One day. One day is how long we got to spend with our daughter Portia, holding her in our arms and memorizing her features.
Stillborn, she was already gone. We simply held her lifeless shell and offered the love we wished we could have give her in person. That surreal day, we soaked up as much as we could of the experience, knowing we would not have another.
Because we couldn’t hold onto our daughter forever, we had one day to decide how we were going to answer these questions:
How do you celebrate the life of a child who is not destined to live outside the womb?
How do you welcome a child who dies before birth?
If a life is limited to pregnancy, does it even count?
How do you make memories with a child who will never experience life beyond the womb?
The only time we had with Portia alive was the months she spent growing in my uterus. Knowing that was all we were going to have, we chose to cherish each moment as best we could with her.
Portia’s story did not end with her stillbirth, however. Her life continued to touch ours all that day, as well as afterward. Looking back, even the day of her birth is wrapped in warmth and comfort.
Remembering the Day of Portia’s Birth
How do you celebrate the life of a child you never got to know? Focusing on death would taint the beauty of birth. Shunning our baby’s lifeless body would dishonor the short, unseen, but precious life God had given her in-utero. Ceasing to love when breath was gone would rob us of our chance to parent the child we had prayed for.
Though her spirit was not present, we had to go through the rituals of what we would have done with and for her had she been alive—holding, caressing, dressing, naming, memorizing every feature, sharing with family, noticing the day…
Because we soon had to release her body from our possession and protection, we felt even more urgency to be fully present than if she had been born alive and healthy. This day would be our only chance for us to make memories with Portia outside my womb.
The day before Portia came, I had gone to a friend’s home, and then to my prenatal appointment. There I heard Portia’s heartbeat. She was still alive and kicking.
That night I again began having irregular contractions, like I had off and on for the past couple weeks. About 2 am, I awoke with persistent contractions. I moved to the living room couch so I wouldn’t disturb my husband. Wide awake, I checked the time and started to count each contraction. By 3 am, I had had five contractions, so I woke Matt and then nervously called my midwife. As I expected, she told me to rest but let her know when contractions got closer together. By 4 am they were coming in quick succession. I called her again. She said she would be on her way, and I hung up. Immediately I had to send a follow-up text saying my water had broken. (What a relief I had just moved back to the bed!)
Things went faster and harder after that, turning into a blur. Expecting my first real labor to go slowly, I didn’t even recognize the stages of labor I was quickly progressing through. (My first pregnancy ended with a C-section.) I was just trying to focus and survive.
I think I was in the bathroom when the midwife arrived. Matt had brought me a drink but I had to ask him to hold it. My hands were shaky. I moved to the bed and tried to breathe through each contraction and rest on my pillow in between. Wow this hurts. This is intense! I thought. As soon as the midwife and her assistants had the birthing pool filled, Matt helped me from the bed to the living room now occupied by the birthing pool. Limping past the dining room in only a bra and a towel, I hardly cared that my mother-in-law was sitting there. Stepping into the warm, soothing water instantly cut my pain in half (or at least by a third). I continued to labor as the pain and pressure increased and abated, increased and abated.
Yet these memories of pain are wrapped in warmth. From the warm water in the birthing pool, to the calm stillness of our lamp-lit living room, to Matt by my side with his hand on my back, to my three, calm birth support women in the background, to the knowledge my mother-in-law would be there before our daughter awoke, Portia’s entrance, though painful, was warm and peaceful.
Grandma to the Rescue
Matt’s mother had come around 5 am to be there when our daughter awoke. She sat quietly at the dining room table, waiting. When our little girl got up for school, Matt’s mother contained her in her bedroom and helped her dress. Skipping toothbrushing in the bathroom just this once, she expertly slipped her through the kitchen, out the door, and off to school before she could ask too many questions. (Anyone who knows our little girl knows how hard it is to reign in her curiosity!)
Shortly afterward, one last (harder, longer) push brought Portia gushing into the pool where I instantly scooped her up into my arms.
She was limp and gray, eyes closed, and made not a sound. I knew she was already gone. Sometime between those nighttime kicks and rolls and this moment, her life and soul had returned to God who gave it for such a short time.
We had been prepared for this possibility long before, so that moment was not filled with grief, but wonder. Wonder at the power of labor and birth. Wonder that my labor was suddenly over! Wonder at meeting this tiny human knit together with Matt’s and my DNA. And wonder at how tiny our 3 pound 14 ounce baby was.
And amazingly, that moment was also filled with peace.
I am so glad our midwife didn’t monitor the baby’s vitals during labor (though she would have if we wanted her to). Constant monitoring would have added stress and worry about how my laboring was affecting my baby. If I had known the moment Portia ceased to live, how would I have summoned the strength to deliver? As it was, for all the loss, my labor was about as perfect as I could have asked for.
Though we had wanted to meet our daughter alive, her stillbirth replaced stressful decisions with peace. We did not have to think through what comfort measures we wanted, or whether to resuscitate. The decisions had already been made. We simply had to hold her as long as we wished and then release her when we were ready.
Peace is an overwhelming part of Portia’s birth story.
