the purpose God had for us in the Creation.”
President Eyring’s emphasis on preparation was underscored for me through this experience. When the moment of crisis comes, when the rubber hits the road for the Plan of Salvation in your life, the faith you will need to make it through this trial should already be in place, fresh and ready to use. It is harder to muster that faith when you haven’t been using it very much. As President Eyring said, “great faith has a short shelf life.”
So hold on to your faith and your covenants with the Lord. If your faith is weak, then strengthen it. Renew your covenants if you have neglected them. The Lord will help us through whatever comes, if we bind ourselves to him and believe in him.
Note: The women who provided service for our baby in the hospital were representing Share Families of Southern Utah. Please visit their website for more information, or to make a donation to support their work.