It Wasn’t Supposed to End This Way

By Bill Arbuckle
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a mother holds a tiny baby's hand
©jchizhe /Adobe Stock
Life doesn't always happen according to plan. This is our family's story of an unexpected loss and the unexpected blessings we've received.

We buried Chase in November. A dozen or so families joined us at the graveside service.

We didn’t know them. They weren’t there for us. But they, like us, had lost a child and had come to lay their precious ones to rest. The burial services were a gift from a group of nuns at a local hospital. We weren’t the first families to benefit. Others had lost children at or before birth. The nuns’ contribution offered closure and a place to visit our babies.

And now we stood at the graveside, staring at the patch of ground that marked the unplanned end to our babies’ lives. The coffin containing their tiny bodies had been interred the day before. A mound of fresh dirt, topped with a strip of sod, marked the grave.

I don’t remember who led the service. Maybe a hospital chaplain? The service lasted a few minutes, and then the dozen families walked back to their cars and drove away.

My family walked to our car, too. I was the last to get in. When everyone was buckled up, I started the car and put it in gear. As I drove away from the graveyard, I remember saying to myself: It wasn’t supposed to end this way.

Unplanned endings

It’s been 16 years since Chase Andrew’s funeral. Had things gone differently, he’d be driving this year. My wife and I would be fussing over the cost of insurance, but proud to see him reach this milestone.

Enough time has passed that I’m OK thinking about what might have been. It’s still a bittersweet feeling. But sometimes there are good days. And on those days, I think I hear my little boy’s laughter in the wind. It’s a good feeling. If you’ve lost a child, you’ll understand.

As I think about Chase, I remember the night he died. I remember the loss and pain I felt as I stood beside his grave. But before I’m swallowed up by grief, God reminds me of something else: His unexpected blessings. Because of those blessings, I can look back at Chase’s story, see God at work and say: Thank you, God, for unexpected endings.

An unexpected diagnosis

Chase was a pleasant surprise. We’d hoped to have one more child. Not that two rambunctious little boys weren’t already enough. We were secretly hoping for a little girl. We’d tried twice before. Both pregnancies ended with a miscarriage. We gave names to each: Emily Rose and Joseph Michael. When we learned about Chase, we held our breath to see if he would make it past six weeks … then eight. At 10 weeks, we relaxed and let ourselves imagine the future.

The excitement lasted four weeks. And then our world changed. It was a Friday night. My wife and I were putting the boys to bed when she realized something was wrong. We drove to the emergency room. An ultrasound revealed the problem: placenta previa. The uterus sat directly on the cervix. Blood vessels from the uterus were exposed and ruptured easily. The treatment was bed rest and proper hydration.

That’s how we spent the second Friday of July. The third wasn’t much better. Our oldest son was playing with friends and came home with a leg covered in blood. He had fallen out of a wagon, landed on the street and ripped a large chunk of skin from his knee. For the second time in as many weeks, I made the trip to ER. Six stitches and a Lego set later (Legos heal many wounds, you know), my son was on the road to recovery. And now that our second crisis was over, my wife and I hoped our lives would get back to normal.

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An unplanned emergency

I went to work the next week. That Friday night, I drove home and asked my wife what she wanted for dinner. She didn’t feel well and wasn’t hungry. Would I order pizza and take care of the boys?

That was our last normal conversation. When I came back from the restaurant, my wife was sprawled across the bathroom floor. “I think I need an ambulance,” she said.

When she arrived at the emergency room, nurses checked my wife’s blood pressure. It dropped each time they checked. The ER doctor ordered an ultrasound scan. It showed a serious problem that no one had anticipated: the placenta had ruptured. My wife was bleeding internally. She’d already lost three liters of blood and was bleeding another half-liter every minute. If the bleeding wasn’t stopped, she’d be gone in the next few minutes.

An unexpected goodbye

Two nurses rushed my wife to the operating room. As I left ER, the doctor and one another nurse each put a hand on my shoulder and said, “good luck.” They looked like they meant it, but I had no time to ask questions. I followed the nurses and the gurney to the big wooden doors that opened into the operating room. There, the nurses paused, and I bent over to kiss my wife. I think I said, “I love you,” and tried to kiss her again. She brushed me away. “Just get me out of this pain,” she said. I stepped back, but one of the nurses stopped me. “Go ahead, give her one more kiss,” she whispered.

My heart sank. I knew what she meant. The nurse was telling me it may be the very last time I kissed my wife. So, I bent down, kissed her forehead and then watched as the nurses rushed her into the surgery.

