NOTE: This is a guest post from Anne Ungarean. Her contribution here is significant to us, not simply because of her faithful story and her gift of writing, but because she and Nate were the first parents of loss we sat across from following Abel’s diagnosis in 2015. That interaction and the relationship that followed was so impactful that one of the first foundational services we sought to provide through Abel Speaks was that of a “mentor couple.” With that context and with no further adieu, here is a beautiful, personal piece from Anne in memory of Ava Elizabeth Ungarean.
When Everything Changed
Ever since I was little, my greatest desire has always been to become a mama. For as long as I can remember, I have been quietly enthralled with the nature of nurturing. When Nate and I were married back in 2012, I can now see so much naiveté in my false assumptions about pregnancy; namely, that a baby either made it to twelve weeks and then entered the “safe zone” or simply ended in a first-trimester miscarriage. It was in this manacled desire to achieve that safety and security that we walked into the hospital for our 12-week sonogram on November 15, 2013.
As we saw our big-bellied, active baby flittering to-and-fro on the screen, I was ecstatic and overcome with relief — already chiding myself for having let my misgivings have such a hold on my heart. I distinctly remember our quiet but kind sonographer, who subtly asked us several times if we were going to perform any standard genetic testing as she showed us what we assumed was our healthy, happy baby moving all over the screen. I smiled and dismissed the suggestion quickly, explaining that Nate and I felt no need to do any sort of genetic testing because we would love our baby regardless of his or her condition. Nate and I walked out of that sonogram room overjoyed and immediately sent the exciting update to our family and few friends who knew we were pregnant… We had no inkling that something was wrong with the tiny life inside of me.
Over the course of the next few hours, Nate and I would be told the sonographer saw several ‘markers’ signaling serious, life-threatening complications in our baby’s development. Moments after receiving this devastating news, we were sent to see a specialist who informed us that our baby had Trisomy 13 — a chromosomal disorder that was too severe to offer any hope, short of a divine miracle, of a sustainable life outside of the womb.
I remember feeling like someone had physically ripped my heart right out from inside of my chest as I tried to wrap my brain around the words that were suddenly being thrown my way. The specialist’s subsequent recommendation to terminate felt like a screaming cymbal reverberating in the most haunting of ways. Numb with grief and entranced in a heartbreaking narrative that I kept hoping would end, Nate and I unequivocally told the doctors that we were going to carry this little life for the remainder of his or her days. Still, I remember the reality of that decision, even in the fog of such shocking news, already felt full of consequences too heavy for my broken heart.
Nate and I spent the next six months walking an incredibly delicate balance of holding such immense pain and deep, deep joy as we simultaneously grieved and fell in love with our baby girl. We were loved and supported in ways I could never put into words — and yet the slow, painful soul work was something only Nate and I were fully experiencing as we held such heartbreaking hope and despair in the very same breath.
Our Day with Our Daughter
Ava Elizabeth Ungarean was born at 38 weeks on May 13, 2014. After almost nine hours of labor, when I finally saw that precious face appear, and heard Nate whisper, “Anne, she’s alive. Our little miracle is ALIVE,” the tidal wave of emotion came crashing down as all of the tears that had accompanied almost our entire journey together melted away into a cacophony of pure, unabated joy. Those six and a half hours with our Ava girl often feel like the closest I will ever be to peeking behind the veil as Heaven literally felt like it came down and kissed this broken place in those hours with our little love.
She cooed, opened her eyes, and snuggled her five pound, seven ounce, curly-haired self deep into our arms and our hearts. She was so loved and celebrated by our families, our friends, and by so many faithful ones we did not even know who had prayed over her precious life for so many months. And yet, exactly six and a half hours after welcoming her into the world, Ava’s life on earth ended and a whole new journey of grief began for Nate and for me.
It feels far too other-worldly to be able to put into words what it is like to watch your very flesh leave this world and enter the presence of Jesus before your eyes. Nate and I often say that being the ones who were able to hold Ava and be the arms that passed her to the very arms of the Father will forever be one of the greatest privileges of our lives. The peaceful nature of Ava’s entrance into heaven felt like the most beautiful answer to so many of our prayers. There was no struggle, no angst, but simply incredibly broken, yet beautiful, surrender.
Near to the Brokenhearted
In those quiet weeks that turned into months after Ava died, I often vacillated between a mind that was too numb to think and a mind that began to be driven crazy by questions that would come flooding in and seemingly wreak havoc in the hazy fog of my grief. One of those questions that plagued me in those first months and even years after Ava’s death is one that I believe every breaking heart eventually asks: “Where was God in this? Where IS God in this?”
