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Episode 9 - Anchored by the Gospel after Losing My Baby to Cancer with Jess McClenahan


Join us for a conversation with Jess McClenahan about how the Gospel anchored her to hope after the loss of her 11-month-old daughter, Cora. Jess shares Cora's story of being diagnosed with neuroblastoma cancer and how she clung to her faith after Cora's passing to Heaven.

In her heartbreak, Jess discovered God's character and learned to trust Him in a new and deeper way. Jess shares how she found abundant life in Christ and redefined what blessing looked like. She encourages grieving mothers to study God's Word and anchor their hearts to the hope of Jesus. In this episode, we discussed:

  • How can you trust God with the death of your child?

  • What does abundant life look like as a believer?

  • Why God's wrath and our sin matters in the story of the Gospel

  • Salvation and why it's our greatest need

  • Jesus is the only way to Heaven and to see our babies again

  • Why does God allow suffering?

  • Putting God in a box and why that affects our ability to trust Him

  • An analogy of an Earthly vs. Heavenly perspective

  • Symbolic traditions in memory of your baby to bring healing

  • The power of God's Word as a lifeline to survive grief

  • Why sharing your story matters and can plant seeds of faith for others

Each episode has a special Hope Guide that you can download by clicking the button below. It is packed with hope-filled resources and extra information from the episode!

Discussion / Application Questions (leave your answers below in the comments!)

  1. After losing her baby to cancer, Jess realized that God's blessings and an abundant life in Christ looked very different than what she expected. She realized that salvation was her greatest need and that the Gospel was the anchor that gave her hope. How did Jess' testimony impact your view of the Gospel or life as a Christian, especially through suffering?

  2. In this episode, Jess shares that the Bible became her lifeline in the middle of her deepest grief. And, we talk about the importance of studying Scripture in its entirety to understand the full context of the Gospel. Are you in His Word daily? What is God teaching you through your time with Him? If not, brainstorm some ways you can make Bible-reading a daily habit.

  3. Jess reads Isaiah 26:3-4 which says that God keeps us in perfect peace when our minds are steadfast and trust in the Lord. He is our Rock eternal. How does this verse change the way you face your day to day? How can it impact your grief journey? List some ways you can keep your mind fixed on Jesus.

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Jess McClenahan is an unlikely farmer’s wife and mama to five. Her 11-month-old daughter, Cora, went home to Jesus after being diagnosed with cancer.

Since that day, Jess has experienced that God is truly close to the brokenhearted and has faithfully anchored her through the biggest storm of her life. Through writing and speaking, Jess seeks to authentically share her journey through grief and live abundantly in all circumstances.

Connect with Jess:

Instagram @jessmcclenahan



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Ashley Opliger is the Executive Director of Bridget's Cradles, a nonprofit organization based in Wichita, Kansas that donates cradles to over 1,090 hospitals in all 50 states and comforts over 26,000 bereaved families a year.

Ashley is married to Matt and they have three children: Bridget (in Heaven), and two sons. She is a follower of Christ who desires to share the hope of Heaven with families grieving the loss of a baby.

Connect with Ashley:

Facebook /ashleyopliger

Instagram @ashleyopliger

Pinterest /ashleyopliger

Follow Bridget’s Cradles:

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Instagram @bridgetscradles

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Episode 9: Anchored by the Gospel after Losing My Baby to Cancer

Ashley Opliger: [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Cradled in Hope Podcast where we believe that the hope of Heaven, through faith in Jesus Christ, has the power to heal our hearts after the loss of a baby. It’s a pain no mother should have to endure and we want this podcast to be a safe place for your broken heart to land. Here, we are going to trust God’s promise to restore our joy, use our grief for good, and allow us to spend eternity with our babies in Heaven.

I’m your host, Ashley Opliger. I’m a wife, mom, and follower of Christ clinging to the hope of Heaven. My daughter, Bridget, was stillborn at 24 weeks in my first pregnancy in 2014. In her memory, my husband and I started a nonprofit ministry called Bridget’s Cradles, and God has given us purpose in our pain and we’ve seen beauty come from ashes.

Although we wish you didn’t have a need to be listening to this podcast, we believe God has a reason for you to be here today. We pray this time would be a source of healing for you as we remember that Jesus cradles us in hope while He cradles our babies in Heaven. Though we may grieve, we do not grieve without hope. Welcome to the Cradled in Hope Podcast.

Ashley Opliger: [00:01:26] Hi friends. Welcome back to the Cradled in Hope Podcast.

Today is October 1st, the first day of Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Month, the special month to honor and remember our babies in Heaven. But I know it can be a very heavy and emotional month, so when praying about who I wanted to usher our hearts into this month, I knew I wanted it to be my friend, Jess. She is a sweet, sweet soul who loves the Lord and is able to share the Truth of His Word with so much grace, love, and wisdom.

