Joel Denver McDonald. It was a family name in part, with my husband (Josiah Denver), his dad (John Denver), and his great-grandpa (Lawrence Denver) all sharing the same middle name. Before we even knew we were expecting a boy, we had chosen the name Joel. I spent many mornings listening to the Book of Joel on my Bible app, waiting for God to tell me which of the verses our baby boy would emulate. But do you give your baby the perfect name you had meticulously chosen, even if he’s dead?
Joel never took his first breath and he won’t be the one to carry on the family name. At my 32 week prenatal checkup on 30 July 2020 we found out that Joel no longer had a heartbeat. To understand the devastation this day brought, I need to start at the beginning
Five months earlier, we heard the most beautiful sound ever, our baby’s heartbeat. Even though the ultrasound showed a black blob on the screen, Josiah and I were instantly in love with that blob the moment we heard a heartbeat.
The first trimester was fairly uneventful. I was often referred to as “one of the lucky ones” because I didn’t suffer through morning sickness or any other major discomforts. I had some nausea, but nothing terrible. I continued to work my full time job and run or workout at the gym 4-5 days a week. We decided to tell our immediate families that we were expecting the first grandchild and nephew, but held off on telling the world until we reached the safety of the second trimester.
Immediately following my 12 week appointment, we told the world we were expecting our first child! Josiah posted on Instagram and we sent out mass text messages to everyone we knew, spreading our excitement.
At my 20 week anatomy ultrasound, the tech said that she couldn’t get a good look at the baby’s front, so I was scheduled to come back in two weeks so she could try to see his heart and face better. On 20 May 2020 the veneer of our perfect pregnancy was chipped. The ultrasound tech saw a possible Ventricular Septal Defect (VSD) and I was referred to a pediatric cardiologist. That night, Josiah held me as I balled. Our baby boy had some sort of hole in his heart and I was scared and confused.
A week later, Josiah and I went to see the pediatric cardiologist. He concluded that although he could see the blood passing between the lower two heart ventricles, he couldn’t see a pronounced hole. Therefore, the VSD must be very small. He told us not to worry, and to follow up with him within the first month after birth. We walked out of the doctor’s office and both let out a huge sigh of relief. Joel would be fine, our pregnancy was still perfect, and lots of people live healthy lives with a VSD. We prayed often that God would close up Joel’s heart and mold it into perfection before birth.
During my second trimester, I had 4-5 bouts of lightheadedness and nausea. These usually occurred shortly after I woke up in the morning, after eating breakfast. I mentioned the episodes to my OBGYN at my 28 week checkup, and after taking my blood pressure, she assured me that everything was ok and it was probably just due to a drop in blood pressure at the time. She said I did the right thing by reclining to bring my head and heart to the same level and allow blood to flow.
Also during the second trimester, I started to feel those wonderful kicks. I would lie on the couch, and quickly grab Josiah’s hand to place on my stomach in the hopes that he’d be able to feel the movements too. Josiah would put his head up to my belly and talk to Joel, which always got him kicking. Joel and I enjoyed our fair share of McDonald’s and ice cream. I would always laugh when I’d tell Josiah I made a lunch stop at McDonald’s, elating in the fact that this was definitely his son inside of me!
The week following my 30 week checkup, I noticed Joel hadn’t moved at all. I shared my concern casually with my husband and my in-laws, but had read online that sometimes babies run out of space in the womb (which isn’t true) or they’re moving at night while mom is sleeping, so I didn’t call my OB since I didn’t want to bother her with an overreaction. My OB hadn’t told me to count kicks or track fetal movement, and she didn’t tell me to call immediately if fetal movement changed.
On 30 July 2020 our world came crashing down. It was a bright sunny day and my parents were in town staying with us for a few days to help prep our house for my baby shower on Saturday 1 August. We had received lots of gifts in advance from people who wouldn’t be attending the shower in person, and the nursery was beginning to look like an Amazon shipment warehouse with all the boxes. I had a long list of errands to run and was excited to get my 32 week checkup out of the way. It started off just like any other appointment, my OB was her usual 30 minutes late and when she finally came into the room she exhaled a sigh of relief that this appointment was with an easy patient (yes, she actually said that). When she asked if I had any concerns, I told her that I hadn’t felt the baby move lately. She measured my stomach, and all was good, then she used the doppler to find Joel’s heartbeat.
