Life After Losing a Child / One family honors the legacy of the child they lost by supporting orphans in Africa

WORDS
Nicole Jordan
PHOTOGRAPHY
Courtesy of Cassie Henley; Chelsea Jacobs
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Chelsea Jacobs noticed the quietness in her belly toward the end of the sermon. Thirty-five weeks into a healthy pregnancy, she was used to the movements of her growing baby boy, who she and her husband Mark had already named Chase. That morning in church, in September 2009, Chelsea had been preoccupied with her three young girls. “Maybe he’s sleeping,” she thought. She recalls sitting very still in the church pew and concentrating. Nothing.
 
After the service, Chelsea phoned her on-call doctor, who encouraged her to take a nap and eat a Snickers bar to rouse the baby. “Call me if you still don’t feel him by midafternoon,” the doctor said. “But I think he’s probably sleeping.” She followed the doctor’s advice, and while worry remained in the back of her mind, the family went about their day. They had tickets to an afternoon showing of Mary Poppins, a Christmas gift for the girls. They didn’t want to miss it.
 
The couple’s concern distracted them throughout the stage musical. During intermission, Chelsea stepped out of the theater to call the doctor again. She advised her to drink a Coke and lie on her side, but the caffeine and sugar failed to stir the baby. The family stayed until the curtain closed with Chelsea lying on the floor in the lobby, then headed directly to Mark’s parents to drop off the girls. Mark and Chelsea drove the next 20 minutes to Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas in silence.
 
The minutes seemed to stretch forever as multiple nurses rotated in and out of Chelsea’s hospital room. One would search for a heartbeat to no avail before bringing in another nurse to have a go. The Jacobses say they’ve since learned this is common practice. Chelsea had had enough. “I already know,” she told the nurses. “I just want you to stop the in and out.”
 
One last nurse stepped in. “She’s a mom of three, almost four,” the nurse said. “She knows what’s going on, so let’s not do this to her.”
 
They conducted a sonogram, to be sure; Chelsea averted her eyes. The baby was fully formed, and she couldn’t stand to see the shape of his head. Mark remembers the hollow sound where a heartbeat should have been.
 
“I’ve heard my babies’ heartbeats now for how many years…” he recalls, trailing off. “I just remember the pit in my stomach. And then you have to face reality.”
Something had happened inside Chelsea’s womb. Their baby was dead.
 
No time to grieve
Immediately the couple was bombarded with decisions. Nurses needed to know if they wanted to deliver right away or wait. They had to consider what to do with the body and how to memorialize him. The parents wept in shock; Mark stepped to the side to catch his breath and gather his composure.
 
All Chelsea could think about was her girls and how they’d take the news. Mark was most worried about Chelsea’s health.
 
They say one of the most valuable gifts family and friends gave them during the days following Chase’s death was freedom from thinking, to just be able to grieve. Chelsea’s obstetrician was out of town; she called Chelsea and wept with her. She told Chelsea to schedule the delivery for the following Wednesday when she’d be back in town and to just go home. “Leave the girls where they are and just be with Mark,” she said.
 
It was late in the night when the Jacobses finally got back to their Irving home. Mark went in first to remove the bassinet from their bedroom, at Chelsea’s request. For hours the couple sat in what Chelsea calls the “deep, dark yuckiness of it all,” praying for guidance and weeping. Chelsea’s sisters showed up around 2am, fast food in hand. Chelsea had no appetite but was grateful for the company.
 
Physically and emotionally drained, the mom dozed for an hour before rising to check her email. Right then she received what she now calls her “email from God.” It was an automatic missive that rolled in around 3am with the subject line, “A Different Way to See Suffering.” Chelsea opened the email from Proverbs 31, a women’s ministry, and began to read. Those who are suffering have two choices, the writer said. They can either turn inward and look at their own life and what they’ve lost, or they can look up. “When you do look up,” the email read, “He promises to make beauty come from ashes and good come from bad.”
 
Chelsea made a choice that night, in the quiet of her living room and right in the midst of her grief. She sat on her couch and prayed that God would show her how to look up. She prayed that she’d look out and not in.
 
At that moment, she says, the Jacobses were dumped from their familiar “box” into something entirely new.
 
Rewriting the family story
The Jacobs family of today is so different from the Jacobs family of three years ago that Chelsea refers to “life before Chase” and “life after Chase.” With great effort the family looked up, not in, and their lives and perspectives shifted dramatically.
 
On a recent afternoon in their spacious Irving home, Mark feeds a bottle to the family’s newest addition, Gabe, while the couple humbly talks about the impact their nonprofit, His Chase, is making for orphans throughout Africa. The Jacobses spend numerous late-night hours every week working on the organization they founded to honor their son. They travel overseas for several weeks each year to visit orphanages in developing African countries such as Rwanda and Ghana. His Chase collaborates with established orphan-care organizations to make sure basic needs are met. More recently, the couple has narrowed their focus to education. Because of donations to His Chase, 102 children and young adults are now attending school. The couple hopes that a better-educated generation will help break the cycle of poverty. “We want them to know there is a bigger plan for their life,” Mark says.
 