So today I'm humbled to have my friend and fellow Kansas mom on the podcast. I actually first heard of Jess five years before I lost Bridget. You'll hear her story in a few minutes, but I had found Jess’ blog and was so inspired by her faith, so let me tell you a little bit more about her.

Jess McClenahan is an unlikely farmer's wife and momma to five children, four on earth, and a daughter in Heaven. She is married to her high school sweetheart, Joel, and lives on a farm in Kansas.

Her daughter, Cora, was born in 2008 and just 10 months later was diagnosed with cancer. After 17 days in the hospital, Cora went home to Jesus and Jess’ life was turned upside down. Since that day, Jess has experienced personally that God is truly close to the broken-hearted, as He faithfully anchored her through the biggest storm of her life.

Through writing and speaking, Jess seeks to authentically share her journey through grief and her desire to live abundantly in all circumstances. Her greatest desire is to know Christ intimately and to share His faithfulness with others. I know her story will bless you and I am honored to welcome Jess to the Cradled in Hope Podcast.

Welcome, Jess. It's so good to have you on the podcast.

Jess McClenahan: [00:03:20] Hi Ashley. Thanks for having me. It's great to be with you.

Ashley Opliger: [00:03:24] We were just talking about how we met and the fact that you had actually been to Bridget’s Cradles headquarters and had a chance to share Cora's story and your testimony with a group of women.

And what was really special about that night was it was one of our Create and Remember craft nights when we do a craft with moms. And it's just a night of crafting and fellowship, and having that time to make something in memory of our babies in Heaven, and get to know the other women. And the craft that we were doing that night was painting rocks, which I will let you share the significance of.

But we actually got that idea from you and the tradition that you have started with your family. So I'm going to let you share your story, and then if you want to share about your traditions and everything as you share your story, that would be amazing.

Jess McClenahan: [00:04:17] Okay, sounds good. Well, I am going to start just by sharing a little of my background. First let me just say, I'm Jess. And I have five children, one in Heaven and four here on earth with my husband, Joel. And we live in Kansas just like Ashley, which is fun because we're close by, and we live on a farm out in the country.

My husband is a farmer, and so we're raising our kids on the farm, which is super fun and a totally different story than I expected my life would include, but it's great. So I'm just going to start by explaining a little bit about my growing up. And I feel like it helps to understand my life before Cora and then my life after Cora's diagnosis, because it really sets a framework for what God taught me through that, and how that has made such a huge difference in my life, and how He's grown me and changed me.

So I grew up in a Christian home and I was raised by parents who gave me every opportunity to grow in the Lord. I was in Christian schools and I went to Awana, and I was in church and youth group and all the things, everything that they could do to set me up to know and love God they did.

And I trusted Jesus at a fairly early age. I was in the fifth grade, actually. And I had a teacher who was talking in school about how we can't depend on our parents' faith for our own faith, basically was the gist of it. And I thought, “I don't think I've ever made a decision for myself to trust Jesus.” I was piggybacking off my parents and God just really impressed on my heart that I had to choose to follow Him myself.

So in fifth grade, I made a decision to follow Jesus, and of course, that's the best decision I've ever made. And then in high school is when I met my husband, Joel. He was my first and only boyfriend, and we got married five years later during college. And then two years later we graduated and we felt God's leading to come back to where we grew up, actually.

And the Lord had provided an opportunity for him to take over a farm, which was his dream and not exactly what I was expecting for our life. I actually felt like, “Oh gosh, God, what are you doing? This was not what I planned.” I wasn't planning on being a farmer's wife. So that was kind of a hitch in my plans, but of course, just a small thing.

And we moved back and I started teaching. I taught kindergarten and we were plugged into a really great church. And the Lord had provided an opportunity for us to be in a young married ministry that was just growing, and we could see His hand in it. And we just felt like everything was going just like we planned, blessing after blessing and it was what we planned and what we wanted, and life was just really good.

So at this point in my life, I felt like I wanted to really live a life that was glorifying to God. And Joel wanted that, we both wanted that for our lives. But trusting God was really comfortable and easy, looking back. I wouldn't have said that at that point, but looking back, because everything was unfolding just like I had wanted and just like I planned.

And so it was easy to trust God. And I think I really thought that those blessings were a result of me trusting Him. And then our daughter Cora was born on March 5th, 2008. And I remember every detail of her birth. I actually, at that point in my life thought that I was going to be a boy mom, which is kind of ironic when you hear the rest of my story, but we hadn't found out what we were having.

And so Cora arrived and we had a girl and we were so surprised and so in love with her. And she was definitely the biggest blessing in our lives at that point. And I had left my teaching job shortly after Cora was born to stay home with her. And I had always wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, so it was just perfect.

Everything was perfect, and I loved being a mom. I loved being home with her. Yeah, our lives were going, again, just like we had planned. And then one day in an instant, our lives changed. Cora was born in March and this was around Thanksgiving time. And Cora just started getting sick a lot, but it was fairly common things that you would think would happen as a mom, like ear infections and respiratory infections.

