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Survivor's guilt
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The lighting was dim and the air filled with the fragrance of carnations and roses last Friday night. The tiny baby lay there quietly, with perfectly round cheeks and a little button nose, like on all newborn faces. A knit cap covered his hair, a monogrammed blanket was tucked beneath his chin, and as I heard others remarking, that precious baby looked just like a porcelain doll displayed in a box.

Except babies aren’t supposed to be still, or quiet or placed inside boxes. It was the most terrible, beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, this wake for a longed-for, stillborn first son.

And I thought again what I’ve thought so often: no parent should ever have to bury a child.

It makes sense when an 80-year-old dies. We grieve the passing, but we know that it’s coming and it seems right; a natural progression of what happens after a long and full life. But when a baby dies, especially in utero, just days before he was scheduled to be born, it doesn’t make sense. There is no way to make sense of it at all.

I know too many friends who have lost babies. Most are like me, experiencing miscarriages at different seasons of gestation, some tiny souls passing so early that no one but the mother grieved their deaths. But several are like the sweet lady I visited last week, just days away from becoming a mother — but at the last moment, motherhood was stolen away. 

Two of the stillborn babies I know died at the hands of medical malpractice. I had my own questionable experience with one of those incompetent physicians several years ago, a cruel experience that left me wanting to report his actions to the hospital. But I opted not to say anything. As you can imagine, my blood ran cold when I later learned that he was responsible for one of those babies’ deaths.

Last week’s little angel got tangled up in his cord — a completely freak accident that no one was responsible for. So when I learned of his passing, I found my own feelings surprising. Why did I feel an odd sense of guilt?

On the surface, that doesn’t appear to make sense. But I believe the emotion I felt is called “survivor’s guilt.” I felt similarly when my husband Donnie came back from fighting in Iraq. It didn’t seem fair that I got to have a physically whole spouse return when so many soldiers came home with disabilities — or didn’t come home at all.

Honestly, the definition of grace as “unmerited favor” took on a whole new meaning for me after the war.

The reason I felt survivor’s guilt over my friend’s loss is that I know it could’ve been me. My second child, Eli, was my easiest pregnancy. But the delivery was very traumatic. He had huge shoulders which compressed the cord as he tried to be born. His heart rate dropped into the 30s and getting him out was an ordeal involving too much cutting, a nurse shoving down on top of me to force him out and a baby’s broken clavicle. It turned out that the cord was wrapped tightly around his neck several times, and my aptly-nicknamed Monkey Boy had somehow managed to tie three true knots in his umbilical cord.

Just one true knot can kill an unborn child. Yet, my son lived. And aside from that fast-healing broken shoulder, he was perfectly healthy.

It’s easy to say that it was God’s will for Eli to be alive. He is a delightful child and I can’t imagine life without him. But knowing how close we came to possibly losing him makes me all the more aware of what my friend lost last week. And I struggle to wrap my mind around the depth of that loss — I’m not sure that any loss is greater.

Every child is a miracle, and if you’ve been given one or more of them, make sure that they know that. Every life is a gift. Kids are messy, amazing, frustrating, beautiful blessings, and as we approach Thanksgiving, I’m struggling to find words powerful enough to express the gratitude I feel for each of my children.


Kari may be reached at