I never imagined digging the grave of my own daughter.
The day of her funeral was cold and rainy. It seemed appropriate for what we were doing.
My wife, daughter, and I were driven far up in a mountain by a friend and his family. The place was remote. We couldn’t see the horizon in any direction; all we could see was the top of the dirt road we drove up. And no one else was in sight.
With my friend’s shovel, we dug a grave, he and I taking turns.
The dig was solemn and silent, and the ground was soft from the rain. I couldn’t help but think about the missionary John G. Paton (1824–1907), who buried his wife and child with his own bare hands, both of his loved ones dying young.
I thought that stories of digging graves for loved ones were only for missionaries from centuries ago. Things like that didn’t happen anymore. But I was wrong. That very thing was happening to me.
With the grave dug, and struggling through tears, I said some words about our small daughter, giving thanks to God for her life. Then we had some prayer time together. We lowered her casket into the grave. I filled her grave with dirt. We put a flower and rock on top of the gravesite. It’s a gravesite we could never find again, even if we wanted to.
My repeated thought was, “Is this really happening to us?”
Ann Mei is her name.
It was around this time last year that my wife Lynne was five months pregnant. Up to that point her pregnancy was going well. Three years earlier she had a healthy pregnancy and delivery with our daughter Joy. We planned to deliver our second child in a local Chinese hospital with only Chinese-speaking doctors and nurses, just as we had done with our first daughter.
But the Lord had other things in store for us.
At five months pregnant, my wife, one night as we were getting ready for bed, told me that something strange and alarming seemed to be happening with the baby in her belly. We took a late night trip to the emergency room at the local women’s hospital. They did an ultrasound and concluded it looked like a miscarriage was imminent for us.
We were stunned.
So we waited at the hospital. We prayed that the Lord would save the baby’s life. Our close friend came from a nearby city and told us about a Swiss doctor she knew in the neighboring city. This doctor wanted to help our family. She’d heard about our situation, jumped into an old beat-up ambulance and rode it four hours to arrive at our hospital around midnight. We all loaded into the ambulance with the Swiss doctor. We arrived in her hospital around four o’clock in the morning, none of us having slept a wink on the cold, bumpy, and brutal ride.
Later that morning, the Swiss doctor performed a surgery to try to save the baby’s life. The surgery seemed to work the first couple of days. We sent messages all around the world for people to pray for us. And we know that they did, probably many of them praying with tears.
But it was not the Lord’s will to save our baby’s life.
My wife’s fever showed she had an infection from the surgery, and the doctor said it would be harmful to my wife to try to keep the baby any longer.
Ann Mei was born shortly after. She was very undeveloped, and only managed a few shallow breaths before she passed into eternity. Certainly not how we’d planned her life, but the Lord took her away according to his perfect timing.
We named her Ann after the first wife of Adoniram Judson (1788–1850), missionary to Burma. Ann Judson had also died at a young age. And we gave our daughter the middle name Mei, pronounced like May, which in Chinese means “beautiful.” She was a precious child made by God’s hands. So we wanted to honor her life by giving her a name and taking pictures with her. Our dear friends made a nice casket for her, and a couple days later I was digging the grave of my own daughter on the remote mountainside in northwest China.
Looking back at all of this, I’m so thankful for Ann Mei’s life, and that God had us honor her life by giving her a name, taking pictures with her, and having a proper funeral service and burial for her. So his mercy was on us in our great time of distress to properly honor and remember Ann Mei as a precious child made by him.
I thought about the psalmist’s words, “You formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:13–14). God had been stitching her together perfectly cell-by-cell deep in the womb. Her life was not a waste. Her life wasn’t a pregnancy in vain. No, her life was exactly as long as God wanted it to be. It was an honor for my wife to be pregnant with Ann Mei for five months. And it was an honor that we could witness the few seconds of Ann Mei’s life outside the womb.
Some may think that Ann Mei didn’t live long enough to qualify as a real life, a real person worthy of a name and a casket and a funeral — but that would be wrong. The duration of my life, and your life, and the life of my daughter are all roughly the same — a few short breaths in comparison to the eternity ahead.
O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am! Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! (Psalm 39:4–5)