When I posted a page for CrossHeart Ministries, I surprised a few of my friends. They didn’t know that I am actually the mother of four children. Martha, my third child, was stillborn. I thought it might be appropriate to share my experience. The feelings I will share are very deep and tender, so be prepared.
Before I share my experiences, I think I should explain a few LDS beliefs as I understand them. It will help you understand our story.
- We believe that our individual existence began long before our mortal birth, that every person existed in spirit with Heavenly Father before the creation of the earth.
- Birth and death are two of the most sacred events of life.
- Sometimes, the distance between the spiritual world and the mortal world are so close that they seem to interconnect.
O.k., that’s the study guide version. If you’d like a better overview of LDS (Mormon) beliefs, try Mormon.org.
I became pregnant with Martha soon after my second daughter was born. Although I was excited about adding another member to our family, I felt very nervous about having three children so close together. My oldest was only 22 months ahead of her sister, and Martha would be about 16 months behind. I was in for quite the adventure!
There were no indications during my prenatal exams that anything was wrong with the pregnancy, so I went in for a routine ultrasound at 10-15 weeks. Ultrasounds are trying for any pregnant woman — you get to drink a lot of water and NOT go to the bathroom, while there is the added pressure of a tiny baby learning to dance on your bladder. Generally, the ultrasounds went quickly and were fun. The techs showed me where the baby was sucking a thumb, or let me see tiny feet or the heart beating. This time, the tech was talkative in the beginning, but she got more and more quiet as the exam proceeded. Then, she left the room and didn’t come back for a long time. I laid there on the table worrying that I was going to make a puddle and wondering why things were so weird this time.
Finally, a doctor came in and explained. My child had a cleft palate and some other abnormalities. Fine. She also had a hole in the base of her skull, so a large portion of her brain was growing outside of the protective bone. There was little hope that she would survive to term, and even less that she could survive childbirth. My world began to spin as I sat there, alone, trying to digest the news. Eventually, I was able to go to the bathroom and get dressed, and then I called my (former) husband.
A few weeks later, we were in another doctor’s office on Valentine’s day. After drawing some of the amniotic fluid from my uterus, the doctor brought us into his office for a consultation. I am not sure if we received the full news then, or if we had to wait for the full diagnosis. All I remember is the “A”-word: abortion. I had no idea what was in store for me and my child, but killing her was absolutely out of the question.
Eventually, we learned that what was originally thought to be Trisomy 18 was a ringed chromosome in the 18th pair. Instead of having an extra chromosome, Martha was missing half of one. The piece that she did have had formed into a ring.
Church turned out to be the hardest part of my ordeal. At home, I could focus on my two beautiful daughters and my resolve to care for my third daughter, come what may. I refused to consider that she wouldn’t survive. I would work hard and pray her here. I had plenty to keep me focused and positive. At church, however, we had a lot of friends who were also in their prime childbearing years. Word about Martha spread quickly, and suddenly my friends were struggling to talk to me in the hallways. We would gather when our children were noisy during sacrament meeting (LDS worship service) and spend time catching up on the past week. The conversations started fading when I walked up.
I don’t think anyone meant to hurt my feelings or make me feel like an outcast. I think it was a combination of things. What do you say to a woman who is carrying a baby with a death sentence hanging over her head? Does she need to talk about it all the time? (No. I just wanted to talk about normal things, like diapers and formula and staying up half the night with a fussy kid.) I think I also was a living, breathing embodiment of every mother’s worst fear.
Whatever the reason, church became a very lonely place for me.
The Spiritual Realm
For each of my children, I often felt their unborn spirit near me during the pregnancy. They would visit me during quiet moments, like when I would be studying my scriptures or just sitting and thinking. It was like they were introducing themselves to me. As they were born, I knew them, and I knew a little about their personalities. Those impressions have proven to be true as my children have grown.
Martha was different. She visited much more frequently than her siblings had. Her presence was stronger. There were even a few times that I thought I saw a little girl, dressed in white, in the room with me. I would turn my head, and there would be no one there. When Martha “visited,” I would feel warm. I felt pure, unconditional love in a way that I had never experienced before. It was like she knew these moments would be the only times we would have together, and she wanted me to know that she loved me as much as I loved her.
I carried Martha almost to term, and I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing the moment she died. There was nothing that any medical professional could or would do to stop the normal processes of the pregnancy, so eventually Martha turned for childbirth, and the Braxton-Hicks contractions began. I was doing laundry when I felt her kick, but the kicks were convulsive and violent. Martha never moved again.
