Ashleigh and I were first introduced to Abel Speaks by our neighbor in 2018, before we ever started our family. We were touched by the stories and the mission to support parents choosing to carry a child with a life-limiting diagnosis, and over the next couple of years we kept up with this ministry. We never imagined that they would be serving us during our first pregnancy two years later…
“Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” [Proverbs 19:21]
Fast-forward to May 20, 2020. We are proud expecting parents, and Ashleigh is going in for her 12-week appointment. COVID-19 restrictions meant she was by herself with the doctors, and I was waiting in the parking lot. During the ultrasound, the doctor found something concerning and set us up with a specialist the next day. They sat Ashleigh down, alone in a room with me on the phone, and explained that our baby had a large cystic hygroma. After laying out the dreadful statistics in short order, the doctor recommended terminating the pregnancy. And yet, in the midst of so much confusion and fear, two things became abundantly clear to us: life is precious, and as hard as we may try, we are not in control.
We reached out to Abel Speaks, and they met with us and helped us begin to process the road ahead. We found a great advocate and caring specialist in Dr. Ashley Zink, who we saw on a weekly basis for checkups. She soon diagnosed our baby with Turner Syndrome, which only affects females. In that moment, we learned that we were having a little girl, and we learned that our little girl’s life was likely to be limited. And so on the hardest path we’ve ever walked, we took one step at a time together, trusting that the Lord would continue to lead us. And in this way, day by day, we carried and cherished our daughter, Elizabeth Claire Carlton.
As hard as it is to first receive life-altering news, truthfully, the season of waiting often felt even harder. Consistent doctor visits with no good news took their toll. As the weeks wore on, we became weary, and it was hard to cherish Beth’s life in the midst of such sorrow. However, in that time of unparalleled hardship, we experienced what it is like to truly have your community “lift you up.” With the love and support of so many, we were never alone. Family and friends were with us, listening, hurting, grieving, stocking our fridge, among many other things. They were God’s clearest expression of grace and provision during that time, a steady anchor for us, and without them we would have been lost.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” [Psalm 23:4]
Our support system reminded us to not lose hope or forsake joy, and encouraged us to savor every day we were given with our first child. So we took walks, talked about how special Beth was to us, and gave thanks for her life, not knowing what was in store. Looking back over Beth’s life, we are truly grateful for those simple moments together that became our most cherished memories. We even dedicated a tree to Beth in a quiet garden at the Dallas Arboretum, which will remain a special place to us.
It was the twentieth week of the pregnancy when the doctors discovered that Beth’s heart had stopped beating. Losing her was the hardest thing Ashleigh and I have ever been through, but even in the darkest moment there was light. When Beth was born, “It is Well” was playing in the background and my sweet wife whispered with love to our precious baby girl “I wish it didn’t have to happen this way.” As a husband and father, witnessing the peace my wife had in those moments spoke more loudly to me of God’s love than anything else has.
Joy and sorrow are inexplicably and inextricably linked in God’s heart. Although we can’t explain this in words as clearly as we can feel it, in giving our hearts to Beth, Ashleigh and I have been drawn closer to the heart of God. Without exception, we will all encounter sorrow on the path to joy. We cannot avoid that suffering, but we have seen that God can use it for good.
Losing Beth did not put an end to the story, and honestly, losing Beth did not put an end to our sorrows either. Ashleigh and I felt an even deeper and lonelier grief in the weeks after losing her than the days before. Processing everything took concerted effort and became exhausting. We’ve remained in contact with Abel Speaks throughout the journey, who have continued to serve us during this time. The workbook that Daniel and Kelly Crawford wrote, called A Parent’s Guide to Sorrow and Suffering, led us through difficult topics and helped us come together in prayer and understanding. Six months later, we know there’s still a long road ahead and many days will be tough, but our marriage has never been stronger.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.” [John 16:20]
As we reflect on this pregnancy, we can truly say that we are first filled with thankfulness. Thankful for our firstborn Beth, who made us parents. Thankful for her grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins, who held us up and cared for us, even in the midst of their own grief. Thankful for doctors and nurses who supported and valued our daughter’s life. Thankful for ministries like Abel Speaks who stand for life and continue to care for families like ours.
We’ve learned in a real way that life is precious and often fragile. Our days are numbered and may be plagued by all sorts of hardships, but it doesn’t take a certain number of days in or out of the womb to be considered a child of God. Beth’s life is a miracle. While we wish things didn’t work out this way, we are also grateful for Beth and would not trade knowing and loving her to be spared the pain of losing her. Although she was with us for only a short time, she’ll always be a part of our family.
Seth & Ashleigh Carlton, in memory of Elizabeth Claire