She searched around for a couple of minutes, both of us listening closely for that strong heartbeat we’d heard just two weeks ago. Eventually she said she was having trouble finding the heartbeat, and asked if I had time to stay for a quick ultrasound. I sat in the waiting room for about 5 minutes before she called me back to the ultrasound room. I started to get the idea that something was wrong when instead of putting the ultrasound picture up on the TV screen in front of me, the OB and the tech huddled around the screen to my right where I couldn’t see it. I tried to crane my neck to see the image as the tech moved the wand around my belly. Eventually the OB stepped back from the screen and said the words nobody ever wants to hear, “Shannon, I’m sorry, but your baby doesn’t have a heartbeat.”
I just stared blankly at her, not knowing what to say, thinking that this wasn’t real, I must be imagining this. It felt like I was watching a Lifetime Movie drama, this couldn’t be real life. My OB let out a sigh and again said she was sorry, then asked “do you have any questions?” I felt like an idiot, of course I should have questions! But my mind was blank. I wasn’t crying, I couldn’t think of any questions, I didn’t know what to say. With that, my OB told me to go home and she’d call me at the end of her day to discuss next steps. I walked out of the office in a daze. I had to call my husband and tell him his son was dead. I had to tell my parents who were working diligently to get our house ready for a baby shower that wasn’t going to happen. I had to tell all our friends and family that there wouldn’t be a baby shower…. there wouldn’t be a baby.
As soon as I got outside, I called my husband. All I could say was “I have bad news,” and then the tears came. As if telling Josiah what had happened would make it all too real, I was sobbing through what I knew I had to say. All I could think to say is “I’m so sorry… I’m so so sorry.”
We cried for the loss of our son, the death of all the hopes and dreams we’d had for him and our family. Joel wouldn’t be a lacrosse or football player, he wouldn’t learn his ABCs, he wouldn’t go to college or into the military like his grandpa, we would never know if he was right handed like me or left handed like Josiah, or if he had my blue eyes or Josiah’s award winning hazel eyes. The next few days were the hardest days of our lives, and I pray we never have to relive them.
We arrived home to my parents, who were drenched in sweat and wondering why Josiah was home from work so early. All I could say is “the baby is dead. He doesn’t have a heartbeat.” Then we held each other in an awkward group hug as my parents began to fully realize they’d lost their one and only grandchild. They asked “is the doctor sure?” and “what happened?”
The OB finally called around 5PM and told us that we could go into the hospital to induce whenever we wanted, there was no rush. We scheduled the induction for 7AM the following morning and tried to go to bed knowing that the next day was going to suck. That was all we could say and it’s the only word I’ve found that does the situation justice… it sucked. It sucked a lot.
On 31 July 2020 we arrived at the hospital promptly at 7AM. We checked in with security and as we walked away, the guard yelled after us “Congratulations!” Josiah and I didn’t look back, but instead just shuffled down the hall silently. We were given a huge room with a full bathroom and tended to by the best nurses. I was hooked up to an IV and given a pill to begin dilating my cervix. They told us we had to wait 4 hours between doses, so we waited. During that time, the nurse brought us an adorable knitted hat and blanket and a stuffed bear that was from the hospital’s bereaved parents support group. We were also told that since Joel was more than 24 weeks gestational age, we would have to make funeral/cremation arrangements before leaving the hospital. Josiah and I didn’t want to make funeral arrangements for our unborn son. We tried to talk about it, eventually settling on cremation, but neither of us had the strength to call the long list of funeral homes the nurse had given us.
