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Finding Hope and Healing After Losing a Child

Air Date 10/15/2018

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Counselor and author Pam Vredevelt discusses the grief she and her husband experienced after losing two children, and she offers encouragement and advice for managing hurt, letting go of the past, and trusting God through tragedy. She also offers insight for talking appropriately to grieving people.

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Episode Transcript

Opening:

Announcement:

Jim Daly: Hi, I’m Jim Daly with John Fuller, here to remind you that Tuesday, November 6th, is an important midterm election, and you’re encouraged to vote. The midterm may not receive the media attention that a presidential election does, but it’s vitally important that you cast your vote.

John Fuller: And if your state has early voting, you may be able to vote weeks before November 6th. The key though, is that you participate.

Jim: John, it’s important to note that roughly 20-25% fewer citizens vote in a midterm election. So your vote and your voice really do have a bigger impact at this time. In the November midterm, voters will decide all 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, one third of the seats in the U.S. Senate - many of which are in key competitive states - and 36 state governorships. Also, the makeup of 87% of state legislative chambers will be decided across the country, and more than 125 ballot measures in 30 states. So remember, your vote is critical.

John: For voter registration information, including links to state-based groups and voters’ guides, go to Focus on the Family’s election website: Commit 2 Vote. That’s “commit”, the number 2, the word “vote”, 2018.com. That’s commit2vote2018.com.

End of Announcement

Excerpt:

Pam Vredevelt: And that hit me like a two-by-four between the eyes. It was like, “That’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m looking for something to blame. I’m looking for an answer. I’m trying to figure this thing out.” And God was saying, “Don’t try to figure it out. Don’t waste your energy on that anymore. Look instead for what I can do.”

End of Excerpt

John: That’s Pam Vredevelt, and she’s our guest today on Focus on the Family with Jim Daly. Thanks for joining us. I’m John Fuller.

Jim: John, when a husband and a wife are expecting a baby, it’s life changing. You’re thinking of all the excitement and joy of bringing that bundle home and the future of that child. But sometimes things go wrong and the joy of new life is cut short by death, miscarriage, or stillbirth in that way. You’re left with worry and guilt and devastating loss instead of that beautiful baby that you pictured. Those feelings are difficult to deal with. And I know some in our audience have gone through that. You might be going through that right now or maybe a family member. Pam Vredevelt has experienced this. And she’s gonna share her story and offer some ways to navigate grief to once again find hope. And I think that’s her great privilege and desire, is to help you see it, maybe, from a different perspective. Here at Focus on the Family, we are there for you. We want you to call if you’re suffering in some way, perhaps in this very direct way - the loss of a child. But we want to talk with you. If you need our help, we’re there for you.

John: Yeah. We have caring Christian counselors on staff, and they’ll be happy to have a phone call conversation with you and help you understand kind of some next steps and maybe some connections in your local community. Our number is 800-A-FAMILY, 800-232-6459.

And Pam is a popular conference speaker. She’s an author. She’s a licensed professional counselor. And her bestselling book is Empty Arms, which recounts her story of miscarriage and provides hope to those who experienced loss.

Body:

Jim: Pam, welcome to Focus on the Family.

Pam: Thank you so much. It’s wonderful to be here.

Jim: You know, I want to start here because we’ve spent a little time before the program here talking, and you just have such a great spirit of joy, and yet, you’ve suffered a lot. And we’ll get into that in a moment. When you read Paul’s words in the New Testament about suffering leading to endurance, leading to character, leading to hope, does that equation make sense to you?

Pam: It absolutely makes sense to me.

Jim: And why?

Pam: It makes sense to me because I think he’s talking about an experience that we have in relationship with God. When we go through those dark valleys and those places of suffering, it is when we meet our Lord in those places in a very personal and deep way where fresh life and fresh breath is literally breathed into us by our God.

Jim: And perspective.

Pam: And perspective. So often in those dark hours where you just kind of feel lonely and you’re suffering in silence, and I cried out to God and asked Him, “What’s the perspective here? I’m missing something because I’m not seeing, obviously, what You need me to see to be able to be at peace here.”

Jim: Well, let’s paint that picture for the audience because they don’t know your story. Paint that picture of grief and loss, what you and your husband John went through. Describe it. Describe the emotion of it. But fill in the blanks for us.

Pam: So I remember the day so well. I was five months pregnant going into the doctor, so excited, wearing my first full-blown maternity dress and...

