It’s been a year now.
My youngest sister Hannah was pregnant, and we were so excited! She and her husband Yann were on their way to Uganda with the goal of fostering and adopting children there, and then they sent us a scan of the tiny baby going with them, and it was so exciting.
When she was 21 weeks along, I was at work when Yann messaged the family: “We’re at the hospital. Please pray for the early labor to stop.” This was her fifth pregnancy and none of the other babies survived and this was the longest gestation of any, so we were hopeful. I asked for a quick prayer meeting with two of the women in my office, and we cried and begged God to keep this baby safe and stop the contractions.
That was noon on Wednesday and I heard nothing for the rest of the day. Thursday morning, I lay still in bed a long time before I had the courage to pick up my phone to see what had happened during the night.
I found that after a long labor, (the drugs had slowed it to 24 hours but couldn’t make it stop) their baby boy had been born just 30 minutes before I woke up. He was alive, but they were planning a funeral service for him.
I cried, exchanged messages with my family, got pictures of Yann and Hannah holding the baby, loving on him, crying over him. They said he responded to their voices. I wiped my face, made coffee, stumbled to work, told my co-workers who had prayed with me, and tried to enter the duty of the day. I could stay focused, but sometimes tears leaked out.
They named him after my brother and Yann’s dad: Nathanael Pierre. He was perfect, but too little to live and after three hours, he faded away.
When she had time and space to talk, I called Hannah. We cried and I heard how God’s people banded together, looked after details, thought about things they couldn’t, asked good questions, gave comfort and food and blankets to wrap the little body.
My friends stood around me those days, gave gentle hugs and words, helped me feel not so alone. My pastor and his wife took me out for supper and helped me talk it out then relax with chit chat. The loss highlighted how scattered our family is. We were all stunned with grief, and scattered across five countries and seven time zones. We had to bumble our way through caring for each other across thousands of miles, and it was hard. There’s no script for this. How do you know how your sisters are when you can’t see them? How do you weep with your brother for his namesake when he lives seven time zones away?
The Ugandan church family organized the funeral and sent us a live-stream link. My family’s church in Ireland met an hour earlier than their normal meeting time on Sunday morning to join the church in Uganda and watch the funeral together. I saw a picture of the group in Ireland watching, joining the Ugandan service in real time, and it seemed like sweet solidarity and fellowship of suffering.
I didn’t watch it in real time (those pesky, miserable time zones) but later in the day, I asked two friends if they’d come to watch with me. They were gracious and generous with their time. We cried and watched the children and heard the songs. I wished Yann and Hannah had family with them—a parent or sibling to hold them, but no one could come so far so quickly. Their church family was everything they should have been, but they’d only had three months with them and didn’t know them like family does.
I gasped when the pallbearers accidentally tipped the casket on its side as they carried it to the grave, and my friend instinctively grabbed my hand because it shocked her too. (The men felt very badly about the mishap, but the ground was uneven and easy to stumble on.) Everyone helped fill the grave, then Yann got down on all fours and patted the earth down all over the little mound, as if putting his little boy to sleep. The red dirt reminded me of missionary stories where babies and children died and were left behind in foreign graves and now it wasn’t a story, but it was happening to my sister and it felt so wrong and unfair and mistaken.
A month or so later, we had a morning staff prayer circle at work and each had a chance to give short updates or prayer requests. I passed my turn, because I didn’t know what to say, but right afterwards I thought I could’ve mentioned our family’s grief. I could have. I should have. But I didn’t know how to talk about it so I didn’t.
I don’t know why God sat on His hands and did nothing to save their little baby. I don’t know how to reckon with the real-but-intangible loss of someone I never knew. It’s been a year now. The body knows how the air smelled and and the sun felt those days, and these days the grief comes washing over us again. We will always claim little Nathanael and miss him.
Hannah is pregnant again now, 30 weeks along, and doing as well as can be expected. We have a lot of hope for this baby to make it, but it’s not a naive hope. And we often think about little Nathanael, and how he’d probably be nearly walking by now. How will we know him in heaven? Will he be little, or matured to the fullness of his intended life?
We found out last month that the five-year-old girl Yann and Hannah have fostered for the last year has needed to move to a Ugandan home. The girl’s dad put a stop to their fostering, and the adoption system is broken beyond hope for them to adopt her. This has shattered us. Two children gone in a year. There are no good answers for our losses and questions.
I know that love is never wasted. I know that we and all the little children of the world are safe in Jesus’ care. This is all I know. Tonight, a year later, that’s enough to know.