I once stumbled upon a television talk show where the host was whipping up the audience to argue among themselves about which was the most painful loss – that of a spouse, a parent or a child. It seemed callous and pointless. The fact is, none of us can truly compare our grief journey with anyone else’s. Nicholas Wolterstorff, writer and theologian, has used the word ‘inscape’1 to describe the internal landscape of each bereavement – different for each person grieving and for each person lost to them. Billions of permutations and combinations of experiences and emotions are possible, making every loss, every tale of grief, unique.
This book is one story of one loss (our first daughter, Jennifer) set in one place: central Scotland. It begins in a small but character-filled housing scheme, Ruchazie, by far the friendliest place I have ever lived, where Gordon and I embarked on married life.
Despite those particulars, I hope this book will help others who find themselves in the position we did of knowing that something is very wrong during pregnancy, or who have lost a child in other circumstances. I hope that, as you read, you’ll see me wrestling with thoughts you have experienced, and feel less alone. Along the way, you will discover what helped us and what didn’t, and through those sections, hopefully relatives, friends, pastors, church leaders, medical and allied professionals will pick up hints on how better to care. Please have a look at the bibliography and useful links section at the end of the book; hopefully you will find something there that will also be a help and support. Wonderfully, there are now resources available at the click of a button, which wasn’t the case when we were expecting Jennifer – for her story is also set in one particular time.
Jennifer would have been twenty-seven years old this year (2020), so why only write about her now? Because it’s an amazing story – not about me, but about Jennifer herself and how God stepped in and carried us, as we carried her. Retirement from work brought time to write, and also a sense of urgency, a desire to make sure that her story is passed down through the generations of our family – especially when we have a hymn in the fourth edition of the Church of Scotland’s Church Hymnary (CH4) written for us and its tune named for her;2 a desire, too, to be able to tell her story to a wider audience, because it’s undoubtedly good news. It’s about God loving us, even when we can’t do that ourselves, and about Him coming right up close and involving Himself with us.
Through the story of Jennifer, you will hear of a God who loves us more than we can possibly imagine. He loves us in all our mess, all our failures, all our weakness. My prayer is that, if you don’t already know Him, you’ll find Him in these pages and your eyes will be opened to His love for you. Perhaps you do know Him, but you’ve not yet learned that you can completely trust Him. Hopefully, as you read, you’ll see what a difference it can make to depend on His promises, which He always keeps.
This book is about the treasure of every life and the treasure of knowing a God who is with us. Thank you for reading it. May God bless you and speak to you as you do.
Karen S Palmer
By Gordon R Palmer
‘Do you have children? How many?’
It’s an innocent enough question which comes up not infrequently. After many years, I still don’t know how best to answer it. I usually say, ‘Two.’ To explain that I have three children, but one died hours after her birth, means upsetting the enquirer, making them feel awkward, and leaving me feeling awkward too. It’s much easier to say, ‘Two’ – even though I feel disloyal towards Jennifer when I do, and also that a part of me is being denied. It’s always been so. I’m Jennifer’s dad.
In the book, Karen mentions being at a wedding soon after we had had Jennifer. After the groom’s father had expressed his condolences, I recall saying to him that Karen and I were glad we were able to be there. Were we? Of course we were – at one level. But at another we knew, we all knew, that we were only able to be there because Jennifer was no longer with us. A double-edged sword.
This book has taken shape around diaries that Karen kept at the time, including one she began to write during the pregnancy for Jennifer. She has kept similar for our other daughters. It is therefore immediate, expressing first thoughts and reactions. It is reflective, as Karen in particular thought deeply about all that was going on. It is also honest, as diaries should be and often are. Some other bits and pieces from the time also feature: some words of family and friends; a tribute that Karen and I put together for the funeral which was read by our friend Alistair Drummond; and, of course, ‘A Cradling Song’ – a hymn now in CH4 and written by John L Bell. A couple of years ago, I was surprised and delighted as I sat in a friend’s house and her sister, who had not known about the origins of the hymn, reeled off the first verse – more word perfectly that I could have, or can.
It is because experiences like this can strike so many chords with other people that this story is told. It does help us to know that out of the worst thing that has ever happened to us, some lasting good has come. That does not justify what happened to Jennifer. Again, a double-edged sword.