It was years before I ever confessed to anyone that I felt like I killed my child. My body had the contractions that pressed her brain onto my pelvic floor and caused her death. I was devastated. I felt like my body had betrayed my heart and my daughter.
I agonized for a long time before accepting that it was all out of my hands. Only then could I let go of the self-hatred. I acceptyed that my body had been doing exactly what it was supposed to do. I learned that Martha’s passing was God’s will, and was actually a tender mercy for me. Had I been asked to care for a child as delicate and severely handicapped as Martha would have been, I would have crumbled under the physical, mental and emotion pressures of divorcing my husband a couple of years later.
In the Hospital
Three days later, I checked into the maternity wing of the local hospital. I think the nurses were more upset than I was — I had accepted that my daughter was gone. The staff put a special sign outside my door as an alert to the stillbirth. Unfortunately, that meant the nurses who came into my room to check on me were often uncomfortable and jumpy. I felt like I had to comfort them. I suppose I didn’t exactly fit what they expected when they started working in maternity.
For some reason, my I.V. drip was turned up high. I was getting a large, fast dose of the medicines used to induce labor. The meds caused my blood pressure to suddenly drop, and a bunch of nurses came running into the room. The foot of my bed was elevated so high that I think I did my first and only headstand in my life.
When I started labor, Martha came quickly. In fact, she came so quickly that there was no doctor when she arrived. We called for a nurse, but she couldn’t do the delivery and left to find the doctor. Martha completed birth while she was out, and was left lying on the table for what seemed like an eternity before the doctor came and made his official pronouncement. (Although I can see the wisdom of his priorities now, being told that he had been busy somewhere else didn’t help at the time.)
Finally, the nurses were able to pick Martha up, wrap her, and let me hold her. As I held her quiet, still body, I gazed down into her face. Cleft palate and all, she was beautiful. It was the first and last time I held her.
I was released from the hospital after 24 hours, and Martha was released to the funeral home. My (former) husband decided to handle all of the details, and I was “protected” and out of the loop. I remember asking him to watch our two daughters so that I could go to the funeral home and see her one more time. He refused, telling me it would be too traumatic.
We held a small, graveside service for Martha, and a family friend spoke. We said goodbye, and then it was over. I was very grateful for the friends and family who attended her funeral — I needed their support more than I had realized. I felt Heavenly Father’s love through their tender concern.
Letting go of Martha was hard — I had put all of my hopes and dreams into successfully bringing her into mortality. Since showers were my alone time, I would stand in the running water and sob with pain of her loss. It took time to learn that I hadn’t failed her or God — I had been part of His plan. Time and the influence of the Holy Spirit eventually filled the holes left in my heart.
I learned a lot from those short months with Martha. I learned how pure and beautiful our children are when heaven sends them to us. I learned about the depth and strength of the love children hold in their hearts. I learned that Heavenly Father really does provide a way for us to make it through the hard times. I’ve learned that God uses those hard times to make us better and stronger than we could have been otherwise.
From my experiences, I learned how to be sensitive to the feelings and needs of others who are experiencing loss. I learned to listen and let them lead the conversations. I’ve learned that sometimes, you don’t need to say anything — you just need to be there and be willing to hear them out. I’ve learned to be patient with people who want to help, but are afraid because they feel so awkward that they worry they will make things worse. I’ve learned to honor those who try to help.
In the end, my experiences with Martha deepened my faith and drew me closer to my Savior.
Martha was the beginning of the end of my marriage. My (former) husband seemed to begin to dissolve psychologically. We tried to hold it together, and even had a son. It wasn’t enough, though. The marriage and my (former) husband’s behavior became so unbearable that I walked out when my son was about 10 weeks old.
Sometime in the first couple of years after we separated, my children returned from a visit to their father’s home telling me that I had forgotten about Martha. They were very distressed. As the story unfolded, I learned that my ex-husband had taken my children (about 6, 4, and 1 1/2) to Martha’s grave site to grieve over a sister they didn’t know existed. He then construed my silence to them as having forgotten. Apparently, he had no idea of the concept of waiting until they were old enough to be mentally and emotionally ready for the story.
The damage was done, and there was nothing I could do. I didn’t spend much time explaining to the kids that I was waiting until they were old enough to understand — they didn’t want to hear it. I learned to get over my anger and just do what I, as a mother do best: pick up the pieces and move on.
I’ve learned that’s what mothers tend to do. We pick up the pieces, we move on. But, we NEVER forget.
I love you, Martha.