An unplanned prayer

A hospital hallway is a lonely place. I leaned against the wall and tried to understand what was happening. It was too much to process. I made my way to a bathroom, locked myself into a stall and cried.

What do you say to God when your wife is dying? I’m sure there’s a right way to pray, but in that moment, all I could say is, “God, I need my wife. Please, save her life. For me.”

A million thoughts went through my head as I prayed. What would life be like without my wife? Why was this happening? How would I raise two boys while coping with my own loss and loneliness? I’d spent the last ten years of my life getting to know this wonderful woman — becoming friends, hiking together, starting a romance, getting married (and then getting lost on our way to the honeymoon destination). And now? A hasty kiss outside of the operating room? That’s no way to close out a decade of adventure and love. It’s not supposed to end this way.

I prayed once more but I couldn’t think of anything else to tell God, so I wiped my eyes and stepped back into the hallway to call family and friends. Within an hour, I was joined by a minister and friends from our church.

They sat with me until 2 in the morning when the surgeon stepped out of the operating room with good news. My wife made it through surgery. He’d found the bleeding, stitched her up and then sent her to recovery. I could see her once she was awake. But, he said, there was something else I needed to know. His team couldn’t save Chase. Our little boy had died earlier that evening. And at just 15 weeks in utero, it’s unlikely he would have survived long outside of the womb.

Unexpected blessings

The surgeon made it all sound so routine. Maybe for him it was. The nurses told a much different story: It wasn’t supposed to end this way. Not only was my wife bleeding to death internally but also her abdomen was so full of blood that her lungs were compressed. She could barely breathe. No wonder the doctor and nurse in ER had wished me luck. Everyone thought my wife’s life would end on an operating table. And yet, here she was — pale and shaky — but alive. For the entire time my wife was in the hospital, nurses from different units stopped by her room. They wanted to meet the girl who had nearly bled to death. Her story was a miracle. My prayer had been answered. I’m still grateful to God and the medical professionals who came together and saved my wife’s life. She was alive. But we soon learned there was another challenge ahead: learning to live with loss.

My wife and I met our son two days later. A nurse came to our room and handed my wife a tiny bundle. Chase Andrew was only five inches long. He was slender and had a pointy chin. He was perfect. Ten little fingers. Ten little toes. His tiny eyes shut tight. A beautiful baby boy. He just needed more time. We kissed him, held him tight and then handed him back to our nurse. Three days later, we went home. In November of that year, we joined a dozen other families to lay our children to rest.

In the years since we buried Chase, my wife and I have learned what it means to walk together. We’ve walked together through loss. Through healing. Through depression and discouragement. We’ve also walked through times of joy. Together. Even though things didn’t work out the way we wanted, we’ve learned to be grateful for unexpected endings. We’re stronger together. And as we talk through trials, we’ve learned to lean on each other and remind each other that God walks with us.

An unplanned pregnancy

Why am I sharing my story? Because things don’t always turn out the way we expect.  And maybe that’s what you’re experiencing right now. Maybe you expected a negative pregnancy test, but it showed positive. It’s not supposed to end this way. Now, you’re facing a choice.

Don’t worry. I’m not here to condemn you. If you’ve made a choice that you regret, the same God who heard my broken prayer wants to hear yours. The love He showed me is the same love He wants to show you. I know He listens.

If you’re considering a choice, please consider choosing life. As a dad who lost a child, there’s nothing I want more than to hear my son’s laughter. To hold his hand. To play with cars in the dirt. But I also want to be honest: Parenting is hard. You’re never ready. There’s never enough money or support or time. But it’s so much better than the alternative. There’s nothing more heartbreaking than going home with empty arms.

About a year after Chase’s funeral, I was herding our boys into the car. As my wife buckled them in, I stood outside and watched. Then, for a moment I had the strangest thought. Somebody’s missing. Somebody didn’t get in the car. I did a quick count: two boys, one wife. That’s when I realized who was missing. Chase Andrew. It wasn’t a sad feeling. It was the realization that our family was complete.

I know it wasn’t supposed to end this way. My wife and I wanted something different. But it’s OK. Because the story isn’t over yet. Sure, there’s a tombstone. I now see it as a bookmark for a chapter in our lives. A dark chapter for sure. But the rest of the story? I think — no, I know — we’ll live happily ever after. And maybe it was just me, but for a second, I thought I heard Chase’s laughter in the wind.

© 2020 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Originally published on FocusOnTheFamily.com.

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