Six-year-old Jacob Schmidt couldn’t love his baby sister Gianna more.
But the young Prince of Peace parishioner is having to do it long distance.
“My little sister is a saint in heaven,” he explains.
Love me true
Pregnancy becomes a celebration of family, an act of faith
by Kara Hansen
Twenty weeks into their third pregnancy, John and Jennifer Schmidt were on top of the world.
They’d just told their two young sons — Jacob, 5, and John Paul, 2 — that there was a new baby on the way.
Now, all four of them were crowded into the examining room, waiting for the sonogram to show whether the baby was a boy or a girl.
Suddenly, it didn’t matter.
The perinatologist first grew very quiet, then looked almost frantic.
“All he told us was that something was very wrong,” said Jennifer.
The Schmidts’ baby had a condition called bilateral renal agenesis. She would not develop a kidney. If she survived labor and delivery, the obstetrician said, she would die within a few hours.
“I remember thinking this was just a nightmare and I’m going to wake up from this,” said Jennifer. “It just can’t be real.”
But the news was grimmer still. John and Jennifer were warned that babies with this condition often go full term because they have all they need while in utero.
Could Jennifer face carrying the child to full term, knowing her birth meant certain death? More than half of couples in their situation choose to have an abortion, the Schmidts were told. Or they could choose to induce delivery early.
Neither, the Schmidts decided, was an option they could consider.
THE POWER OF PRAYER
Numb and confused, the couple called on Father Brendan Rolling, OSB, for advice. A family friend from Jennifer’s time as a residence hall director at Benedictine College in Atchison, Father Brendan couldn’t help but hurt for the couple.
“I was shocked when they told me,” he said. “It was very painful to hear there was not much the doctors could do.”
But the parents made it clear that the options they had been given were not options for them. With the help of Father Brendan, they decided what they would do instead: pray.
Almost immediately, John and Jennifer sent out an e-mail to nearly everyone they knew.
“We sent out a prayer request first asking for a medical miracle,” said Jennifer, “and if that was not God’s will for us, asking for the strength to carry the cross of infant loss with grateful hearts.
“We needed prayer to just be able to emotionally and spiritually survive this, and at first we were just so numb. We were completely at the mercy of others’ goodness.”
It didn’t take long for help to arrive.
Just a few days after the sonogram — and shortly after their prayer requests had gone out — John and Jennifer began to notice the grace of those prayers working in their lives.
“John and I just had this sense of peace that can’t be explained,” said Jennifer. “We knew there was a very difficult road ahead of us, but we knew — somehow — we would be able to do this.”
The couple also gave their baby girl a name: Gianna, after St. Gianna Beretta Molla, a Catholic doctor who heroically risked her life for her child during her pregnancy.
Besides their family and close friends, the Schmidts sought support particularly from their faith community at Prince of Peace in Olathe and at Benedictine. Even relative strangers were in contact with John and Jennifer, due to the wide circulation of their e-mail prayer requests.
“We were e-mailed constantly by people we didn’t know. There were amazing people all over the world who let us know they were praying for us — from cloistered nuns to prison inmates,” said John. “It was very humbling to be lifted up in prayer by so many.”
The couple also sought contact with other families who had experienced infant loss. Several people told the Schmidts about Patti Lewis, director of Alexandra’s House, a perinatal hospice program in Kansas City, Mo. Lewis offers support to expectant couples experiencing a prenatal diagnosis.
From the moment the Schmidts and Lewis met, the couple knew they had found a rock of support for the pregnancy.
“She really gave us hope that regardless of what happened, we could face this cross with grace,” said Jennifer.
During her time working with the Schmidt family, Lewis says she was moved by the dignity with which the family both carried their burden and enjoyed their short time with their daughter.
“John and Jennifer and their kids are like a Catholic family handbook with hands and feet,” said Lewis. “They of course wanted healing for their daughter, but they trusted and were at peace with God’s will, whatever it was. They made sure Gianna had dignity in her short life.”
CELEBRATING GIANNA’S LIFE
As the weeks passed, Jennifer felt Gianna moving constantly. Knowing their time with Gianna would be limited to the pregnancy, the couple began seeking out ways to treasure their time with her and celebrate her life while she was still in utero.
“We really wanted to bring Gianna to places that were special to our family,” explained John.
For the Schmidts, that included everything from a family Christmas trip to Crown Center in Kansas City, Mo., to a small chapel with special significance to the family. Friends of the Schmidts organized a prayer service — which John and Jennifer consider to be the highlight of their pregnancy — at St. Joseph Chapel, located in the basement of St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison.
“It was completely overwhelming. We were expecting five or 10 of our friends, and instead, the chapel was filled with friends and family praying for Gianna,” said John.
They also did the normal, everyday things that families do. John, Jennifer, and their young sons talked to Gianna constantly. Jacob and John Paul liked to kiss and pat their mother’s stomach.
