We love this family. Ernie and Alex are not only our pastors, but they are our friends, too, and it has been a tremendous honor to witness the way they have walked through the most painful season a parent can go through: losing a child. Their story is a mix of beauty and pain, joy and grief, fear of loss, and ultimately, hope.
Their story actually starts a few years ago when Ernie and Alex had just started trying for their second child. Alex started experiencing multiple uncontrollable panic attacks a day that caught them off guard. Spiraling from the unexplained anxiety, Alex felt like her world was falling apart. Simple things became big fears, and she lived with stress and frustration at anxiety that couldn’t be controlled. They put their desire to conceive on hold.
This unexpected detour took a long time to heal from, but Alex did emerge from it. Finally feeling like she was in a healthier place emotionally, they began again to try for their second child. Their son Judson was 2 at this point, and they dreamed of having their children close in age. After an easy pregnancy with Judson, they were surprised by not being able to get pregnant right away. One month of waiting turned into two, and so on. Every month that went by without a positive pregnancy test was painful as they watched their dream of having children close in age get farther and farther away. Alex remembers feeling ashamed, embarrassed, and like a failure as she watched other moms get pregnant, wishing she was one of them.
A Gift of New Life
After over a year of trying and praying for a baby, Alex became pregnant in December 2014. Having poured so many prayers and so much energy into asking for new life, Ernie and Alex rejoiced in the news. But old fears began to creep back in, and while Alex was thrilled at the new life growing inside of her, she greatly feared a miscarriage. At one point, she told Ernie, “I don’t know what I’d do if anything happened to the baby.” Cautiously hopeful and still battling her fears, Alex shared the news with trusted friends, asking for prayer for a smooth pregnancy. They told Judson the news at 8 weeks, and after the 12 week mark came without incident, Alex and Ernie joyfully shared their news openly. Their days were filled with dreaming about what life with two would be like. They found out at their 15 week ultrasound that the baby was a boy and decided on his name soon after: Theo, meaning gift from God.
As her pregnancy progressed, Alex had an epiphany moment while talking to the Lord outside one day. She had the distinct impression that He was reminding her that Theo was a gift. She struggled with worry about things that might happen. But, if she chose to see each day as a gift, she’d be able to experience the abundant gifts — large and small — that God had in store for her. That truth settled in her heart and became a pivotal point for her. She remembers, “I carried that with me. He was a gift: something that brought hope to our lives. Coming from a really dark season to have that, it was a little glimmer of hope.”
Theo’s life bonded their family together in the sweetest ways. Judson would wake up and talk to Theo, smothering Alex’s growing stomach in kisses. They were all so thrilled by his little life. Judson even accompanied his parents to some of the early doctor’s visits and was able to hear the baby’s heartbeat. He was so proud and excited about becoming a big brother. Though he had not yet been born, Theo was very much a part of their family.
The night before they went in for Theo’s 20 week ultrasound, Ernie and Alex gave him his middle name: Everett, which means brave. The next morning, they dropped Judson off at preschool and headed to the doctor’s office, excited to see another glimpse of their baby boy. Back in the room, the ultrasound technician began the anatomy scan and then told them the unimaginable: their baby was measuring at only 17 weeks, and there was no heartbeat.
The bottom dropped. Ernie remembers, “That next 15 minutes was just brutal. I’ve never cried so much before in my life; it was so painful. His life was precious, and we had invested so much emotionally in his life. He was such an answer to prayer, and all of it came crashing into that moment.” They wept together in those moments, their hearts raw, vulnerable, and confused as they deeply grieved their son’s life.
The doctor came in shortly after to talk through details with them and to give Alex medication to move the process along. Because she was so far along, she would have to deliver Theo at the hospital the next day. They went home and wept and wept and wept.
Ernie and Alex made the call to their parents and then left to pick up Judson. Still overwhelmed with emotions, they asked God for wisdom on how to share this tragic news with Judson. The sweet relationship that he was already building with Theo accentuated the pain of the loss. Judson was confused and heartbroken.
That night, Alex went into labor. Contractions began as she went to sleep, and she was awakened when her water broke late that night. 5 1/2 hours later, Theo was born. They learned that Theo had spina bifida, and an open wound in his lower back had caused his passing. The sorrow felt was excruciating. They were able to hold Theo and spend time with him, soaking in his every feature.
When they left the hospital later that day, the pain was intense. Later in the funeral home, Ernie and Alex looked at each other in disbelief, thinking they didn’t belong there — feeling like it’s never the design for the parent to bury their child. In response to their loss, love and support poured in from family, friends, and their community. Meals, flowers, and little remembrances of Theo’s life were given to them and carried their family through those first days.
