Stillborn but Welcome The Short Life of Paul Michael Joerg & Mary Barth
Paul Michael is the youngest of our eight children. Common usage would term him “stillborn.” For us this term has always carried a stigma of being pushed aside: a life that was not really a life, an event one would rather forget. When a child dies in its mother’s womb, many people do not even refer to it as a baby, using the term "fetus" instead, as if to deny that it ever lived.
We didn’t realize how unusual our experience with Paul was until we began to hear from other parents who had lost a child before birth. Naturally, everyone deals with grief differently. But many of those we hear from wish they had taken more time to welcome and farewell their stillborn child. In many cases, the parents were told it would be easier if they never saw or held their child. Some chose not to give their baby a name. One mother could not even bring herself to ask if her child was a boy or a girl.
Shortly after Paul’s death, one couple wrote to us describing how they had lost three children at birth. Until that point, thirty years later, they were not able to talk with others about the pain of their loss. Hearing of our experience changed that.
Other parents have shared similar stories with us. Many are living with the pain of regret that they never saw or held their baby. Often we have asked ourselves why this is. No mother can ever really forget about a child that was once part of her. After all, it is a living soul growing inside her. Why is it that society wants us to forget? What can be done to help parents in this situation?
What made our experience different was how we were encouraged to accept and enjoy the time with Paul, and that our other children took part in everything. In spite of the pain of the loss, it was a time when God was very close to us. For us Paul was as living as any of our other children. Certainly, he will always remain a living part of our family.
We recently marked the two-year anniversary of Paul Michael’s birth. As we remembered his short life here on earth, we couldn’t help feeling amazement at the way his life brought comfort to many of our friends and acquaintances. Through our experience many others have also found healing for losses in their own lives. One woman wrote that hearing about Paul helped her find meaning in the suffering she sees all around her. So Paul’s life was not in vain. He had, perhaps, a greater impact than others who live for years.
We had looked forward to the birth of our eighth child with tremendous anticipation. For us, the expectation of a child’s birth increased rather than diminished with each subsequent child. As you can imagine, we were devastated when we heard that there were likely severe medical problems with our child. The following weeks brought frequent trips to specialists near and far. Opposing medical opinions sent us on a roller coaster between heights of joy and pits of anxiety. Of one thing we were absolutely certain. This was our child and no one was going to take him away from us. We never even considered abortion.
Every mother knows the experience of getting to know her unborn child. From the first faint stirrings, the mother starts the acquaintance. Each child is different; each has a character of its own. Paul was a very active baby before he died. Thus when on June 1, 2001 he was unusually quiet, we grew concerned. Our obstetrician had little to offer and sent us back home with instructions to call if there were any further developments. That night we both awoke at about 3:00 a.m. We will never know for sure, but it was as if at that moment we felt God taking the life of our baby.
Three days later Paul arrived. He was all there, beautiful face, hands and feet, although his distended abdomen made it obvious from a medical standpoint why he couldn’t have lived. Regardless, he was our baby and we loved him just as he was.
From the moment he arrived until his burial the next day, he never left us. Paul looked beautiful with a rosebud garland on his blond head. In spite of coming twelve weeks early, he was a big boy (six pounds twelve ounces and seventeen inches long).
Soon we were on our way home to the Bruderhof community where we lived and to our waiting family. The children had known of our “angel baby” and all wanted to come see him. We had not even gotten out of our car when they ran up to see their baby brother. They immediately wanted to hold him and to know his name. There was no holding back or fear of him even though they knew that he was no longer living.
We had plaster of paris hand and foot imprints made and cut a lock of his hair, which we treasure. All our children took turns holding him, and we took many photos with each of them. Today, each photo brings back a flood of memories.
For one day only Paul was with us. He slept in his little crib right next to our bed. We sang lullabies to him. That night, we hardly slept. We knew, of course, that it was the only night we would have him with us, and we wanted to use every minute with him.
Then followed one of the most amazing mornings of our lives. There was a constant stream of visitors. Many children came wanting to hold Paul or to feel his hair and hands. There was a very natural but reverent atmosphere around his crib. At one point, all the community’s school children came and sang in front of our window. Our daughter Miriam held Paul so they could all see.
During this time, our five oldest children were busy painting flowers, stars, birds, and an angel holding a baby on the casket, which a couple of friends had spent hours during the night making for us.
In spite of all the activity there was a tremendous peace over the whole house. Just before the community gathered for the funeral, the two of us were alone with Paul for the last time. As hard as it was to say goodbye, we were thankful for what he had already brought to us, and we asked God that Paul’s life would continue to draw us closer to Jesus and to other people.
Then, just before noon, the entire community came to sing. Everyone gathered outside our house. The girls wore garlands that they had made for the occasion. The children crowded around and we were just part of the whole circle. We have rarely felt the spirit of community as tangibly as we did sitting out there surrounded by everyone.
Then came the moment to put our baby in the casket. Each of our children had one last chance to kiss him and hold him. Miriam held him, just sobbing, and then could hardly let go. None of us had dry eyes when we finally laid him in his beautifully decorated casket. Tabea had made a little garland of roses for inside the casket. Samuel put in a greeting card with a picture of an angel on it. Peter wanted to put the lid on the casket, and then Jacob screwed it down. Grandma found a red rose to place on top. It was a shaking moment for all of us.
I (Jörg) carried the casket, leading the procession of the entire community. Our oldest son helped lower the casket down into the grave. Then all five of our sons helped fill in the grave. Other children, friends of our children, spontaneously came up to help as well. Even our two-year-old, Simeon, wanted to see and help with everything. He ran back and forth, first dropping greens into the grave and then watching us dig, and finally covering the mound with greens. One thing bothered him though; at the end he looked in vain among the pine branches for “the door.” He wanted to be able to see his baby.
The day continued as if in a dream. We were cared for in every way—people offered to prepare our meals, baby-sit, shop, clean our house, do our laundry, and wash our dishes. But we were also given plenty of time alone to talk, cry, and take in what we had just experienced.
That evening our six-year-old, Tabea, said with a happy smile, “This was the best day of my life.” Why? All we can say is that she and we all felt heaven very near to us. The love of family and those near to us helped us at a time when we surely would have been unable to know ourselves how to cope.
And so it has continued during the weeks and months since. To be sure, the pain will always be there. We still weep at times. But countless times we have also felt God’s love—and the understanding and care of others—reaching down to encourage and comfort us.
Related article: Losing A Baby
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