In order to grieve in any sort of genuine God-glorifying way, I think one must go to those depths and field those dark questions that our human hearts simply cannot avoid in those severest moments of crisis. For in that deepest, darkest place we may sit for a time — even a long time — and even sometimes still revisit — but God, in His inexhaustible pursuit, displays perhaps His most brilliant glory, when He plunges into the darkness alongside us and creates life even there. As part of God’s continuing story of grace in my life, He has begun to allow me to see some of the beauty that has sprung forth from the story He decided, in advance, to weave specifically for me.
Through my journey, He has given me a platform I never would have chosen of my own accord, but one that has allowed me to connect with other hurting mamas who have likewise been thrust into those deep, dark places of saying goodbye to their babies. What a privilege this painful platform has become. In fact, I would say that one of the greatest joys that has come out of Ava’s life and death has been the way the Lord has brought other grief-stricken women into my life who are walking a path similar to my own. The ache of hearing their despair and literally feeling the weight of their broken hearts can feel overwhelming in moments, and yet I know the Lord has very much used this sort of ministry to help heal my own heart.
I am beginning to seethat I will carry so many aspects of Ava in my heart and life until she’s wrapped in my arms again, because I would have nothing to offer in those darkest of moments, had the Lord not walked me through my own desert of grief and isolation. And in that vein, Nate and I marvel often that as we continue to walk further and further away from Ava’s birth, it feels like the Lord’s work in our lives is bearing fruit exponentially.
As we continue to walk through more and more of life, we are learning that pain is a universal human experience that transcends our specific circumstances. Whether or not you’ve ever lost a child, we have all experienced deep hurt and anguish, and we all know that life can be unspeakably hard. I’m finding that the specific place of our very deepest pain and despair from our journey with Ava has become the well from which we can draw the purest waters of compassion, empathy, and love for those around us, regardless of whether our particular griefs look incredibly different from one another. And in that, I have begun to treasure the Lord’s kindness to give Nate and I such intimate access to a terribly broken and hurting world.
Our point of pain has become the place from which we can enter into another’s brokenness. We are well-acquainted with sorrow, but we are well-acquainted with the richness that is found there, reminding us of God’s paradoxical, radical love. And because of that, I can sit with the hurting, as well — simply offering my presence as a tiny yet tangible picture of our Father’s promise to be near to the brokenhearted. What a beautiful privilege.
When I take my eyes off of the cross, the broken and hurting part of my heart rears up and begs me to wonder how the Lord would ever again be able to provide life for me in the darkest valley. When I run down that spiraling path of anxiety, I once again fear the terrors of the night. But then I think about the unchanging character of our God. I spend a little bit of time at the foot of the cross. I am reminded that if He was willing to die for me, then He is certainly willing to carry me through another heartbreak. After all, knowing and trusting what God is like frames the relationship, and allows me to trust who He is more than what I feel.
Looking Back, Looking Ahead
Ava still speaks because she’s transformed our family’s perspective into one measured in the eternal. She speaks as we offer comfort to the broken and sit with the grieved, offering simply our presence and the living hope that keeps us walking day by day. She speaks every time her three younger siblings speak her name and include her in everything we do, constantly asking for us to tell them about their big sister.
Ava’s absence is one that will forever leave me wanting all of my babies, and painfully aware that my family will never be whole this side of heaven. And yet, because of this pain, I am equally aware that living a life marked by profound loss has given me the severe mercy of being terribly needy and dependent upon Him. But I must choose daily — sometimes hourly — whether or not I will embrace the pain and lean into the hard moments. Will I remember that my sufferings can keep me both humble and aware of the hurting hearts around me, or will I stuff them away and let the bitterness eat at my soul? Will I trust that God is for me and that His nearness is my good, or will I seek to make sense of it all by numbing myself through futile and terribly vain distractions?
As Ava’s three younger siblings get older, these are just a few of the conversations I long to have with them one day. I find myself praying at night for their future. I wish I could spare them from the unknown griefs that I know will be inevitable in their lives. And yet in the same breath, I find myself asking the Lord to mold their hearts in a way that will give them access to love a broken and hurting world. More than anything, though, I pray that they will come to believe that under the Shadow of the Almighty, no storm will be too violent. No fear too paralyzing. And no grief too great. I pray that their big sister’s life will be a testimony to the intimate, life-giving love of Our Heavenly Father.