Everything was ready.
Already the parents of two girls, Jessica and Derek Nichols were thrilled when they learned they would have a baby boy. They named him Gavin. A soccer coach for the University of Central Arkansas, Derek had dreamed of teaching his little boy how to kick a ball … with his wife cheering them on.
By the time Jessica was 37 weeks pregnant, the nursery had been repainted in earth tones. The diapers were neatly stacked, and a comfy rocking chair stood by the crib.
On the morning of July 13, 2012, Jessica thought she was in labor, and Derek rushed her to the hospital. His mom captured the excitement of 5-year-old Haley and 4-year-old Kensey on videotape after they left: “Mom and Dad went to the hospital to have Gavin!”
And then … everything changed.
Something felt wrong
Arriving at the hospital, Jessica was admitted through the emergency room. Her pains were similar to those she had with her two daughters. But they were also different, sharper and in the upper part of her back … and she was nauseated. She sensed that something was wrong, and told Derek that she felt like she was having a heart attack.
Her blood pressure became dangerously high and her left arm became numb. She told the labor and delivery nurse that things just weren’t right.
Thankfully the nurse consulted the doctors, who ordered an MRI. They began looking for blockage in Jessica’s heart and stopped her labor.
Soon afterward Jessica was moved to the cardiac care unit. She gasped for breaths as fluid began overflowing in her lungs. The doctors were trying to figure out what was going on when she passed out.
The problem was that all this was happening with a woman who was about to give birth. The doctors met with Derek and explained what would happen if Jessica didn’t make it: The surgeon would have just six minutes to get Gavin. The baby would immediately be taken to Arkansas Children’s Hospital, one of the best pediatric hospitals in the world.
Derek was adamant that the doctors should try to save both mother and child. “I want both of them!” he said.
So Jessica was put on life support, and she began to breathe with the help of a ventilator.
A risky surgery
A special dye was injected into Jessica’s heart, and x-ray images were taken to track the dye’s movement. The problem was finally located: The main vessels in the front of her heart were torn. Her heart was so weak that she could not live through any type of delivery—natural or Cesarean.
Open-heart surgery on a woman about to deliver a baby is very rare and very risky. A surgeon said he was willing to try the difficult procedure. He said if it was successful and the baby survived, then he would be delivered two weeks later.
The surgery began early on a Sunday morning while Derek and many others waited … and prayed. After about six hours, Jessica’s surgeon called her immediate family into a small room. He said the surgery had gone well, and he was hopeful Jessica would survive; the next 48 hours were critical. But he also said the baby’s heart had slowed during the most crucial time of the surgery, eventually stopping. They had lost Gavin.
Derek could hardly comprehend what he had just heard: His only son had died … His wife might survive?
How could he raise the girls alone? Hadn’t he, and so many others, begged God to spare both Jessica’s and Gavin’s lives? Where was God?
Although most people are taken off of a ventilator a few hours after open-heart surgery, Jessica was on life support for about two days. Her body finally responded on the fourth try to take her off of the ventilator.
Waking from surgery, she saw Derek and her family surrounding her bed. Derek was dreading how to tell his wife about Gavin. But before he could let Jessica know, she pointed to the ceiling. With tubes still in her throat, she pointed up again and then to her tear-filled eyes. At first the family couldn’t understand what she was trying to communicate. Then her mother said, “You saw God.”
Jessica nodded her head, Yes! Yes! Somehow she already knew that Gavin was with the Lord.
Surrounded by loved ones and medical staff scurrying in and out of her room, Jessica had an overwhelming sense of peace. “It was like His Holy Spirit was [saying], ‘Everything is going to be okay,’” she recalls.
A risky delivery
The peace that everything would be okay did not remove the fact that Gavin had died. Jessica was still carrying her son.
The doctors had hoped to postpone Gavin’s stillborn delivery for two more weeks, allowing Jessica’s fragile body a chance to heal and form needed scar tissue. But one week after her surgery, her labor began in earnest.
It became “game time” for three different teams at the hospital—obstetric, cardiac, and medical. There were so many unknowns. Could Jessica’s heart withstand the stress of childbirth?
The Nichols clung to what Jessica calls God’s promise to her after losing Gavin: that everything would be okay.
During Jessica’s labor, Derek and their immediate family formed a prayer circle at the head of her bed.
There was no baby’s cry when Gavin was delivered. That’s when reality hit home for Jessica: Her baby boy would never come home.
The nurses wrapped Gavin in a receiving blanket and placed him into his mother’s arms. Tears fell from Derek’s and Jessica’s eyes.
Countless thoughts raced through Jessica’s head: I can't believe he's finally here. … I can't believe he's really not here. … Is this really for real? … Thank you, God, for giving me this moment.
Jessica touched Gavin’s perfectly formed fingers and toes. She thanked God for allowing her to be with him, at least for a little while on earth.
Later the doctors told Jessica that Gavin had actually saved her life. She had come to the hospital because she thought she was in labor, allowing her to be in the right place at the right time. If she had been at home when the main vessels in her heart tore, it’s likely that both she and Gavin would have died.
