We all love, and feel the need, to be in control of our lives. In control of our kids, our finances, our jobs, our marriages, our relationships, our health. But oftentimes, life spins out of control, and usually in the blink of an eye. For some, it could be a terrible car accident, an earthquake, or a sudden loss of employment.
For me, when I think of a time when my life felt utterly out of control, was when I was pregnant with my daughter Viviana in 2011. I remember sitting on my couch with my then 1 year old, Nicky, eating the eggplant parmesan I had made to “induce” labor, when it occurred to me I had not felt her move since the late morning. I am an ob-gyn, and initially was not concerned, as neither she, nor my son, had been very active babies in the womb. I told my husband, Jack, I was going into my office to check her heart rate, and he insisted he come along. We made the 5 minute drive to my office (which by then was empty as it was evening), I lay down on the exam table, listened with the Doppler…nothing. I moved the Doppler around for a few more seconds, and still nothing.
I felt my stomach twist and my heart begin to pound. I looked at Jack and told him we needed to look at her with an ultrasound. His eyes widened in fear, but he said nothing, just gently touched my arm. With tears streaming down my face, we quickly raced over to labor and delivery, meanwhile calling the charge nurse, telling her I was on my way because I couldn’t hear my daughter’s heart beat and to wheel the ultrasound machine into triage. As I walked into labor and delivery, I felt as if I was moving in slow motion but could not hurry up. I made my way to triage, lay on the gurney, and scanned with the ultrasound probe to see if I could see the rhythmic beat of her heart. Her heart was still. She was still. I continued to look, but there was no sign of life. Our daughter, just 2 weeks from her due date, had died.
I was quickly wheeled to a private room, where my doctor (and private practice partner), arrived. Usually in such circumstances, she would go over the next steps such as inducing labor, pain management, and attempting to answer the question “Why did this happen?!”. But as I knew the answers to those questions (and the answer to the main question is ‘We don’t know and may not find out’), she just sat with me and held my hand as I got prepped for the epidural. My best friend Lori, herself 30 weeks pregnant, arrived and was a comforting presence during labor, and my mom had quickly driven to the hospital to take Nicky for the night. Jack remained quiet and strong. His presence and loving supportive words buoyed me that night. I was unsure what pain was worse- the shock of what happened or the ache for what never would.
After a few hours of Pitocin, Viviana delivered after pushing with 3 contractions. She had beautiful dark hair, pink pouty lips and chubby little legs. When I was pushing I began to think that perhaps I had been overreacting and maybe she was still alive! Maybe we were all mistaken about the ultrasound and she was completely fine. I was hoping beyond hope that when she came into this world she would take a breath of air and begin crying. But after that next push she delivered, and there was silence. The doctor gently cleaned the amniotic fluid off her face, cut her cord, and wrapped her in a blanket and placed her on my chest. It was in that moment that I remembered what her name meant- “lively or full of life”. Ironically, she was born the opposite. She was born still.
Over the days, weeks and months that followed, I thought about my constant need to be in control of my life. Initially, I had even considered how I had control over her life and death. With prideful guilt, I contemplated all the ways her death had been my responsibility. Perhaps it was the past wrongs I had committed and her passing was “karma” in return, or maybe it was the lackadaisical attitude I had towards my pregnancy, assuming I would have a normal and healthy outcome. I even tried to control how I grieved. I was determined to get through it as quickly and efficiently as possible. I read as many grief books as I could find and scoured websites on how to cope and survive following the loss of an infant. However, I learned the hard way there is no speeding up grief. It is a process, one that you have to go through, and it takes a very long time. Jack and I attended a support group of couples who had experienced fetal or neonatal loss, and I was taught that we would never “get over” Viviana’s death, but learn to live without her.
Our daughter’s birth was on July 29th, 2011, a Friday. We went home later that day, exhausted from the events and the emotions we had endured. Coming home empty handed after childbirth felt surreal and unnatural. Every time I walked past her newly painted and decorated room, with a closet full of baby clothes she would never wear, I felt my heart break. I remember feeling aimless, without a sense of purpose. I don’t recall who initially recommended this next life changing step, but we decided to attend church that weekend. Since we had moved back to Seattle in 2007, Jack had been gently urging us to join a church community. I fought it. I made up excuses. I didn’t see how God fit into my life- everything was fine! How could knowing God help me? But that Sunday after Viviana died was our first time attending Highline Christian church.
At our first service there, we sat in the back row, and I cried nearly the entire sermon. At first I thought I was crying because I was heartbroken over our daughter’s death. I eventually realized I was crying because I had been pushing away what should be the most important part of my life. When I walked into the church building, I immediately felt a sense of peace. I had started a journal after Viviana passed, and I wrote “when I’m at church, I feel like someone is surrounding their arms around me in a big bear hug”. Months later I discovered this passage:
“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.” Matthew 5:2, The Message
Because of that irresistible sense of peace I felt each Sunday, we continued to attend service each week. Hearing the senior pastor’s sermons pierced and opened my heart. I learned how God truly loves us, unconditionally, regardless of our past and future mistakes. Nothing that I have done or ever will do will make Him stop loving me. I learned because of this great love, He gave us His son, Jesus, to become the ultimate sacrifice by dying on the cross. What this meant for me was that all my errors and poor choices were forgiven, and that if I believed in Him, I would be Heaven-bound after my earthly days were over, and I would see and hold by dear baby girl again. The knowledge I would see Vivi again gave me a hope nothing on this earth could ever provide.
It has now been 4 ½ years since Viviana has died. There is not one day that passes that I do not think of her. I try to imagine if she would resemble her 3 brothers, if she would be obsessed with “Frozen”, or be more of a tomboy. Her short life and death has made a permanent impact in our lives.