From Heartbeat to Heartache

Adapted from the book From Despair to Delivery

Donna Willey (, has co-lay­pastored with her husband for 17 years. This article is adapted from her new book, Empty: From Despair to Deliverance, which will be available in December 2013.

“We've lost the heartbeat. Your five-month-old fetus has died; we’ll need to do a D&C.” The words of my obstetrician pierced through my  every hope and dream, taking all that I thought was my own.

The surgery was set for the following Friday. The doctor assured my husband, Rod, and me that it was “just an outpatient surgery—you’ll be home by noon.”

The next few days we spent each and every moment together searching for answers we would not find. We took long walks, pleading with the God we thought we knew, sharing tears, begging for a miracle, grasping the hope of another pregnancy at another time. At the tender age of twenty, we traveled a road that no one dreams about.

Friday came without a miracle.

When the D&C was done, the hemorrhaging did not stop. I continued to fade in and out of consciousness as my body became ever weaker. I remember Rod holding my hand tightly, with tears flowing down his face. Then I would pass out again, each time leaving me in a dark confusion. Subconsciously, the thought of disappointing my mother haunted me. How would I ever tell her­ the woman who gave birth to ten healthy babies, nine boys and me?

Then I would drift into unconsciousness again. Weaker and weaker I became until I could no longer lift my hand and hold onto Rod’s. My eyes were too weak to open, but still I saw. In fear I reached out to God, pleading that I, too, like the woman long ago, might touch the hem of His garment and be healed.

God was silent.

Instead of His divine voice, a human voice somewhere in the distance was saying, “Without a hysterectomy we will lose her.” How my heart ached; instead of the healing touch of God, my destiny was in the hands of an unfamiliar surgeon standing over me with a scalpel in his hand. My heart cried out, Where is the God who answers prayer? Where is the One who promised to carry me as a lamb upon His shoulders? Where is the Rock that is higher than I?

Rod found his way to a small chapel, where he, too, cried out to God. He felt his pleading prayer reach to the ceiling but not beyond.

God was silent.

Back in surgery, my heart stopped twice. Then the choice­ hysterectomy or bleed to death. By the end of the day, we had lost not only our baby but the hope of ever having another one.

Gathering up our brokenness, we left the hospital with empty arms. I felt the coldness of lost life as bitterness began its work on my heart.

My line was empty, and the enemy spared no time, for he had much to say to persuade me into his POW camp. I was captive to his lies and powerless to trust the unseen. “Your husband deserves children; if you love him, you will stand aside so he can have a woman who will give him a family.”

The days were long, and hours of reflection stole my time. Others said and did all they could, but it was the God of the Universe I was waiting to hear from.

God was silent.

The weekends brought me to my lowest valleys. The emptiness was most real when I sat in church. Church is a place for families, and when you’re not one . . . you feel it. Week after week I watched young mothers hold and train their little ones. The pain would become more than I could bear, and tears would shame me over and over again.

I sat close to doors to ensure a fast escape, not wanting my sobbing to degrade me more. At each church service, the battle raged inside me, taking its toll on my frail faith and shattered hopes. The enemy seemed to be winning, as each week became more impossible to face.

God and I talked on occasion, but our relationship had faded and was held together by a thin, frayed thread. I could not leave church for I desperately needed it. I needed to hear others speak of His great mercy, sing of His goodness, and praise His holy name—for out of my own lips such things could not flow. God was not in the emptiness of my heart nor the empty walls that surrounded me each day. In church there was evidence that He was still all I had been taught in my younger years.

As a broken cistern, I felt useless to my church and community, for I could not hold what was given to me, nor did I have anything to give. In my pain, the God of silence was working. He was taking the scales off my eyes, scales that had blinded me to the broken cisterns I had seen in other people, yet never understood.

Now I was one of the broken ones. Week after week I came to church spiritually starving and hoping that I might eat the morsels from His table.

Broken people often become prodigals. Prodigals are those who leave family, friends, and God because they can no longer bear the shame or deal with their imagined spiritual failure. I pleaded with God to hold onto me and in some way contain the tears of my shame.

We began to arrive at church late, after everyone was seated, so we could sit somewhere with no children, and then we would leave early before anyone could see my stained face. In time the emotional pain would provide a new glimpse of God, but not now, not yet.

As the months passed, close family and friends began to talk with us about adoption. I listened with deaf ears and a numb heart. Rod was eager—coaxing me to do the adoption paperwork, for it could take years once we were on “the list.”

For me, “the list” was cold and foreign. Life was supposed to be a miracle, so how could I settle for a catalog where I would point at a picture and place my order?

I began to talk to God about the list. And a silent God began speaking to me.

“Donna,” He said gently, “there’s an old, old story I want you to hear afresh. Her name was Hannah. Her womb was vacant, her self-worth nonexistent, her destiny uncertain, her line empty.

“One day it all changed as she began to trust Me fully and completely. She trusted me with her self-worth, her marriage, her destiny, and her empty line. And then she let me have full control of her thoughts, her desires, her emotions; once that happened I could re-create her and form her into something more than an empty cistern.”

For the next six years, I stood still with one prayer.

The story of Hannah taught it to me, and it goes like this: “Father, if I am a maidservant worthy of raising a child for Your purpose, then let it be so. I exchange my list today for Your will. I give myself to You to be used or not used according to Your plan, not my own, for my depression cannot hold me where Your grace releases me.”

My humiliating tears began to dry up, not because I knew what my future was but because I knew what it wasn’t. I would not spend my days, nor my life, in search of a child I did not have, nor would I grow bitter toward a God who did not please me.

The way my empty line was to be filled was not a decision for me to make; it was for Him to make. My silent God began to embrace me. Not with words but with peace. Not with answered prayers that I could see but with His arms of grace that I could feel.

As He embraced my brokenness, He was putting me back together, and I knew my life would be complete—with or without children. I traded my will for His will, trusting God to bless me with treasures hidden in darkness and riches stored in secret places.

He was the filler of my heart, and He would fill my empty line.

Donna Willey (, has co-lay­pastored with her husband for 17 years. This article is adapted from her new book, Empty: From Despair to Deliverance, which will be available in December 2013.