The Secret of Rebecca
Tara Jernigan on the Blessing of Burying the Stillborn Child
"I think her name was Rebecca.” Though my father’s older sister had never been a secret, I had never heard him speak of his interest in her. She died before he was born, but for some reason, when I took a slight interest in genealogy, he decided that he would like to find some hint of information about his sister, some proof that she ever existed. A birth certificate, death certificate, perhaps a burial site.
But as her birth date and place were unknown to us—we were not even sure of her name—and there was no social security number or other vital records for her, no information was ever found. All we ever knew of my father’s sister was from my grandmother’s memory.
My grandmother had always wanted a baby girl with a head full of dark hair. When, several years after the birth of her first child, a son, she again conceived, she tried every way she could think of to divine the baby’s sex, which in the days before ultrasound involved more folklore than medicine. She became certain that this child was her longed-for daughter.
After she delivered the baby, the nurses told her that the child was a girl, with a head full of black hair, but she never saw the child. She never even knew for certain that it was a daughter, that the nurses were not just telling her what she wanted to hear. She could only wonder, until at last she met her child in the presence of God.
Had Rebecca lived, my father would never have been born. My father was clearly the so-called replacement baby, and a disappointment for being a redheaded boy. But for decades he retained a quiet curiosity about the sister that no one knew, the daughter his mother had never held.
In 1940 most mothers never saw their stillborn babies. As a child, I heard my grandmother’s story about Rebecca as another family story, always told the same way, frozen in time. Now I look on it with an adult’s eyes, and I see a very different story, not at all frozen in time, but carried as an unrelieved burden, unfinished business in my grandmother’s heart, until her own life came to a close nearly five decades later.
Today, mothers are often given their stillborn babies to hold. Perhaps, over the decades, we have begun to be able to face the reality of the stillborn child and mourn with dignity and solemnity the child who lives after birth but a few moments. We have begun to realize that love does not take years of life to form, that a child of eight seconds (really, of nine months and eight seconds) is as valuable as the child of eight years. We understand what the parents feel when they lose a child.
And yet, at the same time, we have failed to recognize the child we think too young to be mourned, too small to bury with dignity. We treat the miscarried child as the culture of abortion would have him be, simply the product of conception, cast-off tissue.
Our theology says one thing, that the fetus is a baby, a life with an immortal soul, to be loved and, if lost, to be grieved. Our practice says quite another, for we allow these little ones to slip away with no memorial, no thanksgiving for a life lived, however briefly. What have we done? What do our actions really teach our faithful? What pastoral care do we offer those whose arms are empty and whose hearts grieve for these tiny children?
Pro-life Christians like to offer Psalm 139 as a meditation on the nature of the unborn child as a handmade blessing from God. These words are used as evidence of God’s care in creating us from the very moment of conception. The image the psalmist paints is of God’s tender care for the smallest of humankind, even before he is seen or his existence is known. The psalmist says:
A Child Offered Back
We know the words well, but they have weighty implications for our response to the loss of one of these little ones whom God has so fearfully and wonderfully made. If these children are intricately woven and known to God, are we not remiss in failing to offer to God, as a church community, thanks and praise for the blessing of even so brief a life, of rejoicing for the brief joy each one was to his parents and family?
If God has numbered their short days, are we not shirking our duty by failing to offer these little ones back to him when those days have ended? If the works of the Lord are wonderful, are we not denying God’s role in these brief lives by denying these children of Christian parents a proper Christian funeral and, where possible, burial?
The burial of a child is a difficult time in any community, Christian or not, but the rite of burial, by publicly declaring the reality of the loss and the reality of the Father’s care, can bring healing. How much more difficult is it when the community has no rites, no tools, to manage the grief that comes from the loss of the stillborn child?
Perhaps a new liturgy should be written or perhaps the old must be adapted—most funeral services can be used or adapted for the stillborn child—but I see no one in authority in any mainline denomination rushing to gather support for such a project.
Is there not something we might offer these families? There is gospel in the passing of a Christian soul, however short the life and tiny the body may have been. These children are undoubtedly testimonies to God’s glory, and it is up to us to tell their stories and render their glory unto God in this world.
I have counseled parents who have suffered miscarriage that every baby is a blessing, but God never promised that blessings would be easy. In fact, Scripture shows us that blessings mean responsibility, challenge, and hard work.
If the blessing is land, we must till it. If the blessing is wealth, we must use it wisely. If the blessing is a child, he must be reared, and even if his days are few, we must love, care for, and mourn him. If the blessing is a child who dies before birth, we must be willing to see that this child touched and changed his parents’ lives forever. In this way, he has done a great work in changing the world.
I have known many children who never drew a single breath whose testimony to God’s love is stronger than those of us who are given a full span of years to live. These children have no voice except through those who knew and loved them and their families, yet when that voice is not stifled, it is powerful. Christ works through such as these. This is the way of the Kingdom of God in this world; it must also be the way of the people of God as we witness to that Kingdom.
When Given Death
Parents who are never given the chance to properly mourn their loss will carry the pain with them for the rest of their lives. Families who do not celebrate a brief life will cover up its existence, fearing the pain of remembering. Mothers and fathers who do not have some way of letting go and offering their little ones back to God, will forever cling to what is not theirs to hold.
Churches need to offer some formal, communal recognition of the death of the stillborn child and give thanks for his life. To deny parents the chance to mourn is to fail the faithful in their time of suffering and to fail in our witness to God’s Word in this world: the Word that brings life when we are given death.
No life, however short, is lived in vain. I suppose you might say that is what I learned from my Aunt Rebecca, and from others babies who were never named except in their mothers’ hearts.
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“The Secret of Rebecca” first appeared in the January/February 2007 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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