Learning How to Grieve, Holding onto Hope
Having come from such a season of anxiety, Alex was expecting to spiral in the face of such grief. She was blown away by the response from their community and the grace that she felt. She described it saying, “We literally felt prayers. I feel like the prayers of the saints upheld us during that time.” Alex continued, “In those days following, it was so evident to me that fear is such a facade, and the enemy wants to keep us in fear of bad things happening, trying to convince us that we won’t be able to make it through something so terrible or that it will be the end of us. That’s what fear does. It puts unreality on a situation that isn’t a reality yet. I remember thinking in those days, simultaneously in the hard and confusing times, it was so evident that God was holding us up and was carrying our hearts. We may have been limping, but we were moving forward every single day. I felt such raw emotions, such deep grief, and such hope, and to feel those at the same time was so strange, but the Lord gave that to us.”
Alex’s sister, who came in town to be with them during this time, observed that the fear of something happening is always more crippling that it actually happening. Ernie agreed, “Alex’s greatest fear was that she would have a miscarriage, and it happened. Seeing her walk through it, it didn’t ruin her. It didn’t ruin us. Our deepest fears didn’t destroy us, they made us stronger.”
The grace that Ernie and Alex felt as they walked through those first days birthed in their hearts a desire to grieve well and to navigate the waters of faith and hope in their pain and loss. Looking back, Ernie shared, “Early on we made a decision we were going to live in the mystery of hope and grief. We were not going to pretend like our hope denies our grief or that our grief denies our hope. It was extraordinarily painful, and we had zero answers; and yet, we knew God is good. Two passages resonated for me during that time. 1 Thessalonians 4:13 reminds us that we are not those who do not have hope. Those words gave me a rope to hold onto when chaos was around me. 2 Corinthians 4 talks of being afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair. I love that the Bible doesn’t ignore the fact that life will cause you to bleed. It’s hard, and it’s painful, but we were not crushed. And we were not driven to despair. We were afflicted, we were for sure perplexed, we felt the pressing of pain, but we did not feel hopeless.”
One of the ways that Alex processed their loss was through a journal she kept, along with a little memory box containing special items remembering Theo’s life. In her journal, she had a section called “Moments of God’s Grace.” In it she would record anything that came to her mind from those days that felt encouraging, uplifting, or that she could see God in. Everything from the loving nurses who cared for her at the hospital to meaningful words shared from family were whispers of grace to her aching heart. Though they were little things, these little bit of hope that were intermingled with the pain and grief pointed her to the heart of God.
Hope for the Future
Ernie and Alex continued to process the loss of Theo while also looking to what the Lord had for their future. They talked about trying for more children, knowing that the risk for spina bifida increases for siblings. Again, fear of the unknown had to be reckoned with and filtered through the heart of God. Choosing not to be ruled by fear, they decided to trust in the Lord’s plan for them and try for another little one.
They are now happily expecting another baby, due just next month. Alex shared, “It’s felt a lot like clinging to God’s goodness. It hasn’t felt like this overwhelming flood of faith and exhilaration, but more so a desperate clinging, trusting, and leaning into God. With this pregnancy there were still a lot of fears, and it was really scary. Even still I have to fight thinking: Is this baby going to come out healthy? Is it really going to be ok? Is my body able to support what a baby needs? But, I cling to the hope of God’s goodness.”
She continued, “I realized that sometimes hope has to be fought for. I remember at times feeling frustrated that it just wasn’t there, that my faith wasn’t stronger, that I didn’t have a really strong, perfect peace. But, through the wrestling I found that hope is buried deep, and it’s a treasure that needed to be found. Through the wrestling, my hope in God has been strengthened, and my understanding of who He is has been made more clear. I thought things were always supposed to go really well, and that was God’s presence. Through the suffering I’ve experienced, I’ve had to be refined in what my view of hope and faith in God is. It’s a bit of a messier journey because it’s not just handed to you. It’s something we’ve had to fight for, but at the same time, it’s this strong foundation that’s being built. The foundation that I had is being tilled and refined so I can be stronger. Moving forward, hope has been redefined.”
Ernie added, “Trusting that in the midst of having zero control, we know there is an ultimate Creator who is purposeful, who is loving, who is for us, and who knows our best. I can’t project what that looks like upon Him, but I have to rest in the mystery of His purpose versus the entitlement of what I think I deserve. Hope previously looked like an entitlement that I deserved something, but I know now it’s more. It’s not hope in hope or faith in faith, but hope in a Person. It’s faith in a Person. It changes what hope looks like and what faith looks like. It’s trusting in a Person who is wise, faithful, good, and in control. A Person who is mysterious and transcendent. That’s hope in Someone and not just a subjective idea. It’s in a person. I know Him and trust that whatever He gives us is good and perfect for us.”
As we sat with Ernie and Alex and talked through what hope means to them, we were blown away by the depth of their wisdom. Their words were so poignant and inspiring, and we are so grateful for their transparency and graciousness to share their story.
If you are interested in reading more about how Alex processed the grief and pain of their journey, she wrote a blog post in the days following their loss that can be found here.
Ernie and Alex do an amazing job pastoring our church community by leading us with humility, grace, and excellence. You can check out more info at www.sojournonline.org. If you’re in the Atlanta area, we’d love to see you!