The story is also told because we feel deeply thankful to so many people who were such a help to us. And it is told because our awareness of and love for God was deepened – even though we could never tell why this should have happened to us. Would it have helped to know? I doubt it. There are some things that can never be explained or justified. ‘For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known’ (1 Corinthians 13:12, NIV).
The day that I began to think that you might exist was one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. It was the Monday before Christmas. There was a covering of snow everywhere – on the trees and fields, and the sky was a pale pink. It looked so perfect and so peaceful that my heart felt like bursting in praise to God. I was listening to a tape by Ian White called ‘Psalms’3 and the words seemed to sum up how I was feeling, and confirm God’s love and care, no matter what the future was to hold.
Jennifer’s Diary, December 1992
It was Christmas Eve when we heard that you were coming. We made jokes about seeing wise men wandering about Ruchazie following a star! But Christmas did seem such a good time to hear about you, our gift from God; and it made Christmas extra special for your grandparents, aunts and uncles.
We enjoyed sharing such happy news with family and friends. Soon a hospital scan showed you, with arms and legs waving, no bigger than a butter bean; that was your first name – ‘Butter bean’. Later, we heard your heartbeat – it was a wooshing kind of sound; that was your second name – ‘Woosh-woosh’. Then we could feel, and even see, your first kicks.
Gordon’s tribute, August 1993
I’d been wanting to be pregnant for so long, that when it happened, it seemed too good to be true. Gordon and I had married in 1987, the day before my graduation in Medicine, and we had agreed to delay having a family until my specialty training was complete. It was a crazy beginning to married life – having not been certain that Gordon was definitely going to propose, I had arranged my Resident posts at the Inverclyde Royal Hospital in Greenock, where I would get valuable experience, even though Gordon had applied to be minister of Ruchazie Church of Scotland in the East End of Glasgow. Thirty miles of busy M8 motorway separated the two, and in 1987, before European working time directives and pressure from the Royal Colleges, junior doctors worked a ridiculous number of hours each week. It was possible, during a weekend, to be working continuously, without any sleep, for forty hours!
At least, because we were married and therefore living together, when I did have a night or a weekend off, I was able to go home and see him, rather than use one of the rooms assigned for Residents at the hospital.
For our second year of married life, I applied for a post in psychiatry at Duke Street Hospital in Glasgow (much nearer home) and then joined the psychiatry training scheme for the East End of Glasgow. Membership exams for the Royal College of Psychiatrists were in two parts – and I eventually passed Part Two in May 1992.
Had we started trying for a family before then? Certainly, at some stage we had gone to our General Practitioner (GP), concerned that it was taking a long time for me to conceive, and around the time of that pale pink sky in December our appointment card for the fertility clinic had dropped through our letter box. Instead, we attended the antenatal clinic where, at ten weeks, on 28th January, an ultrasound scan showed a tiny form with arms and legs that waved. I declined a blood test for detecting spina bifida and related conditions, and that first decision seemed easy.
My training rotation had placed me in the Royal Scottish National Hospital (RSNH) in Larbert. A hospital for patients with severe learning disabilities, many of whom had been there for decades, it was not a place conducive to taking the birth of a healthy baby for granted. While Gordon relished telling his parishioners our good news, I was much more hesitant. I knew most miscarriages happened before twelve weeks, however, and so reaching that stage in February seemed reason for rejoicing. Catherine, a lovely music therapist whose office was just along the corridor from mine was at the same stage of pregnancy, so we decided to hit the shops and buy something for our babies in celebration.
I began to feel much more confident about the pregnancy, but it bothered me that I didn’t have much of a bump. In March, at a routine antenatal appointment, my midwife was also concerned, but the height of my uterus was fine, and when her probe found the sound of the baby’s heart, we both heaved sighs of relief.
On the morning of Sunday 4th April, Dad felt you kick for the first time. It was as if you knew, because, before he felt with his hand, your movements were quite gentle. After a few seconds of your dad’s hand being there, you gave a kick that he couldn’t miss! You were nineteen weeks and four days old. The next day we found out that you were very sick.
Jennifer’s Diary, April 1993