Last week my newest niece, Tessa Alene Fox, was buried. I never saw her alive. Neither did anyone else in my family, nor did her parents, though they got to know her, at least little bit, during the nine months she grew inside my sister-in-law’s body. One afternoon, only days before Tessa’s due date, she stopped moving; by the following morning, their doctor confirmed their fears: Tessa was dead. My sister-in-law was induced, and gave birth to her child’s lifeless body without complications later that day. The umbilical cord was wrapped around Tessa’s neck not once, not twice, but four times. It was so tight that the doctor couldn’t unwrap it, but rather had to cut it off.
Miscarriages are common. There are relatively few women with children who haven’t experienced at least one at some point along the way, whether they realize it or not: often a fertilized egg fails to implant itself in the womb properly, or something else goes wrong in those early weeks and months, and the body spontaneously aborts the baby. This is often a tragic event, especially if the child has long been hoped for. But it is also a frequently unfelt event, in the physical sense, only realized after-the-fact. Thus are miscarriages usually endured privately, and the misfortune overcome without many, or any, lingering traces of what might have been. Not to speak lightly of anyone’s pain, but a three week old embryo, or a three-month old fetus, is unlikely to have become the focus of especially deep physical or emotional ties to its mother, much less its father. Or, at least, such has been my observation.
Stillbirths are another matter. There are definitely traces left behind in such cases. A body for one. Perhaps a crib. Baby shower gifts. Names chosen. Plans made. Dreams.
For reasons which my brother and his wife are now certain were given to them by a loving God in preparation for their loss, Tessa’s long-anticipated arrival was characterized by a great and playful inclusiveness. They treated the growing baby as an already-arrived member of the family. They hung up a Christmas stocking for her. They sang to her, and encouraged their other children (ages 6, 4 and 2) to talk to her, and imagine her participation in their family activities and games. She was very real to them all. And now, for the duration of mortality, that is all the reality they will have, and they are grateful for it.
But they have something else as well: consolation. The fate of a stillborn soul is hardly a new puzzle in the history of Christianity, with its doctrines of the resurrection and everlasting life. Our own faith adds some additional wrinkles to the problem: our teachings about the pre-existence, and our doctrines (some official, some folk, some a mixture of both) about each soul’s pre-mortal and eternal assignment to and association with a specific family unit, a “sociality” or “order” that was planned before, may be ratified in this life (or the next) through temple sealings, and which in the eternities perhaps not even sin itself can sunder (it depends on who you ask). There are no revelations which definitively iron out all these wrinkles, and so there is plenty of room for confusion. But a creative family, one which trusts that God would have made things clear if He so chose, can just as legitimately take shelter in the shadow of some of those wrinkles, and find solace. My brother and sister-in-law are not the first to do so, and certainly not the most prominent: Brigham Young, Joseph Fielding Smith, and Bruce R. McConkie are among those prophets and apostles who have, at different points, expressed their opinion that stillborn children are “all right”; that “the eternal spirit enters the body prior to a normal birth, and therefore that stillborn children will be resurrected”; and not just resurrected, but will at some later point “belong to us.”
When I say that my brother and sister-in-law are creative, I must not be understood to mean that I think they are inventing ways to diminish their pain. I don’t have such a reductive opinion of my and their religion, and would never be so condescending in any case. Their creativity comes in their application of teachings and counsel and words of relief which our own teachings make available to us. Consolation is also interpretation; many are the men and women who refuse peace of mind, who strand themselves in the hot desert of doubt, because they cannot see fit to put themselves in the cool shade of doctrine (or at least some doctrines, if not all of them). The teachings are there; they are a gift. Not to deny the reality of existential crises (I have them constantly), but that’s only part of any story of suffering. If we truly want consolation, we have to take it, and recognize that the tragedies of life do not always or only invite stoicism, but also a change, a response, an embrace.
My father spoke at Tessa’s funeral, and put it rightly:
We see “through a glass darkly” and know only dimly that which Heavenly Father sees clearly. Our lot is to live by faith, not by sight. It is ours to take one step forward, one step at a time with our goal to one day join those who have gone before. One thing we do know is that Tessa will one day be clothed with a celestial body, and that she will join the hosts of that kingdom. Thus the question must be, will we live our lives that we may also enjoy her company?…[Her parents and siblings] will return to this holy plot from time to time, and remember only dimly in the years ahead what happen to cause such a departing, but each visit will cause them to recommit themselves to a celestial lifestyle, one that will allow them the privilege of one day enjoying her company.
In their prayers and mourning–which I know about only from a great distance, second-hard–Tessa’s mother and father have already taken their first steps. They gave her the middle name “Alene,” which is my sister-in-law’s mother’s name, who passed away years ago at too-young an age. Tessa is buried beside this grandmother whom she never knew, but now knows; of this my brother and his wife are certain. “She was the first one to greet Tessa on the other side,” my brother told me some days later, his voice over the telephone wires sounding hoarse and weak from tears. Tears of grief, yes, but also confidence. It is with confidence that her name has been entered into our family records, and her birthday listed alongside those of all the other grandchildren (she is number #30). They have taken the doctrines into their heart, and found truth and comfort in them; that is as we all ought to do, and it is good enough for me.