After four hours, my cervix was dilated enough to start Pitocin. I also went ahead and got an epidural at that time, deciding that I needed all my strength to endure the mental pain and couldn’t afford to feel the physical pain too. After a few hours, the doctor broke my water. The nurse was struggling with the amount of amniotic fluid that gushed out, telling me that it wasn’t normal. About 20 towels and a new set of bed sheets later, I heard Polyhydraminos for the first time. The nurse also said there was meconium present in the amniotic fluid, indicating that Joel was stressed. This was a blow to my already fragile ego, because my baby boy was struggling to stay alive inside of me and I had no idea.
At about 7:30PM we finally made the dreaded call to make funeral arrangements. The nurse had given us a flyer from A Mom’s Peace and told us they could help with the arrangements. We thank God for Kara and A Mom’s Peace, as she answered our call right away on that Friday night and quickly assured us that she’d take care of all the arrangements. We were so relieved to have someone else take that burden for us.
A little bit before 10PM I started to feel pressure. We called the nurse in and they quickly began to prep the room for delivery. My body began to shake uncontrollably as the doctor told me that it was time to push. Luckily, it was all over quickly as it only took one push to deliver our tiny baby boy into the world. The room was dead silent, and it was time to meet our baby.
Joel Denver McDonald was born at 10:28PM on 31 July 2020. He was 3lbs 5.6oz and stillborn. Josiah and I had debated if we wanted to hold our dead baby or take pictures of him, honestly we were a little grossed out about the thought of it. But the moment Joel was born, all I wanted to do was hold him. He was covered in vernix and had the worst case of cone head, but he was absolutely perfect. I smiled as I took inventory of my son as he lay still in my arms. He had all his fingers and all his toes, and the cutest little nose. The only thing missing was his heartbeat.
Before showing our family pictures of Joel from the hospital, I explained that he looked like he’d gotten in a really bad fight. The only thing that looked normal was his nose. His body looked like it had a really bad sunburn, his eyelids looked raw and blistered, half of the skin on his hands had peeled away, leaving raw red flesh exposed. No one talks about what stillborns actually look like. The hard truth is, it depends on how long the baby has been dead. No one ever estimated when Joel had died, but his body told the story. It’s something that I hope you never have to see for yourself, and if you have seen a stillborn baby, I’m sorry. It’s something I definitely wish I never had to see. But what I find even more difficult to explain is that Joel was so beautiful and perfect in my eyes. I thank God that Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep exists, and they were able to retouch the photos we took of Joel so that we can share them with our friends and family (I even have a picture of Joel hanging in my cubicle at work!). Josiah and I held him, and eventually warmed up enough to touch him and unwrap his blanket to look at his body. We knew this would be the only chance we’d ever have to see our son, so we made the most of it.
We spent the night in the hospital after an absolutely exhausting day. Although my baby was stillborn, I still had the joy of post-labor recovery. I woke in the middle of the night shaking uncontrollably with chills that felt like I was sitting in an ice bath. In the quiet darkness the next morning, I picked up my baby boy with fresh eyes and sobbed as I thought about the quickly approaching time that we’d have to leave him. Josiah spent some time holding Joel that morning before we decided it was time to go. As the nurse approached the door pushing Joel in the bassinet, she said “and here’s a nice warm blanket for him” and laid it over the bassinet, covering Joel from being seen by passerby in the hallway. That warm blanket wasn’t to comfort our baby boy, it was to comfort those outside who wanted to avoid seeing the evidence that dead babies exist and stillbirths happen.
As I write this I am almost two months postpartum and I’m healing more and more every day. I returned to work one week and two days after delivering Joel. It was difficult, but necessary to get back to “normal.” The condolence cards, flowers, meals, and phone calls have stopped, and the lingering baby shower gifts have all arrived and remain boxed in the nursery closet. My tears have slowly dried, and I am able to see the light in things again. I was able to fill Joel’s baby book with the many, but too few, pictures we have of him. I have become passionate about advocating for healthy pregnancies, and am now part of the Star Legacy Foundation’s Virginia Chapter. I hope that my work with the Star Legacy Foundation will help Joel’s legacy to live on for many years, because no one deserves to experience a stillbirth.
Joel 3:16 – The heavens and earth will shake; but the LORD will be a shelter for His people