Jim: That you had to buy because you had to go out and shop...

Pam: Oh, I just had to do it.

Jim: ...Because you didn’t have one. This was your first pregnancy.

Pam: Our first pregnancy. And course, you know, we were in ministry. My husband was a youth pastor for a huge church. And everybody was praying. They’d waited nine years for Pam and John to get pregnant, finally, you know. So I go into the doctor’s office and notice the amusement in the waiting room, which is always a bit entertaining. And then went in to hear the heartbeat. And I was so excited to hear it again. And the doctor began to probe with the little Doppler. And he was kind of stoic when he was watching the Doppler and not really saying much. And the nurse was stoic. And I began to get a little nervous because about a minute went by and there wasn’t anything that was happening.

Jim: So you’re having that sense?

Pam: I had a sense something’s up.

Jim: Right.

Pam: And I didn’t anticipate anything being wrong, so it was rather a shock. He said “Well, let’s go into the next room. I have some more sophisticated instruments and we want to get a picture of what’s going on in there.” And so the nurse began to probe with the ultrasound device. And on the screen - she was looking at it for the longest time and wasn’t saying a word. Finally, I blurted out and said, “What are you seeing? Can you tell me anything?” And she said, “I’m just not sure, just let me look a little bit more.” And then she left the room...

Jim: Right, without answering the question?

Pam: ...Without answering the question. And I’m on the table thinking, “What on earth is going on?” It really did not cross my mind that this baby was dead. But the doctor came in. And he looked at the screen. And he said, “I’m not seeing any heartbeat. And I think the baby is dead.”

Jim: Just that blunt? Used that word even?

Pam: Yes. Just like that.

Jim: Wow.

Pam: And I said, “Wait, how - how can this be happening?” And he said, “The baby’s fully formed, right on schedule, and it looks as if the baby died about a day or two ago.”

Jim: Oh, my goodness.

Pam: I said, “Well, can you tell me anything? Can you explain why?” He said, “No, we’ll need to go through labor and delivery and then we’ll explain more if we have some answers.”

Jim: You know, as I think of this, even in that conversation, for a medical doctor to talk about life and death in the womb - “Your baby is dead” - that suggests the baby was alive. I mean, when you think of the bigger issue of abortion, even from a medical context. What a statement, you know, “Your baby is gone.” That means the baby was there. I mean, you think about that. But Pam, I mean, again, the grief of that, what happened next? What was happening emotionally for you? How did - where was John? Had you talked to John yet? Was he in the...

Pam: No. John was back at the church in meetings that morning. And I said, “Oh, not a problem. I’ll just go ahead and go alone.” Oh, how I wish, you know, after that that I hadn’t said that. But I said to the nurse, “How can this be? You know, so - so many people have been praying for this baby from the moment they found out that we were pregnant.” And she said, “I really don’t have any answers for you on that. We’ll find out more after delivery.” So I drove home. Left the doctor’s office that day, my world turned upside down. And to that point in time, I had not suffered any catastrophic loss. I hadn’t even lost grandparents at that point. So this was an unknown territory for me.

Jim: Right. How would you describe who you are? How you are wired? Were you a joyful person? A cup half full person?

Pam: No. They used to call me Pollyanna when I was, you know, growing up because I would typically see the happy side of life.

Jim: Okay.

Pam: I would just lean towards seeing the joy around me. And I think I picked that up from my mom. My mom was a lot like that. And uh...

Jim: So this blow, bam...

Pam: This blow shattered my worldview. All of a sudden, I realized I’m not invulnerable. I really don’t have control. There are things in life that are really big that I have no say in.

Jim: Did that turn toward an anger in God’s direction? I mean, did you question Him? Was there a - where was your faith at, I guess, is the bigger question?

Pam: Absolutely. Absolutely. I questioned God. Oh, we had a lot of long discussions. And He heard - boy, did He hear from me. I uh, I like to write because it’s one way to express pain and suffering. And I often wrote letters to God in my journal and just explained my thoughts and feelings. But yeah, of course, I just was in a place - “God, how could you let this happen when all these prayers have been going up for this little baby? And we’ve waited so long. We’re so thrilled. We’ll be good parents. How come we can’t take this baby home?” And so I drove straight to the church office to see John. And I walked into his office. And I said, “I have some really sad news. The baby didn’t make it. The baby’s gone.” And he just got up and hugged me and held me and said, “It’s okay, honey. It’s okay. We’ll get through this. We’ll get through it.”