In fact, during this — the most difficult time in their lives — said John and Jennifer, the mood around their house was peaceful, almost serene.
“A part of us didn’t want this pregnancy to end,” said John. “We were very aware that we had a little saint living with us, and we knew she wouldn’t be with us long.”
But that didn’t mean putting the family’s life on hold in order to grieve.
“It was heartbreaking,” said Jennifer, “but we tried to keep a healthy perspective. That included normalcy in our everyday lives, as well as humor and allowing ourselves to fully grieve.”
For the Schmidts, that grieving required as much spiritual as emotional support.
“What really touched me was that at different times, John and Jennifer each called to talk,” said Father Brendan. “Each in their own way described this overwhelming feeling of helplessness and suffering, ending in prayer where they would just ask God for help.
“And through that prayer, each of them described this sense of God comforting them and letting them know things would be OK.”
A CHILD IS BORN
John and Jennifer had been forewarned that Jennifer’s labor could be much more difficult than her first two, due to a lack of amniotic fluid commonly associated with Gianna’s condition. Plus, there was a real possibility that Gianna would be stillborn.
With the first contractions of Jennifer’s labor, the Schmidts were keenly aware that this was both a beginning and end. They prayed fervently for just a little time with their baby.
“We wanted so much to welcome our baby and have her time on earth be completely filled with joy and happiness,” said Jennifer. Mercifully, Gianna was born alive. After baptism by Father Brendan, and held gently by her father, she opened her eyes to the sight of her big brothers coming into the room to admire and make over her.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud of our boys,” said John. “They just showered Gianna with kisses, and John Paul kept trying to tickle her. The pure, unconditional love they gave her just blew me away.”
Just as amazing to John and Jennifer was the sense of pride they felt in their new daughter.
“I had been scared to see Gianna,” said Jennifer, “knowing she would die. But all that was gone when she was born. She was so beautiful.
“We were sad to be losing her, but John and I were both in awe. She was gorgeous!”
Lewis, who was in the delivery room with the family, said it’s normal for a mother to hold her baby right after delivery.
“What struck me most was that John was the one to hold Gianna right away,” said Lewis. “He just knelt down with her in his arms while their boys just kissed and loved on her, with Jennifer smiling and looking on.
“It was almost like Jennifer knew she had the time to hold Gianna all throughout her pregnancy, and now it was time for John and the boys.”
Forty-five minutes after she was born, Gianna Marie Schmidt peacefully drifted off to sleep and her breathing slowed to an eventual stop. Her time on earth was over.
They say time heals all things. The Schmidts will tell you otherwise: It was the grace of God and the kindness of others that brought them peace.
“I think this story really shows what a Catholic, pro-life family can do in the world with their witness to Jesus,” said Father Brendan. “Our world is so afraid of suffering and bad news, we often want to run from it.
“But what I saw was Christ transforming their lives and the lives of people around them.”
Though Gianna’s life did not end the way the Schmidt family wanted, they take consolation in knowing she is in heaven — and that she was loved during her time on earth.
“We never in our lives had to surrender our lives and will to God so much. But Gianna forced us to do that,” said John. “We had to pray with grace and dignity, even through the rough moments, and embrace her life and our time with her.
“This was such a hard experience that we could have easily missed out on it becoming a beautiful, life-changing event.”
Countless people reached out to grieve and celebrate with the family, help around the house, and provide meals during the pregnancy. Families from Jacob’s kindergarten class at Prince of Peace School created a rose garden in honor of Gianna.
“We will forever be touched by the kindness others have shown us. It helped us be able to survive day to day,” said Jennifer.
LITTLE SISTER SAINT
Jacob and John Paul, too, help their parents through the hard parts, sometimes quite unintentionally. It’s difficult to resist the boundless energy — and equally boundless faith — of the two little boys.
“When John Paul sees pictures of Gianna, he says, ‘That’s my baby Gianna.’ He talks about her and wants to remember what she looked and felt like,” said John.
Jacob, on the other hand, shares his birthday with Gianna: March 5.
But it is a happy, not a sad, occasion — and not because he has forgotten his little sister, said Jennifer. “He tells people, ‘My little sister is a saint in heaven — pretty cool, huh?’”
Still, one of the most healing experiences for John and Jennifer has been sharing their story. Though it started as a simple prayer request, the couple has continued to be very open about their experience with Gianna in the hope that it will help other families who experience infant loss.
“I think sometimes people don’t know what to say or do, so they don’t say anything,” said Jennifer. “And I think had we heard of a family with a situation like ours before, I probably would have said, ‘Oh those poor people, how incredibly sad for them.’ And I would not have known what to do or say.
“But what most people don’t realize is that despite the pain, we feel incredibly blessed to have been Gianna’s parents.”