Two days after delivering Gavin, Jessica was discharged from the hospital. The tubes and wires were finally removed, and she was trying to get control of her body again.
But before Jessica left, she and Derek were given a warning: “Fifty percent of all marriages result in divorce after the death of a child.”
Glancing at one another, the Nichols vowed their marriage would make it. They were determined that Gavin’s death would not destroy their relationship.
“For us,” Derek says, “that’s not an option. We are strong-willed and we knew we would make it through.”
Jessica was overflowing with pain and grief on the drive home from the hospital. Her body ached with every bump and turn. Then the dam holding her pent-up emotions finally broke. Knowing she would never bear more children, she questioned out loud, "Why do some people have kids who don’t even want them? Why was the life of their son taken away?"
As Jessica and Derek pulled into their driveway, their two girls were excited that Mom and Dad were finally coming home. Haley and Kensey thought that Gavin was coming home with them, too. They knew their mother had gotten sick at the hospital, but little more.
Derek and Jessica asked the girls to come into their bedroom, and Derek bent down and told them about Gavin.
Five-year-old Haley smiled and her eyes brightened, “Gavin’s with God!” she said.
Those words of childlike faith reminded the Nichols that Gavin was fine. That he really was with the Lord.
“That was a huge moment,” Jessica says, “that little glimpse of Haley’s joy.”
Fear and doubt
Despite the girls’ initial joy that Gavin was with the Lord, the day-to-day reality of his loss was hard on the entire family. Jessica was not only grieving the loss of Gavin, but also recovering from life-saving surgery. She could hardly walk from the car into the house.
She knew what had happened to Gavin, yet was drowsy from medication. She often asked herself, “Is this real?” Physically unable to care for herself, much less the girls, she relied on the help of others.
Jessica had to lie in an elevated position and usually slept in a recliner. She missed snuggling with her husband at night, and sometimes felt isolated.
Two weeks after her open-heart surgery she had been told that she would probably need more heart surgery. “My mental state was not the best at all,” she says, “and I had a lot of fear … I was afraid my heart would give way again.”
It was often difficult for her to drift to sleep as she recalled going into labor at night … and then needing surgery. When she was tempted to doubt God’s plan and goodness, she remembered His promise to her in the hospital, “Everything is going to be alright.”
“I hear a baby crying”
Jessica’s mind, body, and emotions had much healing to do. Her entire body had been seriously stressed when her heart was stopped during the surgery. And she was not just a heart patient. She was also a grieving mother who had lost a child and also knew that she would never bear more children.
During the first weeks of her recovery, there were times when she thought she heard Gavin crying. She would struggle to get up and search for him. When she told Derek about this, he called a doctor and was relieved to learn this was normal.
That’s when Derek and Jessica took the “crying baby” to God in prayer. Soon after the imaginary crying stopped. Rather than search for Gavin in the nursery, she went there to find comfort as she wept and prayed.
Prayer became very important to Jessica and Derek during her recovery. Day after day they held hands and asked God to help them. Most of the time Jessica just couldn’t get the words out. So Derek prayed—that God would heal his wife’s body, for their marriage to be strong, for God to strengthen their relationship.
He thanked God over and over that Jessica had come home. And he asked for God’s peace in their minds, hearts, and home.
It’s now been almost two years since Jessica and Derek drove to the hospital, expecting to deliver their third child. Through their faith and through regular communication, they’ve grown closer to one another and to God. “If you let God make you become one,” Derek says, “He will.”
But life is still not easy. Even today, there are times when Haley or Kensey will wake up and tell their parents, “I miss Gavin.”
Jessica answers, “Well, that’s okay. I miss him too.”
Jessica says she trusts in the goodness of God and often reminds herself of the truths in Jeremiah 29:11-13: “'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans for welfare and not for evil … I will hear you … when you seek me with all your heart.'”
Now, when the Nichols have nightly devotions with their girls, they send their love to both God and Gavin. “Gavin is not here on earth,” Jessica says, “but he is very much alive and well.”
Not too long ago Derek and Jessica were talking with the girls about miracles. Kensey asked, “If God answers prayers and creates miracles, why can’t I ask Him to bring Gavin back?”
But the fact is there are simply some things we will never understand on this side of eternity. As 1 Corinthians 13:12 tells us, "We don't yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright!”
So Jessica told Kensey something that she believes with all of her heart: In eternity, things will make sense ... even the loss of Gavin.
Copyright © 2014 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.
FamilyLife Wants to Help You Build Your Marriage.
Here are three steps you can take to improve your relationship:
- Read our most popular articles on marriage.
- Listen to Dennis Rainey, president of FamilyLife, talk about "Becoming One: God’s Blueprints for Marriage" on a FamilyLife Today® radio series.
- Attend a Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway. FamilyLife offers dozens of fun, romantic getaways across the country. Learn how to build intimacy, improve communication, and take your marriage to the next level!