Jim: And you’d been trying for years and years to have a child?

Pam: Been trying for a number of years. I was in graduate school, so we waited for a while. But we had been trying for a good piece of time and...

Jim: Pam, I want to introduce another side of your story, and then we’ll continue with the discussion. I really do want to know how John managed it as a man. I think it’s important for us as men to understand that, spiritually and practically, how to help our wives through that moment. But you eventually had another child, and that child had Down syndrome.

Pam: Well, I did have three children after that. Our first baby, Jessie, was born two years later. In fact, she was born on the same day Empty Arms came off the press, so it was quite a celebration delivering this little new baby and seeing the birth of a book that would hopefully meet the needs of other women that had suffered.

Jim: Where was your son in that three birth order?

Pam: So our daughter Jessie is the oldest, and then our son Benjamin is the middle, and then our son Nathan was born - surprise pregnancy through foolproof birth control...

Jim: Right.

Pam: ...With Downs.

Jim: Just, again, I think to help the audience really understand: you know grief, you know sorrow and you can still praise the Lord. I mean, to me that’s the essence of your story, which is powerful. But he also went through a tragic situation. What happened?

Pam: Yeah. So Nathan was affectionately known as our little, unguided missile.

Jim: Okay.

(LAUGHTER)

Pam: We nicknamed him that because he loved to bolt. He had no sense of fear and a huge sense of adventure and loved people. And he’d get something in his mind and he would just want to go and make it happen. So when he was 16 years old, some friends of ours had offered us tickets to the Trail Blazers game. And they had a suite...

Jim: That’s basketball, for those that don’t know.

Pam: ...Basketball. Portland Trail Blazers...

Jim: NBA.

Pam: ...Yeah, NBA. And so they had a suite up above, looking down. And that particular night, John came down with the flu. And so we decided I better stay home with John. And we let Nathan go ahead and go. And we gave our tickets to a young couple that are really sweet friends of ours. And he knew Nathan well because he had been his aide at camp - at church camp. So they went together with Nathan that night. And then our daughter and son-in-law were also there amongst a big group of people. And during halftime, Nathan needed to use the restroom. So he went to the restroom, which was in the suite. And the aide and my daughter were just kind of waiting around the corner for him. And he was in there for quite a long time. So my daughter went and knocked on it - on the door. And it was locked, which was his thing. And he didn’t answer, which was also his thing.

Jim: Right.

Pam: And so she thought, “Okay, give him another couple of minutes.” Went back another couple minutes later, door was still locked. She started really knocking and saying “Nathan, you need to answer me.” Well, he was not answering. And he was not in there. And he had skipped out of the suite...

Jim: Somehow passed their supervision and slipped out?

Pam: Oh, it was - the door to the exit hallway was just right around the corner from the bathroom. And he had this sixth sense when somebody wasn’t watching. He slipped out that little doorway. And it was halftime, so hundreds of people were milling around, you know, outside the suite. And Nathan loved elevators. So we figured out later that he hopped on the elevator right outside the suite, got out on the ground floor, went out the front doors, ran outside on some adventure, and he ran onto the highway and he was hit that night by a car. And four days later he passed.

Jim: I mean, again, when you look at what’s happening in that regard, the loss of life - no death in your family, your grandparents are still alive, your parents alive, and then you have the loss - the miscarriage - of your first child and then the loss of Nathan this way in a tragic accident. People are going, “You had to shake your fist at God. You got to be saying ‘Lord, what are you doing to me? Why?’“

Pam: Oh, I clearly asked why.

Jim: Is it okay to ask why?

Pam: Oh, you better believe it’s okay to ask why. Yes, it’s okay to ask why because when we suffer catastrophic loss, we are wired - we are created by our Creator to try to make sense out of that loss. And so the natural question is going to be, “Why?” And the safest place to take those whys is to God, and to ask for perspective, and to wrestle those questions and those doubts and those fears and that anger through - with God.

Jim: When was the day that you could wake up with that joy again? Was it fairly immediate? Or did it take time for you to feel joy?