Gabe is one of two Rwandan orphans recently welcomed into the Jacobs family. The 20-month-old with special needs was adopted in April. Though their “miracle baby” weighed only 2.5 pounds at 2 months, Gabe is now thriving. Claver, 25, joined the family in August to pursue a college education. His parents were killed in the Rwandan genocide of 1994; he spent most of his life in an orphan home. “Our loss brought us together,” Claver says.
 
The family’s passion for serving the parentless in Africa permeates every aspect of their lives. The little girls are just as invested as their parents, and a flexible homeschool schedule allows them to accompany their mom and dad overseas. Kendyll, 10, lights up as she talks about His Chase. She proudly shows off photos of her friends on the other side of the world, calling each by name. Eight-year-old Carlie, who they call their “little mother,” especially loves the babies.
 
Three years after their son’s death, the Jacobses are more satisfied with their lives than ever before. “That’s been our prayer,” Chelsea says. “That we wouldn’t go back to what we were.”
 
Life before Chase
Life before Chase was rosy, albeit typical. Chelsea, a preacher’s daughter, married an all-American boy she met at Abilene Christian University. They embarked on life together with college degrees, strong family backgrounds and much in their favor. Mark began a career in pharmaceutical sales, and Chelsea put her degree in counseling children to use. They added to their family, first with Kendyll, then Carlie and Abby Kate. “We were just living the American life of having kids every two years and living in a house that was in a safe little neighborhood,” Chelsea says.
 
The girls wore matching clothes and attended a private Christian school. The family was active in their church and, by all accounts, very happy. The whole family was thrilled when Chelsea announced she was pregnant with a fourth child. Chelsea’s other pregnancies had been incident-free, and for 35 weeks, this one was no different. The baby progressed normally until what doctors believe was a freak accident resulted in a blood clot in the umbilical cord, depriving him of the nourishment he needed to live. Doctors theorize that the baby shifted in the womb, pinning the cord between his elbow and the uterine wall.
 
In the days following Chelsea’s “email from God,” the couple struggled to look up while faced with decisions they’d never dreamed of making. After discovering their unborn boy was dead, they visited a succession of cemeteries and funeral homes. The tiny gravesites and headstones adorned with angels and laden with baby gifts didn’t sit right. “We would drive through these Babyland parts of the cemetery,” Chelsea says. “I was bawling. It just felt so wrong.” Ultimately, the couple opted for cremation; they didn’t want their girls to feel tied to a cemetery plot. Framing the death for their daughters was of utmost concern.
 
A couple days before the delivery the couple sat in a Subway restaurant, practicing what to say out loud while attempting to eat, tears streaming down their faces. Mark and Chelsea decided to tell the girls matter-of-factly what happened. “We told them Chase died,” Chelsea says. “Something went wrong with his body, and we don’t know exactly what.” Mark made it clear to his daughters that they were going to see Mommy and Daddy crying, and it was OK. “We just kind of gave them permission to be sad,” he says.
The girls grieved in their own way. Kendyll wrote a poem; Carlie expressed indignation that God would take the baby. They asked hard questions, which Mark and Chelsea tried their best to answer. “Why can’t we see Chase?” the older girls wondered. The parents vacillated about letting their daughters see the baby after delivery, ultimately deciding it wasn’t a good idea. After he was born, they knew they’d made the right decision.
 
Chelsea describes the labor as her lowest of lows. She wasn’t expecting to have to push. “To labor through delivery of a child you know is already gone definitely hurt,” she says. “We had delivered three healthy ones. We knew what a room should look like and sound like. It was just silent.”
 
Chase’s six-pound body was fully formed, but his skin was extremely delicate from sitting lifeless in the moist womb environment for three days. Mark and Chelsea remember being surprised at how much he looked like their other children and how exquisitely formed he was, with clearly discernible thumbprints. They remember thinking he had the same nose and chin as Abby Kate.
 
The parents even felt the same surge of pride as when their daughters were born and were anxious to show him off to family. Chelsea remembers explaining to visitors that he wasn’t looking his best, like a mom apologizing for a crusty nose. The hours that followed were a bittersweet time. Grandparents, aunts, uncles and family friends filed through the room to hold the baby, knowing they’d only get one chance.
 
Eventually the room emptied, and just Mark, Chelsea and Chase remained. The parents held on to their son as they long as they could before his increasingly fragile body signaled that it was time to say goodbye.
 
The chasm of loss
After the baby’s death, Chelsea’s “email from God” resonated in her mind. She struggled to move forward as everything around her screamed loss. Chase’s room stood intact, complete with clothes he’d never wear. The girls sketched pictures of the family, drawing Chase at the top of the page in the midst of a cloud. Chelsea’s own body was a painful reminder, producing breast milk as if there were a newborn in the house.
 
Some days she couldn’t bring herself to leave home, afraid of awkward encounters with family and friends who weren’t sure how to react. She remembers one friend, pregnant at the time, running in the other direction to avoid an encounter. “Even my best friends didn’t know how to handle me,” she says. “You just realize this is never going to be the same. No one is ever going to see me the same.”
 
