The legacy of Gianna

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It’s been three years, give or take, since we lost Gianna. When one of my sons and his wife announced there were expecting a baby, there was the usual excitement, congratulations, and joy.

Immediately, I added the child to my prayer list and whenever I prayed for my grandchildren, of which there were 11 at the time, I included this one that was on the way. When it was discovered that it was a girl and that she would be named Gianna, then I prayed for her by name.

I think that roles and responsibilities are to be taken seriously. As a father, my task was to “train a child up in the way he should go.” For better or for worse, I tried to do that. When the three boys became adults, I tried to no longer treat them as my children but as men. Then grandchildren came.

The role of a grandfather is, I think, not to raise them, although I know that some must, of necessity, do that, but to be an influence for them. If one is fortunate enough to live long enough to be a great-grandparent, which I am not at this point, I think the main task is to generally just love, appreciate, and observe them.

As part of my grandfatherly influencing, I pray for my grandchildren every day. Five of them are now adults and two are married. I have added their spouses to the prayer list as well. They are, after all, my grandchildren-in-law. But back to the story.

As I prayed for Gianna, I found a strange thing happening. I began to bond with her. She became real to me. After a time, at least in my prayers, there was no discernible difference between her and the other eleven grandchildren. When people asked me about my grandchildren, I would reply that I had eleven here and one on the way.

I even imagined what she might look like. Would her hair be curly or straight? Would her skin be pale or darker? What color would her hair be? What would she do with her life? What kind of mother would she eventually be?

And then came the bad news. There was a serious problem. The diagnosis was a rare condition. It was unlikely, the doctor said, that she would make it to full term. If she did, she would be a special needs child and need lots of care, treatment, and attention. She would never be “normal.”

My son and daughter-in-law refused to consider termination. It was later that the announcement came that Gianna was no longer alive. My wife and I went to the hospital to be with the parents as a procedure was done. The term for such a death is “fetal demise.” Another term is “miscarriage,” but that term seems, somehow, impersonal, as if someone carelessly dropped a fruit off a shopping cart. This was intensely personal.

There was sadness, of course, and tears. The real impact to me came the next morning when I prayed for my grandchildren. I went through the eleven names, stopping over each one, and then came to Gianna, the little girl I would never meet and never know, at least on this earth. And I cried. Oh, how I cried.

I sobbed as though I had been her grandfather for years and that she had been struck down in the prime of her youthful innocence. I wailed in grief for this lost child, for her parents, for her other grandparents, for my wife, and for myself. I knew my own grief paled in comparison to her parents but, still, mine was sorrowful enough.

There was a time when, if a woman lost a baby through miscarriage, I would have expressed my sympathies and moved on. What I subconsciously believed was something like, “Well, it’s not like you lost a child.” That is still a popular sentiment among many.

I can never go back to that. Gianna, and her loss, changed all that for me. By giving her a name and through praying for her every day, something special happened. She wasn’t a “fetus,” whatever others may say. She was Gianna and she was my granddaughter and I would get to hold her soon.

About a year later, my son and his wife had a daughter. She’s called a “rainbow baby.” A rainbow baby is a name coined for a healthy baby born after losing a baby due to miscarriage, infant loss, stillbirth, or neonatal death. The name “rainbow baby” comes from the idea of a rainbow appearing in the sky after a storm, or after a dark and turbulent time. And she is, indeed, a joy. She is beautiful, vibrant, and has quite the personality at over 2 years old.

Now, every day I pray for my thirteen grandchildren and the two spouses. The thirteenth is Gianna. I have never ceased to pray for her even after she was lost to us. I would say to people, “I have twelve grandchildren. Eleven who are here and one who is with the Lord.” I still do the same, except the number has changed to thirteen.

Mostly, I ask God to bless Gianna which I know he will do since she is in his presence. I do expect to be introduced to her some day. Some day there will be no more tears, no more sorrow, no more despair, and no more separation.

Though I never met her, held her, or kissed her, she changed my life in ways I could not have imagined. My perspective has been radically altered and my pro-life view has become even more solidified. My understanding of the pain involved in the loss of a baby not yet born has been increased. This is her legacy to me.

There is a footnote to the story. When we lost Gianna, I was taking a course in Clinical Pastoral Education which required that I be on call. One night, about 11 p.m., just a couple of weeks after Gianna’s demise, a call came in. As I rushed to the hospital, I called, spoke to the charge nurse on that floor and requested details.

She informed me that there had been a fetal demise. My heart caught in my throat and I considered asking someone else to take the call. I chose to continue on but prayed fervently.

The father had just left to check on things at home, so I was alone with the young mother who was heart-broken. When I asked what happened, she shared that her child had a rare condition that hardly anyone had ever heard of. When she told me what the condition was, my heart seemed to stop. It was the same rare condition that was diagnosed in Gianna.

I said, “Actually, I have heard of that.” I shared my story and we both held hands and cried for ourselves and each other. When I prepared to leave, she wiped away tears and said, “I guess God knew who to send to me tonight.” This, too, is a part of the legacy of Gianna’s very short life.

I don’t pretend to understand why things happen as they often do. I have learned that, even if people knew why things happened, it wouldn’t help much. The pain and the loss are still there. I have also learned that it matters very much what we do in response to the seemingly bad things that have happened.

So, I will continue to pray for my thirteen grandchildren, wherever they are and whatever they are doing, and ask God to protect them, bless them, and lead them to Himself. After all, it’s my role and my responsibility to influence them and what better way than to bring God into the mix?

[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, Sharpsburg, GA between Newnan and Peachtree City (www.ctk.life). He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South which consists of Georgia and Tennessee and the Associate Endorser for the Department of the Armed Forces, U. S. Military Chaplains, ICCEC. He may contacted at davidepps@ctk.life.]