Pam: After Nathan passed, if I’m truly honest with you, I would say I did not feel joy for several years. I felt - maybe I should say I didn’t feel happiness. There was a sense of joy, but it wasn’t the happy feeling that I would typically be known for. But the peace and the contentment that came from knowing where Nathan is would carry me. But I remember driving down the - one of the main streets in Gresham, and there was a song on the radio that was talking about Heaven. And I was just crying, tears streaming down my face. And I was saying, “God, will I ever feel joy again? Will I ever feel joy?”

Jim: Yes. Good question.

Pam: And I wondered - I hoped I would. But I didn’t know, frankly, because it was so dark.

Jim: Yeah. Boy.

John: And if you can’t answer that question, then please call us here at Focus on the Family. We have caring Christian counselors. If you’d prefer not to call, we do have a lot on our website about loss and grief and how God can speak in those moments. Our number is 800-A-FAMILY. And online, we’re at focusonthefamily.com/broadcast.

And we’re talking with Pam Vredevelt. And she’s written a book called Empty Arms. And it’s directed specifically at men and women who have gone through miscarriage. But as you can tell, there’s so much more here to her story about loss and grief. I think the book will speak to you, regardless of the specifics of your circumstance.

Jim: Yeah. That’s well said, John. Pam, I do want to get back to the day in the room there with your husband, John, and you’re coming - bearing the horrible news that you’ve lost your baby, that the baby you’re carrying no longer has a heartbeat. He embraces you. The counseling that you’ve done now - how do men process differently from their wives about the loss of a pre-born child?

Pam: Thank you for asking that question because there - while there are many similarities, there are also many differences. And one of the things that I see in the counseling office that can kind of get in the way and drive a wedge between husbands and wives after a loss is where one partner will want and long for the other partner to grieve as they are grieving. Everybody’s grief journey is unique to them. And so if we can release one another from those expectations, we’re more likely to get through this together in sync and less alienated from one another. I think that while the woman has begun to bond with this baby from the moment she knows she’s conceived, every day that mom is thinking about that baby, probably praying for that baby, having, you know, pictures and visions and dreams of the baby’s future. So the greater the bond, the greater the pain. So moms have got that deep, deep bond. And I know that husbands do as well, but it’s a little different.

Jim: Right.

Pam: It’s a little different. And so men typically, you know, we don’t give men much permission in our society to grieve. Oftentimes, they feel very invalidated because guys don’t typically talk about feeling grief.

Jim: Right.

Pam: It’s not a common conversation piece.

Jim: Pam, in fact, in your book, you talk about the process of recovering from these really hard and tragic blows that will come in life. We’re all gonna hit a valley of some sort. What does that process look like? How do we recover and get back to that joy with the Lord, especially those of us that claim Christ?

Pam: I like to think in simple pictures. I’m a simple person at heart.

Jim: I like it already.

(LAUGHTER)

Pam: And I think in terms of railroad tracks, okay? We’re gonna take railroad tracks through the valley of shadows, which is very dark. On one side of the track is what I call grief release. On the other side is grief relief. So grief release are those times where we intentionally turn towards the pain, acknowledge what is, talk about or download - express our thoughts and our feelings...

Jim: Both good and bad.

Pam: Both good and bad. And it’s very important those things are connected - the thoughts and the feelings connected and expressed - because if we split off the feelings, we’re gonna get stuck in complicated, prolonged suffering. Brain science shows that over and again. So connecting the facts with the feelings, expressing it, externalizing it instead of stuffing it...

Jim: How does a person do that, just practically?

Pam: Practically, well, one thing the brain science shows, which is really wonderful news because it’s not hard and it’s free: 20 minutes a day of writing about your thoughts and feelings, whatever the trauma or tragedy is that you are going through, can actually increase the healing process and accelerate it.

Jim: Yeah. So just journaling...

Pam: Journaling.

Jim: ...Would be another way of saying that, just writing down your thoughts. And then what about expressing to your spouse, for example?

Pam: Yeah. Talking with friends - safe friends - talking with your spouse, you know, carefully picking those people that you bury your heart with because not everybody can tolerate that, not everybody knows what to do with that.

Jim: Pam, I really want to touch on the guilt thing because we haven’t cracked that open all the way. And what I mean by that is a woman and her husband, when they go through something like this, they can feel guilt for lots of reasons. “Did I do something wrong, nutritionally? Did I not exercise appropriately?” All those things that go through your mind as to why this baby lost its life in the womb. Did you go through that? And what advice would you have for those couples who have gone through this, when they’re still in that grieving point and they have - they’re blaming themselves?

