**This post contains heavy subject matter regarding a stillbirth.
We got the call at 6:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning. Our close friend Anna was in labor and needed to get to the hospital soon. My husband Kevin got up, dressed quickly, and headed out to the village where Anna and her husband Stephen were staying. Within minutes of Kevin’s arrival, Anna was in the back seat of our truck, accompanied by Stephen’s sister Rose (because Papua New Guinea custom grants this role to another woman rather than the husband). As Kevin sped to the hospital, it was obvious that Anna was in very active labor.
She almost gave birth in the truck. She was laboring hard when they arrived at the hospital. Kevin helped her get to the building that housed the obstetrics ward. Using his privilege as a foreigner while respecting taboos against stepping into the ward, he called out for help.
As soon as Anna was safely inside the hospital, Kevin drove home and we switched places. My trip to the hospital took less than 10 minutes. When I got to the obstetrics ward, Rose greeted me. I hadn’t seen her for over a year. It was a happy reunion. Her smile didn’t prepare me for what was coming.
She led me through the double doors into the labor and delivery area. Suddenly she turned to me and said abruptly, “The baby died.”
“What?” I said, even though I understood her words.
“The baby died,” she said again.
The labor and delivery unit was small, and the delivery spaces were tiny, separated only by half walls and plastic shower curtains. Rose pulled back a curtain. I remember that it was white with blue circles. And then I saw my friend, my sister, lying on a barely padded black slab.
“I’m so sorry,” I said to her in Tok Pisin as I stroked her head. The baby was lying wrapped in a blanket on a metal table.
“It’s a boy,” she said.
Jesus, have mercy.
Anna then explained to me that the baby had died two days earlier. She had been in the hospital the previous week for chest pains. She had been discharged Friday afternoon. She had heard the baby’s heartbeat earlier that day. He had been alive. We had taken them back to the village that afternoon and I remember asking her if the baby was moving well; she had said yes. It must have only been a few hours after we’d left them that she noticed he wasn’t kicking.
A doctor came in to examine the baby. He was wearing black flip-flops and a white lab coat. He lifted the top of the blanket; the baby’s translucent skin revealed his prematurity.
“The baby died several days ago,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
And with that, he left.
Jesus, have mercy.
I tried not to let my face display the horror I felt inside, and — truthfully ― I don’t know how well I did. I had been to the local hospital before, so I already knew it was nothing like the hospital in which I had given birth.
The floor was dirty and there were bloody fingerprints on that white shower curtain. Anna’s placenta was in a bag on the table next to the baby. There was no nurse tending to her. There was no one trying to make her more comfortable, no nurses offering words of comfort. This was almost too much for me to take in.
Anna moaned in pain and held her stomach. Her milk had come in and her shirt was stained.
I stood next to her in the corner, almost frozen, unsure of what to do. This was my first experience with death as a missionary, although more would come in the years ahead. I decided to leave and buy her some water. The American in me felt better when I was busy doing something. When I came back, I told her I would stay if she wanted me to. This was a completely new situation for me, and I didn’t know all the cultural rights and wrongs.
There was another woman laboring in the same room, only separated from us by two curtains. She was pushing hard and in a lot of pain. We had no choice but to listen to her as she fought to bring her baby into the world.
She cried out to Jesus through her pain, asking Him to help her. She cried out for the baby that would live; we cried out for the baby that did not.
Jesus, have mercy.
After Rose and I had been standing for a long time, Anna told us to go and sit. I don’t know if she wanted to be alone or if she really felt bad that we had been standing for a long time. We left the delivery area and sat on a hard bench in the waiting room.
I called Kevin. He and one of our teammates had found a small wooden box that had once carried solar panels. Now it would be buried in the ground, a final place for the baby boy to lay his head.
We sat for a while, and eventually I heard a newborn cry through the walls. The mama who had been laboring so close to Anna had done it. Her baby was here, alive, and the pain had been worth it.
Stephen arrived at the hospital later. I was again in a situation that I felt culturally incompetent to deal with. I didn’t know what to say to Stephen. I knew it would not be appropriate to hug him even though my instinct was to do so. I took him to our house to get the coffin. Kevin drove Stephen back to the hospital and then to the village. The wooden box was no longer empty.
We had prayed for this baby, and we loved him. We loved his parents and his brothers and did not want to see them in pain.
As the truck pulled away from my house, deep, guttural sobs escaped from me, tears that I had been holding in all morning. I bent over in the middle of my kitchen, unable to stand up straight anymore. At some point a teammate had come and taken my children, and I was thankful that they were not there to see my grief so raw and uninhibited.
We had prayed for this baby. We had been excited about him, and we loved him. We loved his parents and his brothers and did not want to see them in pain. I also wanted my friend to have better care, medicine to ease her pain, and a clean space to lie postpartum. I wept over all these things, confused and angry and sad; I wept over the wrongness of it all.
Jesus, have mercy.
How do you respond when your body swells for seven months, when you house new life, when you push and feel intense pain, and then the baby dies? Where is Jesus when the laboring only produces more pain?
I wish I had all the answers. I wish I knew why babies die in Papua New Guinea and America and everywhere else. I wish we could all be spared the pain of death. There are so many women, including myself, with glory babies up in Heaven, babies who never knew the pain of life on this earth, who only know the goodness of Jesus.
And maybe that is where His mercy meets us. Because the only thing I’m sure of is this: death is not final. Jesus will come back and make all things right in the end. We will return to the glory of Eden. Our King will sit on His throne in the New Earth and exclaim, “I am making everything new!” The old order of things will be done ― grief, pain, and sorrow ― all things of the past.
Shortly after the baby’s death, we celebrated Easter, the God-Man’s death on the cross ― a death He went to willingly because of the joy set before Him. It was His delight to reconcile us to God. But the grave could not hold Him, and death could not keep Him. He’s alive. He’s alive! And death has been swallowed up.
You and I can now look Death in the face and say: Where is your sting?
I remember the words of the poet John Donne:
Death, be not proud,
though some have called thee mighty and dreadful,
for thou art not so….
One short sleep past,
we wake eternally
And death shall be no more;
Death, thou shalt die.
The ache is real; that week I felt it all the way down to my bones. I felt it as I stroked Anna’s hair and as I looked upon her son. I felt it when we went out to the village a few days later for his funeral. I felt it when I looked at my own children, marveling at their existence while grieving over the dead. I feel it still, now seven years later.
But I hold fast to the truth that is Jesus: The Death-Conqueror, the Risen One. And in that truth, I find His mercy.
Anna, Stephen, and Rose are pseudonyms.