Beautiful Fall Day
After I was showered, the pool emptied and packed away, and my body rested, I could sit in the recliner, quietly surrounded by my family. After the intensity of labor and delivery, I finally had space to breathe…and to gaze out the window.
Portia had come on a gorgeous September day that was mild and sunny, with blue sky and trees showing a hint of fall color. It was the kind of day that makes one happy to be alive!
That uplifting image from our picture window is part of Portia’s story.
Held by Family
Two years before, when our son Josiah was born in a big city hospital, not a single family member got to see or hold him. This was a secondary grief.
Our experience with Portia was so much better. Both grandmothers got to hold her, unrushed. I only wish her aunts and uncles would have gotten this opportunity, too.
This holding, this knowing, this sharing with family, is such a tremendous blessing in Portia’s story.
Meeting Her Long-Awaited Sister
Our then-five-year-old had been wishing and praying so much for a sister. She was thrilled when ultrasound revealed our second baby was a girl.
Though she visited me in the hospital, she had never gotten to see baby Josiah. She had mere pictures to grieve over.
After being whisked off to school that morning I was in labor, Matt picked our kindergartner up early so she could meet her little sister. Awkward and uncertain at first, she slowly warmed up as we calmly talked and held baby Portia in our own arms. Drawing gradually closer, she got to admire and, when she was ready, hold the little sister for whom she had prayed.
This shared experience is a huge part of Portia’s story for which I give thanks.
Choosing the Right Name
As my pregnancy progressed, Matt and I reluctantly began searching for a name for our child. Instead of a joyous ritual of expectation, it was a reminder that this name would belong to a dead child.
Yet as every life has meaning and value, so names hold meaning and value. Choosing a name for our baby was a way of affirming her intrinsic worth, even if she couldn’t live for us to enjoy her.
Though it felt backward, this is what I did: I scanned the endless pages of baby girl names, NOT looking at the names. Ignoring the names, I was scanning the meanings. How could I name my baby “beautiful” or “energetic” or “wise” when she wouldn’t get to live out any of those attributes? I was looking for anything that could remotely—but positively—apply to our situation.
We came up with several possibilities, but could never settle completely on any combination of first and middle names. It can be hard finding a name for which you BOTH like the sound AND the meaning. Especially when your baby is going to die.
No matter how hard we might cling to this baby, or to any desire of having biological children, there was nothing to do but release our child—and our dreams—to our Holy Father.
And so was born our daughter, lovingly named Portia Elizabeth—our offering consecrated to God.
Clothing with Love
Dressing a newborn may not be the most meaningful task. Within weeks, babies can go through drawers full of beautiful new clothes, between frequent spit-ups or exploding diapers.
But when this first time is the ONLY chance to dress my newborn, then it takes on a whole new emotional reality.
I had struggled to choose an outfit that might fit my preemie. I had shed tears over finding something cute enough to be her only outfit. Eventually, I found something pink that would pass.
Then my mother surprised me. When I was ready to dress baby Portia, my mother brought out several dear little outfits she had fixed up for our daughter. In preparation for her birth, my mother had cut down knit onesies to various sizes, adding bits of ribbon or lace to dress up these tiny preemie gowns.
Though I had settled on the outfit I had purchased, my heart was overwhelmed with the tender love my mother had put into these gowns for the granddaughter she would never see grow up. I selected a dainty gown and tenderly, painstakingly worked it on over baby Portia’s head and arms, adjusting the sleeves to fit over the shoulders. It was beautiful on her, and my heart was satisfied.
My baby was dressed in love.
Committed to Her Creator
A few days later, we traveled the winding, back-country roads to the cemetery where Josiah was buried. My heart could hardly stand to do this hard thing AGAIN, yet I also had to be fully present to talk our 5-year-old through the experience of burying our baby.
All my fears of how she would respond were relieved. Her questions were answered. Things like the harsh reality of shoveling dirt back over the casket, my mother explained, is actually a way to show love, like covering her body with a blanket to protect it from rain and snow.
I hadn’t had time nor energy to choose flowers. But that morning, I walked around the yard, snipping blossoms for a tiny bouquet. My own flowers, picked by my own hands, chosen personally for my daughter. It was the last act of love I could show. Compared to lavish funerals, my offering was a pittance, but to me held great meaning and great love.
Portia’s life had mattered.
Life After Portia
As I wrote about in Part 1, memories of Portia’s life in my womb are intrinsically woven into the fabric of many joyful moments in those months. These are the memories of Portia’s life.
Yet not only her life in my womb counted. The day she arrived, stillborn, is also etched in my memory, a strange mixture of peace, love, grief, and tender celebration. Every minute that day was about welcoming, loving, and celebrating the precious little gift of life God had given us to borrow.
Though our eyes never saw her alive, our daughter Portia is part of our family’s collective consciousness. Her conception brought so much eager anticipation, while her condition brought such agonizing loss. That agony demonstrates the value of her life and reality of our love.
Portia’s stillbirth and burial were only a fraction of our experience with her. Remembering the entirety of her life takes away a bit of the sting of her death.
So we remember and celebrate LIFE. No matter how short, no matter how broken, ALL life is a gift for us to cherish.