Suddenly, things that seemed important before didn’t matter at all. Chelsea remembers glancing at a to-do list she made the week before Chase’s death. “It made me sick to look at what I was spending my time on,” she says.
 
Well-meaning friends and family doled out grief books. Chelsea made it through a few. Although they were helpful, she found them too self-focused. Instead of working through the growing stack, they began to read books about children in Africa. After reading The Hole in Our Gospel by Richard Stearns, Mark and Chelsea were struck by the poverty in which countless children live. Their hearts hurt for the thousands of orphans left behind because of HIV, genocide or neglect. Mark remembers a sort of light-bulb moment. “I thought, ‘Why have I not been brokenhearted over this like I’ve been brokenhearted over the loss of my own son?’”
 
The couple engrossed themselves in the reading and encouraged family and friends who wanted to honor Chase to do so by sponsoring a needy child. “Really quickly when we started reading, our heartbreak turned,” Chelsea says. “Our grief was still there, but it just changed shape.”
 
Chase died in September; by January, the couple couldn’t stop thinking about the faces of children in Africa. They felt an undeniable pull toward Africa, and toward adoption.
 
Searching for a dream
Chelsea had a dream after her son’s death; she was in a valley surrounded by hills. The landscape was beautiful, but soldiers in uniform were shooting at each other. She stood at the center of the gunfire, unharmed. A black man walked up; she could sense that he was important. He handed her a baby carrier and said, “It’s OK. You’re supposed to take him.” She grabbed the carrier and ran.
 
The dream’s meaning was clear to Chelsea. She had felt a “call” to adoption as early as her teenage years, at times wondering if she wouldn’t be able to have children biologically because the call was so strong. She and Mark never discussed the topic in depth, but they always knew it was a possibility. In the months following Chase’s death, Chelsea’s desire to get pregnant again became overwhelming. But she knew that was coming from an emotional place. “It was just to right what had been wronged on my own,” she says. “That’s what I kept feeling like. I just wanted to make this right. I wanted to do it over again.”
 
Around Christmastime, one of Mark’s college roommates forwarded him a letter about an adoption class at Watermark Church, suggesting that the couple look into it. They took the class and were urged to pray for the child God had selected for them. In January, Chelsea had the dream. “I felt like [God] was telling me we are adopting, but I didn’t know where it was,” she says. “I just knew that wherever this is, that’s where our baby is.”
 
Months later a Google search for “Africa Adoption” turned up a group picture of families who’d just finished adoptions from Rwanda. Chelsea perused photos of the small country in central and east Africa and recognized the rolling hills and deep valleys she’d seen in her dream. It was a beautiful place in spite of its violent history. In that moment, she knew where their baby was.
 
After being passed over by multiple families wary of his special needs, Gabe came home with his new family in April of this year. His biological mother left him in the village clinic after he was born 10 weeks prematurely. Mark says they consider her a hero for not discarding him. Gabe has cerebral palsy, a result of his traumatic early birth and limited access to healthcare, and Chelsea and Mark rely on the help of family members to shuffle him back and forth to 10 therapy sessions a week. The little boy is thriving in his new life. He weighs 26 pounds now, and his neurologist has hope that he’ll someday speak and walk. The boy bonded to the family right away, and they to him. Chelsea says she has to schedule one-on-one time each morning for the girls to spend with Gabe, to avoid bickering.
 
The couple doesn’t rule out the possibility of one more adoption. The last three years, they say, have taught them how much love they have to give. But in the meantime, they will express it through His Chase. They hope that the 102 children and young adults in school will increase by 300 in the next term.
 
Mark and Chelsea still miss the boy they lost. Funerals are especially hard for Mark, and occasionally, Chelsea sees Chase’s face when she looks at Abby Kate. But they’ve learned to live with a measure of grief. For a long time they had difficulty understanding why things happened the way they did. They questioned why God would take away a perfectly healthy baby. But, they say they’ve come to see that “God had a bigger plan for Chase’s life.” Because of Chase, the family will stay outside the box.
 
“I think God knew what his little life was going to be about,” Chelsea says. “We are to a point where we can be thankful that it was the way it was.”
 
For more information on the His Chase Foundation, visit hischase.org.
SIDEBAR

Helping Through Tragedy


Sometimes we don’t know what to say or do when tragedy strikes a friend or family member. Larry Barber, director of GriefWorks, offers this advice:

Do
  • Be present and available.
  • Reach out to them and let them know that you’re there to listen and to offer support.
  • Be willing to listen to them through tears.
  • Give a simple hug or “I love you.”
  • Do things that are supportive without asking. Offer to baby-sit, prepare a meal or help with chores.
  • Put yourself in their shoes.

Don’t
  • Judge.
  • Give unsolicited advice: “Well, you’re young and can have more children.”
  • Use “at least” statements: “At least you know they’re in a better place.”
  • Try to say something profound, inspirational or life-changing.
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