Conversatio Divina

Part 5 of 17

The Still Small Voice: A Mother’s Journey From Grief to Hope

Kendra Allen

Wonder, wonder at the mercy of our Lord—
His gracious love now evident,
His lovely plan spinning on forever.

—Julie Sumner

Silence. Stillness. “I’m sorry . . . I can’t seem to find a heartbeat,” the ultrasound technician said. More silence. Everything in that dimly lit room was completely still and quiet. Too quiet! Just a moment before, my husband and I were chatting with the friendly technician. We had been a bit giddy as we were about to learn the gender of this little one growing inside me. But in an instant, the room had grown cold and lifeless. As the technician stepped out to call the doctor, the darkness of the room echoed the darkness that began to enshroud our hearts. It can’t be true… the doctor will come in, and he will find the heartbeat and everything will be all right… our hearts so desperately willed. On a bleak February day and in one sentence, death had altered the course of our dream.

As I write these words, it is late July, two years later. Today the air is thick with humidity, and nature is in full bloom, teeming with life. It is a fitting reflection of the life that has started springing up again in our hearts… in a place where we once thought it could not. As I hold my infant son, grinning at me with bright, laughing eyes, I feel a quiet awe rising up within me. He is now six months old, and we still find ourselves riveted by the wonder of this merciful gift.

We chose his name—Wilder—because he is a living reminder of God’s wild imagination and love. In living out the story that God is writing in our lives, we have tasted this wildness.

01.  Letting Go

The story began several years ago when we had decided it was time to expand our family. This was anything but an easy decision. While we envisioned our daughter, Caroline, as a big sister and looked forward to her having the companionship of a sibling, this decision brought with it a measure of fear because I have a rare disease of pregnancy. Affecting about two percent of pregnancies each year, hyperemesis gravidarum (HG) is marked by rapid weight loss, malnutrition, and dehydration due to unrelenting nausea and vomiting. In the first trimester of my pregnancy with Caroline, I lost twenty-five pounds. During those first weeks, our thoughts immediately went to the safety of our unborn baby. The doctor alleviated our fears by assuring us that the baby draws all needed nutrients from the mother. This fact brought comfort, if not relief, to my aching body and weary soul.

On June 30, 2003, our baby girl, Caroline, was born. Today she is a vibrant and precocious five-year-old embarking on the adventure of kindergarten. My health was restored, and we settled into life as a family of three. In the end, it seemed a small price to pay for the abundant joy a longed-for child brings. So, about three years ago, we decided to try to have another baby, even though we knew it was likely that the HG would surface again. Foolishly believing that experience had taught us something about managing the disease, we moved forward with trying to conceive.

Only one week after celebrating our good news—a positive pregnancy test—the disease returned. Unfortunately, this time it promised to be an even more severe case. My doctor immediately began an aggressive treatment plan, including hospitalization. A peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC) was inserted into my arm, the long catheter positioned at my heart, where a constant flow of medications, nutrients, and hydration could be delivered directly into my bloodstream. I didn’t eat for four months, and I was nauseated every waking moment, vomiting multiple times a day. A host of family and friends took care of Caroline, prepared meals for our family, sat with me, and prayed for us. They were the hands and feet of Christ, and we have often wondered how we would have survived this time without our community.

Looking back, we see that this is when our grieving began. We knew deep in our hearts that this was to be our last pregnancy. If we could just hang on a few more months, we could bring this baby home. 

February 20 had finally arrived. We had reached the five-month mark and were looking forward to a routine ultrasound. This date will forever be marked as the day that our innocence was lost. Babies are not supposed to die! I wanted to scream. This tragic ending to the months of physical suffering seemed too much to bear. Yet we had to face an induced labor to deliver our son, whose heart had stopped beating.

John Wilson Allen, named for both of his grandfathers and a significant great-grandfather, was born peacefully the next morning. As we held his little lifeless body, a torrent of emotion overcame us. We wept for the future we would never know. As we commended him to God’s keeping, I felt God’s arms tenderly encircling us, joining us in our sorrow. A beautiful memorial service was planned by our dear friends, and we began the process of letting go of the dream we had for our family.

To tell of all that this journey of grief has taught us would fill a book. But somehow I experienced the foundational peace of God, and it lodged itself in my heart. I felt his presence deeply and began the process of learning that although he allows tragedies to befall us, he will not deny us an intimate and life-giving relationship with him. My relationship with him was being strengthened and formed on a deeper level. He was drawing me closer to him through each painful question; he would not abandon us in this dark place. The psalmist says, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18, NIVAll Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™). God was truly our refuge.

02.  The Still Small Voice

I wanted to believe that a larger story was being told. When I look back now, I see that the lives of our two sons are inextricably linked. For without the pain of losing our first son, John Wilson, we would never have experienced the journey of hope and promise that brought us our second. We often refer to Wilder and his journey to us as “Sorrow’s gift”—a meaningful phrase found in a song written by Beth Nielsen-Chapman. If we had not been paying attention, we would have missed the story of redemption that God was writing.

