I thought I’d flesh out the story that was published on Katie Reid’s blog last week called Fear and Doorknobs. Maybe you read it! I introduced it here on my blog with the title Peace and Grace and a little teaser piece. The theme of the blog post series is listening to the Voice of God, and I shared about the way God spoke to me in and around the death of a baby in my care.
Nan and Dell were a very young, very newly married Amish couple living some thirty miles south of Battle Creek. They’d just purchased a house, a repo in frightening condition, and they were working with the awe-inspiring energy of love and vision and youth to transform it into a home fit for a family, as well as into the site of a little cottage industry.
Nan and Dell’s approach to life overflowed with an infectious joy, an abundance of laughter, and an almost insatiable curiosity, and so our times together were always fun, and always ran long. As we neared the birth of Nan and Dell’s firstborn, an irregularity presented itself within her pregnancy, but the irregularity was yet within the range of normal, and, upon inspection, it appeared to be on the favorable end of the spectrum. Over the course of several visits, we reviewed the risks embedded within the irregularity together. Nan and Dell spent those weeks in consideration, while I spent them monitoring, assessing, and consulting. When Nan and Dell decided they still wanted to birth their baby at home, I agreed to attend them.
On a midsummer’s Saturday evening, Nan called to say she was in labor, and we – my two apprentices, Hannah and Luanne, and I – made our way to her. We found her laboring well upon our arrival, and her labor moved along from there with swift perfection, easing my mind at every nearly effortless shift in phase and stage. As Nan’s labor swelled ever steadily toward its climax, the inimitable magic that fills rooms just ahead of glorious new lives began to flow as well.
And then, at the very crest of culmination, everything changed. Nan’s uterus, without warning and without explanation, ceased its efforts, and Nan and I were left to work without it to accomplish the birth of her partially born daughter. The child was born at thirty minutes to midnight, and I set immediately to work on her while Luanne called for emergency services and Hannah tended to Nan. I worked on the baby, as I wrote on Katie’s blog, “with every last shred of knowledge and skill,” for every last second of fifty-nine minutes. Nan and Dell called to her as I worked, stroking her motionless arms and her legs. A First Responder arrived and, with a only glance at one another, we understood I ought to keep on with my work. The man sat crouched beside me through the next hour, holding a light and offering encouragements. Emergency Services arrived next and, as with the First Responder, it was determined immediately and without words that I would continue providing the resuscitative efforts. While I worked, the medics attached a monitoring system that connected the baby with a doctor at the nearest hospital, and, though I felt the baby ease away long before the doctor declared her departed, I worked and worked and worked and worked until he made the call at twenty-nine minutes after midnight.
I was filled with such an incredible, such an indescribable sorrow and sense of responsibility over the loss of that priceless baby, and for the way her loss affected everyone – from Nan and Dell and their family, to every person who responded to our cry for help, to the greater community. Every single person felt like an innocent victim of my failure to save her, and, without giving it much cognitive thought, I spent all of my energies through the rest of that night, through the rest of that week, and through the months following tending to those touched by the loss of her. The moment the doctor called off the resuscitation, I gathered the baby up into a blanket, crossed the room, crawled over the bed, and laid her in Nan’s arms as I told Nan and Dell how sorry I was. I climbed from the bed then and apologized to each of the medics and the First Responder as I thanked them for their help. I hugged Luanne and Hannah and apologized to them as I thanked them for their help. A deputy sheriff arrived to take a report, and, when it was time for him to leave, I thanked him and apologized. The director of a funeral home arrived, and I apologized to him when he finished his work and turned to go. When Dell’s parents arrived from a few roads over, I apologized to them as I ushered them in to Nan and Dell’s bedroom, and I did the same with Dell’s brother and his wife, and with Nan’s parents when they arrived.
I visited Nan and Dell every day through the week after. The funeral for Kate Day, as the baby was named, was held in the living space just outside the bedroom where she’d been born on a sweltering summer forenoon. Hannah and I sat on a rearmost wooden bench, listening without comprehension to the lengthy German service until it was time to load the tiny coffin and several too many family members into my van for the drive to the graveyard, where another lengthy German service was conducted. I spent the hour afterward in the shade of the graveyard’s outhouse with a group of my pregnant clients, hugging each of them in turn as they cried and cried and cried, and I spent every visit at every home in that community for weeks on end hugging and soothing and explaining and assuring and reassuring the best I could. And I wrote letters of apologies and thanks to the kindhearted folks who’d come to our aid that dark night as well, as I just felt so awful that they’d had to suffer the loss of that baby, too.
I paid Nan and Dell weekly visits for months. I’ll never forget how both honored and ill I felt when they told me they’d have me again in a heartbeat, even if that irregularity appeared again in a future pregnancy. The birth was reviewed twice among my peers, once in a group of nearly thirty, and I was exonerated. Phone calls and cards and letters of sympathy and support poured in from the families within the community. Even the county sheriff sent me a letter, “Kim, as the sheriff of this county, I don’t always hear about the nights when little ones are lost. I know from experience that it happens, and that the good people who try to help suffer as much as anyone. Your letter touched my heart in so many ways… your job isn’t a job for the weak or a job for the strong, it’s for the one who cares to learn and to stay with it as you have. And when you’ve done all you can, it’s up to God. Thank you so much for what you do for our citizens.”
As the family healed, as my apprentices healed, as my clients birthed their babies and healed, as the community healed, I began to heal as well. Losing that beautiful baby, having her slide right out from under my fingertips and lips, is the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced in all of my life. As I wrote for Katie, “it’s impossible to describe what it’s like to hold a nascent soul in your hands as it crosses from earth to heaven – to cradle that soul as you work with every last shred of knowledge and skill to infuse it with life, only for it to hover on the brink, teeter, and slip away.” A line from my journal reads, “I can scarcely say how it felt to realize in that interminable hour following Kate Day’s birth, that I was her best chance at life, especially as it became ever clearer how futile my attempts to help her were.” It was heart wrenching to lose my husband, but to have lost, to have failed that little life and her desperate family generated a grief of unfathomable depths.
But loss is a part of a midwife’s work, just as it’s a part of life. Fortunately for all of us, the losses are usually few and far between, but long before the birth and death of Kate Day, I’d had to come to terms with the probability of loss and the reality of my limitations. I’d had to decide in my time of peace what I had to decide anew in the wake of calamity – whether the plentiful joyous victories were or would be worth those occasional crushing defeats.
As I shared on Katie’s blog – one year and two days after the birth, one year and one day after the death of her older sister – through a tumult of emotion, within an incredible display of the mercies of God, in the same room, in the same house, Nan and Dell birthed “a lively, thriving baby girl.” She was born entirely in her water sack as her mother sat upon the birthing stool. Her father received her in his work-worn hands, laid her upon the pads between Nan’s feet, and broke and peeled away the membranes covering her face, and, Grace, for so she was aptly named, set the air ringing with her lifesong. Dell lifted Grace into Nan’s outstretched arms, then scooped Nan and Grace from the stool, and laid them upon the bed.
Two and a half years later, with little Grace perched upon my hip, in the same house, in the same room, on the same stool, I watched as Hannah helped Nan and Dell receive a third vibrant daughter into the light, whom they named a name that means Peace.
As ever, the names of mom, dad, and babies are changed, except Grace’s name really is Grace ♥
Cover photo from istock
All other photos taken by Kim Woodard Osterholzer
Thank you so much for the gift of your time!
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Kim Woodard Osterholzer, Colorado Springs Homebirth Midwife and Author
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Here’s a lovely article about another grieving woman and her grieving midwife, and the way they worked through their grief together.