Pam: Yes, I went through that. There’s something about the way we’re created that I think wants to find a cause. We want to find a reason and pin the blame on something because then we can re-establish control, right? “If I can figure out what I did wrong, well, then it’ll be better next time.” And I went through everything I could think of: what I ate, did I exercise too much, did I exercise too little, did, you know, all the routines and whatnot, and pretty much beat myself up for quite a while.

Jim: Did anything help in that regard specifically? Did somebody say something to you that really got you over that aspect of it?

Pam: Yes. When I was talking with a nurse in the hospital, one of the things she said to me was, “You know this happens often. One out of five pregnancies are lost. And we think it’s probably much higher than that because there are many that go unreported. And I see it as a way where if babies aren’t healthy, sometimes the Lord just allows them to pass that way, rather than bringing them into this world. He will short circuit them to Heaven.” And I thought that was such a nice - nice way to look at it. But it relieved me from thinking it was all my fault, it was my responsibility, which is where we go when we want to re-establish control and life has thrown us a curveball.

Jim: Pam, you think about your story - and hopefully, if you’ve been listening for the full time, you’ll understand my comment here - but with Nathan, your 16-year-old who died on that highway when he wandered out, boy with Down Syndrome was struck by a vehicle and died, whether it’s in the womb or it’s 16 or at 30 or at 50, that ability to understand that God’s in control, even in that situation, is so difficult for us.

Pam: It is. We have to surrender.

Jim: I think the point is we don’t get over grief - back to the Scripture we talked about - suffering, endurance, character, hope - you grow through the grief.

Pam: Yes. We grow. And we learn more about ourselves. We learn more about God. We learn more about life. And we learn more about others.

Jim: Well, and that is so well said, Pam Vredevelt, author of Empty Arms. I just want to express my appreciation for sharing your story so openly - you and John. John’s not here with you. But give him a big hug.

Pam: I’m happy to do that.

Jim: I love him even though I haven’t met him. And I want you to come back and pray quickly for those couples who are struggling, specifically for the women who are hurting because of loss. Can we do that?

Pam: You bet.

Closing:

John: And I’ll just encourage you before Pam prays to jot down our website and our number: focusonthefamily.com/broadcast and 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY - 800-232-6459. Do get in touch with us. We have counselors who can talk to you if you’re struggling and lots of other great resources here at Focus on the Family like Pam’s book, Empty Arms. In fact, make a generous donation of any amount to the ministry work that we do here at Focus and we’ll send a complimentary copy as our way of saying thank you for your financial support.

Jim: Pam, let’s do that. If you can picture that woman in the doctor’s office right now - maybe she’s driving home, she’s on her way to do what you had to do with John, to let him know - speak to that woman right now.

Pam: Lord, I thank you so much that You promised to be close to the brokenhearted. And I ask You to wrap those women up - that woman up - in Your blanketing, comforting presence. I ask You to pour out Your Holy Spirit within her heart and show her Your peace. Show her Your love. Let her sense Your presence in a way that is tangible. Breathe fresh life into her heart. Give her the faith to believe that You are planting seeds of new life in the cracks of her broken heart. Give her faith to believe that You will carry her through this and restore her. Give her the ability to see and understand who she is and Your hand on her life. Thank you, God.

Jim: Amen. There’s hope ahead of your suffering. And Focus wants to be part of that. Contact us today if you need us. And we’ll get this book into your hands regardless of whether or not you can help cover the cost of that. But know that we’re here for you. Thank you, Pam, for being with us.

Pam: Thank you so much.

John: And once again, to get in touch, our number is 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY - 800-232-6459. And I do hope you’ll join us tomorrow as we hear from Lee Strobel. He explains why we need to be willing to talk about our faith with our friends and neighbors, and how we can do that.

Teaser:

Lee Strobel: Because so many of our friends have a spiritual sticking point - a question, a doubt, an issue, an objection - that’s holding them up - a sticking point in their spiritual journey. And if we can help them get resolution of that, they can make great progress toward the Cross.

End of Teaser

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Guest

Pam Vredevelt

View Bio
For more than 25 years, Pam Vredevelt has been a professional therapist and counselor in private practice. She is also a popular conference speaker and a best-selling author whose books include Hello Happy!, Empty Arms and Letting Go of Worry and Anxiety. Pam and her husband, John, have two children. Learn more about Pam at her website, pamvredevelt.com.