This journey has been filled with mystery, wonder, and the subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle, hand of God. I am not one to be very confident in my ability to hear God’s clear direction in my life. A reason I have been drawn to the contemplative disciplines is that they have been a challenge for me. I remember when the work of Henry Nouwen and Thomas Merton captured my attention and resonated deep within me. Silent retreats became a quarterly ritual for me. Solitude tunes our heart to God and invites us to hear him. I have come to long for these moments when I am learning to listen for his voice.

Those early days of grief were like an imposed solitude, providing intimacy and communion with my Father. As Teresa of Avila wrote, “Settle yourself in solitude and you will come upon Him in yourself.”Teresa of Avila, quoted in Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1978) 86. The tender, defenseless heart that emerges after a loss allows for the illumination of God’s gentle messages. I believe it is in these times that we are primed to hear him most clearly. It was like a little flash of light lasting a moment. A glimpse, and I could see clearly. Like a gentle whisper in my mind, I heard the word “surrogacy.” And what followed that whisper was a little glimmer of hope, the very first flicker of hope I had felt in months.

We knew absolutely nothing about surrogacy. My husband, John, and I began to pray and seek God’s direction. The idea of adoption had entered our minds even as we bid goodbye to John Wilson. We had known powerful stories of adoption and were open, knowing we would need to feel a sense of calling on our hearts. Perhaps we were to embrace Caroline as our only child? I wanted to approach this open-handedly. I felt my grip loosen with each passing week. We did desire another child, but our desire to know God was even stronger.

That spring, a few months after we lost John Wilson, I was taking a walk with a dear friend. She began to share a burden that she had felt since our loss. She had been praying about becoming a surrogate mother for us!The kind of surrogacy that we were exploring, and was ultimately the avenue by which we had our son, is known as gestational surrogacy. In gestational surrogacy, the surrogate mother is not genetically related to the child. Eggs are extracted from the intended mother and mixed with sperm from the intended father in vitro. The embryo(s) is then transferred into the surrogate’s uterus. The amazing thing was that I had never shared with her the secret revelation I had received. You can imagine my shock upon hearing these words. It felt like a profound affirmation of the whisper I had heard weeks before. God was speaking to me in a very personal way, and he was instilling hope in my sad heart. We shared this possibility with a few friends so they could join us in praying for God’s direction for us.

We felt excited and hopeful at this prospect as we waited to see if this was the plan for our family God planned to unfold. Months passed, and after visits to doctors and specialists, our friend was ruled out as a viable candidate. She shared the news with us through tears and heartfelt sadness. We felt immense gratitude for her and her willingness to follow God’s leading down an unknown path. However, despite this door closing, we felt that a seed had been planted. When or how this dream was to grow we did not know.

03.  Hope Waits

About this same time, another friend was hiking in the mountains of North Carolina. Nita had become very dear to me during the past year. She had joined John and me in our suffering, served as an anchor when we felt that we were sinking during the worst of the HG, and was present at John Wilson’s birth and in the aftermath of his loss. She and her husband, Al, showed us the meaning of bearing one another’s burdens in our sorrow-filled days. Nita knew of our dream for another child and had been hoping along with me for the future of our family. She never considered herself a candidate for gestational surrogacy until that summer day in the beauty of the mountains. This time it was Nita who heard a word she believed was clearly from God. She felt the nudge from God to offer herself—her womb—to be the temporary home for our child. It was an extravagant, sacrificial offer. Nita was forty-eight-years old! Would the doctors give their approval? Dare we allow ourselves to dream about this incredible act of generosity?

Nita felt that if this was truly God speaking, she needed to be faithful to that vision and not ignore it. She bravely shared it with her husband. Al’s heart was moved by this offering, and he (and their two boys) joined his wife with full support. We were now walking down this road of hope together, with caution. We would not go forward with anything that would jeopardize Nita’s health or put her in any danger. We needed to know all of the risks involved. We believed that God would shed enough light down the path for us to take one step at a time. This was, of course, uncharted territory for all four of us.

Each of us opened our hearts to the possibility of this dream . . . and to hope. As we approached this life-changing decision, we wanted to be wise and follow the path God had for us. We began with practical things . . . attending meetings with physicians, specialists, a financial planner, and a fellow therapist. We sought the counsel of our priests, our parents, and many dear friends, including a friend who had had twins through gestational surrogacy. It seemed important to involve our families and trusted friends in the discernment process. We knew that God could use their wisdom and reflections as windows into his plan. We invited them to ask us questions and to share honestly their questions and concerns. And, of course, we prayed. We invited others to pray along with us. On two occasions, two women from our church shared with us, unsolicited, a distinct, almost prophetic vision and a gentle word from God. We were buoyed by these holy whispers when they were shared with us.

