Our tiny, beautiful, Lilly

by Suzanne Wunnenberg

Each of us has special occasions in our lives, once-in-a-lifetime moments that we cherish. Some change the course of our lives – or the direction of our hearts – forever. For one it may be graduation day, a wedding, or achieving a particular goal one has set. For another it might be an especially memorable birthday, a personal achievement, or the birth of a child.  While my husband Bill and I have recollections of many such joyous moments, there have also been some heartaches along the way. Specifically, we have faced two occasions of seemingly unbearable sadness. These were the days when we lost our children, as well as the dreams we had for our lives with them.

I’ll begin our story shortly after my husband and I were married in November 1994.  At that time in our lives, we were best described as young, in love, happy – and naïve. Ours was a fairytale wedding.  I had no doubt that our lives would follow the same story line through to a happy ever after ending. We were the happy couple who would make a happy family.  From my youthful perspective, I thought God was only there for my protection and to grant me my wishes. Neither Bill nor I had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. We had no idea how much we were missing or how drastically our lives were about to change.

We decided it was time to start our family. Full of excitement, we believed that building a family would be a smooth endeavor simply because it was something we wanted.  Like most couples, we began the process with a careful examination of our resources, our living and working conditions, and our priorities. Is this a good location to raise a family? Could we afford for me to be a stay-at-home mom? Then there was the question of church. In my childhood home, God did not exist – except as an expletive. And while my husband went to church as a youth, it was more of a social obligation – “something you do.” But as we talked together we agreed that church could be important in building a child’s moral character. When we decided to start going to church, we visited the church of the pastor who married us.  We had no idea how God would use this church to minister to us over the years.

Then came the first bump in our road to a blissful life.  When months passed without conceiving, we became increasingly concerned.  By the time two years of disappointment had passed, using temperature flow charts and ovulation predictors, we convinced our OB/GYN we needed further medical evaluation.

Those days of waiting to become pregnant were long and dark, filled with loneliness and isolation. Bill and I chose not to share our infertility struggles with others because of its personal nature.  There were indescribable feelings of hurt and sadness as we watched so many of our friends growing their families and experiencing the joys of parenthood while we remained childless. On a daily basis we endured the inevitable questions from others about when we were going to have a baby.

But God was at work in our lives. Although our family was not expanding, God was drawing us to Himself. Occasional visits to our church quickly turned into regular attendance as we heard solid Bible teaching for the first time and began developing meaningful relationships within our church body.  It was there that we came to understand the truth that we were sinners and that Christ was more than a man who wanted us to be “good.”  He is God who became a man to die in the sinner’s place so He could save them from their sin. Together Bill and I committed our lives to Christ and became Christians. In the months to come we would learn, first-hand, about the person and character of God.

Our newfound faith was immediately tested by the frustration we felt as we continued trying to have a baby. Our fertility tests offered no explanation for our inability to conceive. Fertility drugs were introduced. Months later our attempts were still unsuccessful. What did God want us to do? At that time we began to actively pursue adoption. Our plan was to adopt a baby girl from China so we began the task of completing the necessary paperwork. Once the application process was finished, Bill and I paused to seek God and His will for us. After prayer, we both believed we should wait until the end of the summer before moving forward. We wanted some time to prepare for our life change. In addition, we had yet to talk with our families about our struggle with infertility, not to mention the addition of a Chinese daughter.

Surprise! Later that same month we discovered we were pregnant! We were overcome with joy the moment the home test showed the “plus” sign.  Suddenly our gloomy perspectives turned sunny. It seemed the skies were never bluer, nor the future brighter. Looking back, we recall a feeling of tremendous peace and happiness. I’m told I beamed. Now, I thought I understood God. He had demonstrated our need for Him as He took us through the suffering of infertility; but now, surely, He would restore us to our fairytale life.

In fact, my early pregnancy was all I had dreamed it would be and more. I felt great both physically and emotionally. Our days were filled with daydreams of our new baby and our new life together. Plans for the nursery were coming together, and we began talking about possible names for the baby. It was euphoric for me, knowing that the baby was growing inside me.  Bill happily shared all of this experience with me. He was one of those fathers who bonds with the baby immediately.  He loved to talk to our baby, telling her about how it would be when we were together at last.

Then came the day that changed everything.  I was five and half months pregnant.  That day I awoke with an uncomfortable backache and a small amount of spotting. It was Saturday and I had plans to go shopping for nursery furniture with a friend. Instead, I was on the phone with my OB, who sent me to the hospital since he wasn’t in his office. He insisted that the trip to the hospital was just to “reassure” me that everything was okay.

