Andrea shares about the unexpected blessings she experienced during her family’s infant loss amid military life in this final installment of her four-part series on parenting. Don’t miss a single nugget of wisdom from her first three posts: Raising Young Men Amid Military Life, Raising Pre-Teen Boys Amid Military Life, and Parent Like an Olive Grower.
Infant Loss Amid Military Life
by Andrea Plotner
Welcome to the final week of a four-week series on parenting. Today I am sharing the story of our infant daughter, Antonia, who lived for just three days in 1999. Though short, her life seemed to impact more people for good than mine had in thirty years. And we did not grieve as those who have no hope, rather we had an enormous sense of God’s eternal hope and peace that passes understanding even as we walked through the valley of the shadow of death.
It was December 23, as my husband Todd & I went in for a routine, 20-week ultrasound. The technician indicated her machine was malfunctioning and stepped out of the room. Our doctor stepped in minutes later. Unsuspecting, I said, “I didn’t know you came to these appointments.” Her response: “I don’t.”
She went on to explain our second baby, a girl, had anencephaly, a neural-tube defect similar to spina bifida. Because the spinal cord doesn’t fully close, the delicate brain tissue is exposed to amniotic fluid. Truth–In that moment, the rest of our lives caring for a special-needs child flashed before my eyes.
“What is the survival rate?” I asked.
“It’s fatal,” the doctor said, explaining that while in utero the womb acts as a life-support system. “Come back after Christmas, and we’ll induce labor.” Todd and I instantly knew we did NOT want to induce labor but let God-given life take its natural course. It surprised us that this was a controversial medical decision.
We had plans to leave for a military family “winter sports camp” three days later, ironically at the conference center where we now work, Spring Canyon in Buena Vista, CO. But maybe not so ironic when you hear how God used that time to pour courage into us. As we gathered, family style, around the meal tables we were comforted both by a family whose young child had died of cancer in the past year and also by a very young service member who had just come through an severe bout of cancer herself.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort,who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.
2 Corinthians 1:3-4 ESV
This was only the beginning of the floodgates of blessings God showered upon us.
Practically every day we opened the door to gifts of every kind on our front porch—cards, fruit baskets, flowers and plants, hot dinners, vacation getaways, babysitting offers for our 18 month old, specific words and prayers of encouragement, and more. One faraway friend called me weekly on Thursday mornings throughout that pregnancy, and another friend added our daughter’s life to her 40-day fast. One counselor friend helped me find a grief care group, and even went with me to pre-order a burial casket.
Perhaps my most profound personal experience during this time was a deep, tangible, and unmistakable sense of God’s presence and protection, without any striving on my part. Perhaps my contribution was simple faith and trust, but even those are gifts from God. I had read before about God’s “peace that passes understanding” (Philippians 4) and it so completely enveloped me that I understood for the first time what it means when Psalm 23:4 says, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me; Your rod and your staff they comfort me.”
Our next doctor’s visit was a sweet one.
We had Everett, our 18-month old, with us and when he heard the baby’s heartbeat on the monitor he waggled his finger and began dancing to the rhythm.
Much of our immediate family was able to attend Antonia’s birth. Anencephalic babies are stillborn 50% of the time so it was an unexpected gift that Antonia’s life spanned three days during which she was baptized, I was able to nurse her, and she never left our arms. We even had a moment of humor when, diaper-less, Grammy discovered all other bodily systems were operational. If your curiosity is morbid, Antonia had no skin or skull covering her brain tissue which was fully exposed.
We lived on a relatively small Army post, so the memorial service was full. Two sweet friends from my women’s Bible study (PWOC) played lullabies on the piano and violin, so there was not a dry eye in the house when the service started. One dear family sewed a bonnet and burial gown for Antonia, my grandmother sent her a bracelet and quilt, and another friend a tiny cross necklace. One set of friends babysat Everett during the services. All 300 listeners heard of God’s good news of life in his son Jesus and the hope of eternity. It may sound strange, but it was a sweet and celebratory day rather than sad.
I treasure a plaque from a friend which reads “The value of a life is not measured in time.”
The blessings continued.
In the months following, the local university debated the medical ethics of our case. Best of all, my dad decided to place his faith and trust in Christ in large part because of our experiences. Even today, I receive photos of her gravesite from friends at or passing through Ft. Riley, KS. Antonia was born on May 5, Cinco De Mayo, with dark hair and fair skin, so we “fiesta” as a family on her birthday.
I hope you can see the many kindnesses of God expressed through Antonia’s life and death. Perhaps the one I would like to highlight echoes this year’s theme of “Growing Together” here at Planting Roots military ministry. As parents, God is always after our growth, our fruitfulness, our flourishing NO MATTER WHAT and he surrounds us with one another for strength and encouragement. As military women, we are often far from family amid the highs and lows of life yet in Christ we have a community of faith we call “framily.”
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.