This wild plan seemed almost an impossibility that we could not even try to force it into being, yet it was important to continue to examine our hearts, submitting our desires and wills to God. We discovered a Quaker practice that gave us a common language and a sense of peace that we were following God. The Quakers have a saying used to counsel those in a discernment process: “As way opens,” which became a compass of sorts for us, serving as a reminder to us that God has ultimate control and, if we are paying attention, the path will be made clear by examining our circumstancesFor more discussion on the Quaker practice of discernment please see Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000).. As we approached each significant crossroads, we looked for a confirmation of “the way opening” or “the way closing.”

Each step farther down the path, we found the way was opening. With each doctor’s stamp of approval and each test result, we placed one more stone upon our Ebenezer. We had come to deem this journey affectionately the “Baby Allen Project” (BAP for short). Nita would write it on her hand to remember to take her medication and to take good care of the vessel that would, we hoped, nurture a life. Our faith was strengthened with each open door.

Many times, I borrowed the faith of the Andrews. Witnessing Nita and her family move boldly into offering themselves physically, emotionally, and mentally—with courage, grace, and hope—for this sacrificial gift challenged me to believe in the possibility of a miracle. But even so, I frequently found myself praying, as if it were a mantra, “I do believe; [Lord,] help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24, NASB). We found that one step of faith begets another step of faith. Our hope was being renewed, and we began to sense that we were participants in a greater story.


“Those who sow in tears will reap in songs of joy”

This whole surreal process was a gamble, and we knew it. The fertility clinic, where we were to undergo the process of in vitro fertilization, gave us intimidating statistics: with my egg, John’s sperm, and Nita’s womb, the likelihood of a live birth was about fifty percent. Our experience taught us that although we felt God’s clear leading in this, there would be no guarantees. We had experienced his faithfulness, even in the face of death. Now, we rested in his love as we sat on the edge of hope. I believe God gave us the courage to put our hearts on the line once again. Despite the odds, and by God’s grace, Nita became pregnant with our biological child. We soon found out it was to be a boy! I felt as if God were giving us an intimate and personal gift.

Throughout the pregnancy, as Nita’s belly began to grow, the four of us often sang through tears, standing beside our children at church on Sundays. We reveled in hymns proclaiming the grandeur of God, the Mighty Fortress, and we recognized God’s power and majesty, but to find him Lord over the small things, specifically this invisible and minute embryo, was our brave hope. As a community we knew we were sheltering a vulnerable seed. We prayed for specifics with vigor: a healthy and strong baby, stamina for Nita and her family, grace in friendship for the maturity to give and receive, and grace to speak honestly along the way.

At one point, Nita, quoting poet Jane Kenyon, said that on the other side of this journey, “Either I would be dead [by Sunday evening], or more alive than I have ever been before.”Jane Kenyon, A Hundred White Daffodils (Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2000) 53. Well, we have reached the other side, and Nita is alive indeed. All of us can still be found shaking our heads at the miracle of this little one. From the early days of pondering the future of our family to the days of waiting for a positive pregnancy test, to the joy of holding Wilder for the first time, we have all learned more of what it means to be alive: alive to the call of God to follow him down a strange, yet exciting, path.

Through this experience I am reminded again of the simple truth that God is in the right-here and the right-now, inviting us to participate in relationship with him. He longs to speak to us. He longs for us to learn to listen. Our journey began with an interior whisper that took me by surprise. Through my grief, I was brought closer into the mystery of God. My ego had been stripped away, and my need for him exposed. Perhaps it was this posture that enabled me to distinguish His voice from my own.

E. Stanley Jones describes this distinction well, saying, “The voice of the subconscious argues with you, tries to convince you; but the inner voice of God does not argue, does not try to convince you. It just speaks, and it is self-authenticating. It has the feel of the voice of God within it.”E. Stanley Jones, quoted in Dallas Willard, In Search of Guidance (New York: Harper Collins, 1993) 188. His messages are gentle, simple, and loving. The challenge for us as Christ followers is to be still long enough to engage with him. In doing so, we can learn the character of his voice. Ultimately, it is in submitting ourselves to a transforming relationship with God that we will be able to discern his voice.

We have been given a remarkable gift by a generative and lavish God. Life has come to us in a most unusual and miraculous way. This is the body of Christ manifested. Wilder Andrews Allen is a sweet redemption. We are rejoicing with the psalmist saying, “I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.” (Psalm 13:6, NRSVScripture quotations marked (NRSV) are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, Updated Edition, copyright © 1989, 2021 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.) Because we each responded to the prompting of the spirit—and listened to that still, small voice—we are now reveling in the gift of new life. I look forward to the day when we share with Wilder the story of his sacred beginning and of the great Love that conceived him.


Kendra Allen, M.S., NBCC, is a full-time wife and mother and maintains a small psychotherapy practice. She attended Florida State University, Georgia State University, and the Psychological Studies Institute. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband, John, and their two children, Caroline and Wilder.