Tears were shed and prayers offered up as we made the drive to the hospital. Once I was examined, we were shocked to learn that I was already dilated and in premature labor. By afternoon, I had been transported to another hospital so doctors could perform a surgery to save my pregnancy and my baby. Within hours there was no hope. We were told that my pregnancy could not be saved and that our baby would not survive the premature birth. I just couldn’t take it in. My baby would not live?  My baby, who I can feel moving in my swollen belly? Our perfect healthy baby?  Like a mama, I guarded my belly with my own protective hands.  Bill and I spent that night weeping, sharing one last night with our baby.

Meanwhile my symptoms worsened. I become very ill. Along with uncontrollable vomiting and shaking, I experienced a dangerous drop in my blood pressure. At our point of need, God demonstrated His faithfulness to us. That night He sent a very special nurse to be with me and hold my hand through my harrowing ordeal. As we retell our story, we are reminded of so many ways that God revealed He was with us; He showed us His care and reassured us that He was working for our good (Romans 8:28).

The next morning our sweet precious baby girl was born – our tiny, beautiful, Lilly. God was near us as we sat with Lilly in our arms for a few precious hours before her death. In the midst of tragedy, God showered us with His comfort. As my health was restored so was my vision – my spiritual vision. I began to understand that God wasn’t working off of my agenda. He was asking us to follow Him in full confidence of who He had revealed Himself to be: the ever-faithful Shepherd.

I would return to this lesson again and again in the days following Lilly’s death. “God’s plan is perfect.” I had learned this as a new believer, but now I wavered in my faith. I saw nothing “perfect” about the loss of my child. “God is love.” I could not see God’s love in the pain of my daughter’s death. Even though I knew this was God’s plan for us, I felt angry as grief set in. In God’s kindness, He arranged a special meeting – and special friendships – that would bring me encouragement and restoration at just the right times.

Weeks before Lilly’s death, a friend of mine met Craig and Sandy Day at a bed and breakfast in Charleston, SC. Sandy told her about the work of Caleb Ministries. In my time of need, my dear friend contacted Sandy to talk with her about my circumstances. I received a note from Sandy, along with a precious P.A.T. box.  (The box contained a burial gown, bonnet, blanket, an envelope for the baby’s hair, a helpful brochure, and a copy of the book, Morning Will Come.)  I found myself clinging to every word of that book as I looked for answers and searched for God’s comfort. That book became my constant companion. Later, I accepted Sandy’s invitation to attend a Caleb Ministries Women’s Retreat where I ended up rooming with Sandy.  During that weekend, I built some lifelong friendships and learned more about God’s character and purposes.

We eventually came to understand the condition that caused us to lose Lilly. My diagnosis of an “incompetent cervix” resulted in my premature labor in the second trimester. Unfortunately, this condition can not be diagnosed until it is too late. Once a diagnosis is made, however, there is a procedure called cerclage – a kind of sewing together of the cervix.  With that procedure, we were given a 90 percent success rate for achieving a normal full term pregnancy. We would be ready next time.

In God’s perfect timing, I was pregnant again in Spring 2001. Again, tremendous joy and excitement accompanied this pregnancy. Our doctors assured us that the uncomplicated surgery would enable us to finally have a child to love. While we were hopeful – we also remained prayerful.

There were difficulties from the outset. No heartbeat was detected at the first visit to the OB. We were told to check back in a few days. But during those early weeks I experienced vaginal bleeding and an ovarian cyst was discovered. There was nothing carefree about my pregnancy this time around. Everyday began with prayers for the survival of our second child.

After 12 weeks, I had the surgery that would keep my cervix closed for the remainder of my pregnancy.  Doctors ordered bed rest for the first two to three days of recovery.  Even before my first post op check up, I began to feel cramping and scheduled a doctor visit. Then just two weeks after my surgery, doctors reported that my cervix was already shortening – an ominous sign. The “simple surgery” that we thought would ensure a safe delivery had failed. There was nothing more the doctors could do. We were sent home that day to await the inevitable miscarriage of our perfectly healthy baby because my cervix was opening.

Even from the bed that became my new “home,” I believed that God was moving on our behalf. Bill and I kept up our earnest prayer to God for wisdom and guidance. At each weekly check-up, doctors were amazed that the baby was healthy and continued to grow. In their words, our baby was hanging on by “three threads.”  While our doctors insisted that there would not be a happy ending for us, we felt an increasing excitement and assurance that God was holding our baby in place. We cooed and giggled at each weekly ultrasound meeting with the newest member of our family. Before each visit, Bill and I faithfully prayed not only for our baby but also for the doctors. We knew they needed to see God at work too.