And it didn't seem like a big deal but she just didn't seem to be getting over them, so we were visiting the pediatrician quite frequently. And then in January, we were returning to her pediatrician for a follow-up appointment from a previous ear infection and something, it was just some motherly instinct thing, I think. I just knew something wasn't quite right.

And I actually had Joel come with me to that appointment, because we just wanted to ask some questions. But we weren't scared. We never were going into the appointment thinking, “We're going to get bad news.” It just felt normal still.

So we went to that appointment, described what was going on, some things we had noticed. Cora actually had a pretty distended abdomen and she was a really chunky baby, and so it wasn't super obvious at first, but we had noticed, “We think her abdomen is pretty distended.” And so he decided at that appointment, based on that and the other things, to take an x-ray of her abdomen. And he took the x-ray and about an hour later came into our room with the news that of course forever changed our lives.

He told us that Cora's liver was very enlarged and that he had reason to believe that it was probably some kind of cancer or leukemia that was causing that. So at that point, he sent us straight from that appointment to the hospital in Wichita. We live outside of Wichita. So he sent us straight to the hospital and we checked in and we spent the next 17 days there.

We checked in and they ran, of course, a whole bunch of tests. And by the time they did the CT scan, it was pretty late that night. And so we were just forced to wait till morning to learn exactly what we were looking at. And at that point, we had heard different things.

Our pediatrician led us to believe it was most likely a cancerous situation. Then when we checked into the hospital, we had talked to a resident who said, “Hey, it could be something else related to her liver.”

And we were like, “Oh, well maybe it's not cancer. Maybe we don't need to be scared about this.” And so it was a roller coaster of emotions, of just, “We have no idea what we're about to face.”

So the next morning, they came into our room pretty early and affirmed that Cora did have a tumor and that they needed to remove it immediately. They too, like our pediatrician, thought it was most likely cancerous. So we had just a whirlwind of meetings with doctors, surgeons, oncologists. It was like all at once and, “We need to do surgery right away.”

It was the hardest thing we've ever gone through, because just the day before, we thought we had a healthy little girl and here we were, ready to hand off Cora for surgery not even knowing, like, “What does this mean? What is this going to mean for her life?”

So she did make it through that first surgery, which we were so, so grateful for. But that was really the last time, that time right before the surgery, that we just got to laugh and play with Cora, like the Cora that we had known those 10 months because after the surgery, she just never was the same.

Ashley Opliger: [00:12:52] That makes me so sad every time we talk about your story.

Jess McClenahan: [00:12:57] Oh yes, it was definitely some of the hardest moments of my life, for sure.

So after her surgery, they diagnosed Cora with neuroblastoma, which is a form of childhood cancer. And we found out that her cancer was already at stage four, which meant that it had spread throughout her entire body already. But despite her diagnosis, the doctors and surgeons, and everyone assured us that there was a lot of research and statistics that showed when you catch neuroblastoma before the age of one, that there is a high probability that they will recover and live a normal life.

And so we are holding onto that, of course trusting God too, for His healing. But we hadn't let our minds go to the, “What if this doesn't turn out like we hope? What if God doesn’t heal her like we are praying for?” So the next few weeks were definitely a roller coaster.

Cora’s treatments, and when we might be able to go home, changed every day. At first, we thought after her surgery we were going to go home and then come back for her chemo in the clinic. And then things changed and we ended up starting the chemo in the hospital and they moved her to the PICU. So it just changed every day. Just when we thought we had a handle on it, something would change.

And we were just falling on our faces every night, just begging God to heal Cora. And I think we felt, we knew He could. We knew He was capable of healing her, that He was bigger than cancer. And so I think we were just anticipating His blessing on her life and that He would heal her in the end.

So she had four surgeries during those 17 days in the hospital and completed the first round of chemotherapy. And oh, it was so hard, because she was hooked up to so many different monitors and medicines, and eventually had to be on a respirator and an oscillator.

And by that point, we couldn't even hold her, which was so hard. So she wasn't progressively getting better. But I think we were still just holding onto the words of her doctors, that, “This could get really bad, but she could pull through still. Don't give up hope.” And also just that we served an amazing God who can heal her.

And so then it was a Sunday morning, this is the 17th day we were in the hospital. We were woken up in the middle of the night, early in the morning. And my mom actually was staying in the hospital room with Cora so that we could try to sleep a few hours before we went back. We were in the hospital too but sleeping in one of the rooms that they have for parents in those situations.

So she came and got us and the doctor just said, “Her lungs are failing and there's just nothing else we can do, if she doesn't respond to what we're doing right now.” And we just watched in shock as she slipped away. And yeah, that's the best way I can describe it, is we just were so shocked. We couldn't believe, like, “She’s gone.” And that was February 8th, 2009, and she was 11 months old when she passed away.

Ashley Opliger: [00:16:38] Jess, I’m so sorry.