With the help from family, friends, and our church family, I “stayed put,” giving the baby every possible day to grow in the womb. God gave us many precious memories during this time. It was encouraging to learn of the many who prayed so faithfully for our family.  I was comforted again and again by a friendship that had developed while on the Caleb Ministries Women’s Retreat. Through the shared experience of miscarriage, Lisa and I developed a precious bond of friendship. The Lord further blessed Lisa and I by timing our pregnancies together. We both knew the Lord, we both knew the loss of our babies, and we both knew the joy of expecting again.  Her phone calls took me from self-pity to lightheartedness – even laughter! Only God knew how meaningful this “chance” friendship would become over time.

At my twenty-eighth week of pregnancy, our second daughter was born – our little, beautiful, Faith.  God’s grace allowed her to survive a very difficult pregnancy.  Her month long stay in the neonatal intensive care was an occasion to demonstrate God’s goodness to others. Her little three and one half pound body did not succumb to the many challenges experienced by so many preemies. Miraculously she had an uneventful hospital stay. And again, God showed His perfect plan by orchestrating a very special homecoming. Faith came home on Christmas Eve, which was also the due date set for Lilly, our first daughter.

By Spring 2002, I was pregnant again – and without fertility drugs! Wow!  But some anxiety accompanied our good news. Our daughter Faith was only five months old. How would I care for an infant while on bed rest? Also we were anticipating a move from New Jersey to California at the time. How would I be able to help? Could I arrange an acceptable transition in medical care, including the surgery I would need shortly after our move? But Bill’s elation was contagious. It wasn’t long before we were planning our life – with two children. It was more than we could have hoped. Our enthusiasm and our resolve to succeed remained steadfast. God had gifted us with this baby.

Our prayers for excellent medical care were answered in a wonderful, competent physician in California. Unlike our previous doctors who refused to believe Faith had a chance, this doctor was positive and encouraging. She always referred to our baby as a “baby” – not “an embryo.” She delighted in showing 6-month old Faith her sibling on the ultrasound. Not only were we planning my surgery, but the rest of our lives.

Then came another one of those days that changed our course. Everything had gone smoothly until one week prior to my surgery. We were almost there. I can clearly recall how it all began. It was early evening as we prepared for dinner.  My four-year-old niece called from New Jersey.  She was telling me about plans for her upcoming birthday party. In the midst of our conversation about birthdays and baby names, my laughter turned to horror. I felt a rush of fluid. Immediately I knew something was wrong. I reached down and my hands filled with bright red blood.

Blood poured from me as I ran to the bathroom. It would not stop. I knew my baby was leaving my body, along with my dreams. Those same hands that protected the swollen belly of my first daughter were trying to do the same now.  But there was nothing I could do. Paramedics transported me to the Emergency Room unsure of how to tell me I was losing my baby.  In fact, no one – including the ER doctor – ever mentioned a “baby” at all. I only heard terms such as “spontaneous abortion” and “hemorrhaging.” Why couldn’t they understand that from the moment the pregnancy test returned positive, we began loving a BABY? Though medically correct, my treatment was cold and uncompassionate.

Upon awaking from my emergency DNC, I questioned the doctor about our baby’s gender. Again our child was referred to as a “tissue matter.” To him it was a mute point. I left that hospital in the dawn hours bruised and broken with nothing but a single piece of paper listing services provided. There was no word about my baby. I wondered then, as I often do now, how some medical personnel can be sympathetic at the loss of a birthed child, as they had been with Lilly, only to ignore a life extinguished in the womb. Life is life no matter how long it continues – or where it ends (Psalm 139:13-16).

The lessons we had learned prior were not lost with this last miscarriage. Bill and I left the hospital knowing that God’s love is greater than our understanding and His plan for us is more glorious than our imagination. While we were young believers knowing only a few Scriptures when we started this journey, God demonstrated His character to us first-hand. We witnessed His faithfulness, His kindness, His providence, and His wisdom. Our experiences reflect the truth of Scripture and we look forward to a lifetime of sharing these truths with our daughter. We look forward to an eternity of singing His praises in Heaven, when our whole family is reunited at last.

Dear friend, if you are reading this story with a heart burdened with the pain and sadness of the loss of a child, I pray for you. My prayer is that you would allow God to work in your life as He has mine. I have been at that place of wondering how God could ever move me forward from my aching despair. But He did. He comforts and heals us. That’s His promise – and we can trust the Good Shepherd.

“For the Lamb in the center of the throne shall be their shepherd,
and shall guide them to springs of the water of life;
and God shall wipe every tear from their eyes.”  Revelation 7:17