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9 | Anchored by the Gospel after Losing My Baby to Cancer | 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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CONNECT WITH OUR GUEST


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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MEET OUR HOST


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.


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EPISODE TRANSCRIPT


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.


Jess McClenahan: [00:12:57] Oh, thank you.


Ashley Opliger: [00:16:40] My momma heart is breaking all over again. I've heard your story shared many times, and I know your story intimately. But right now I have a seven-month-old and I'm just thinking about walking through this with my child, and it's just tearing at me.


I truly cannot even imagine walking through that and through the hospitalizations and the surgery and the chemo, and then to be hoping and praying and trusting God for this miracle. And then for her to pass away, I can't imagine the shock, but also the pain and the grief and the questions for God. “Why didn't You answer our prayers?”


I know you've talked a lot about how before Cora, you had lived this pretty perfect life and you had blessing upon blessing. Everything was good and you didn't really know what suffering looked like, and trusting God was easy and comfortable. But what did it look like to trust God when things were not perfect, when things didn't go as planned?

You had mentioned that trusting God with Cora’s cancer was different than trusting God with her death. So how did you learn to trust Him again?


Jess McClenahan: [00:17:46] Yes. So I'm just going to back up a little bit.


When we were in the hospital, we had started posting prayer requests and just some updates on how Cora was doing each day on this little teeny blog that I had just for posting family pictures. But it was a way that we could communicate with everyone at the same time because of course, communication was so difficult when we were dealing with everything that we were in the hospital.


Yet we knew we had this army of friends and family that wanted to support us in prayer and pray for Cora and for healing. And so we had been posting on that and then all of a sudden, people would leave comments that they were praying for Cora, that I didn't even know who they were. And of course, that's normal these days, but this was back in 2009 when blogs were just becoming a thing.


And so we were shocked because all these people all of a sudden would pass on our blog and, ”Hey, pray for Cora. We know this family.” And pretty soon there were so many people praying for Cora and leaving us notes and emails that they were joining us in prayer.

So we put up a post on February 8th, the day that she passed away, just to let all the people know that had been praying for us that Cora was in the arms of Jesus and to continue praying for us as we were heartbroken and devastated.


And I still remember someone left a comment on that post that said, “Please continue writing, because I want to know that your faith is real and that your God is going to walk through this with you, and that you're going to make it through,” basically.


And I remember reading that and thinking, “I know that God is real.” I wasn't doubting my faith or who He was, but all of a sudden I had gone from, “Okay, trusting God is really easy because my life is going how I want it to, and the things that I've hoped for have come to pass. And now all of a sudden trusting God is really difficult and uncomfortable. And how am I going to trust God with the death of my child? What does God's blessing look like now that Cora is gone?”


And so I just had to decide that, “I don't know how this is all going to play out.” And of course, it was very difficult because my arms were empty. My heart was crushed. Our dreams were dashed for Cora. Our thoughts were jumbled. It was just such a confusing, hard, dark time.


But I knew I had to decide that I believed that God was working out His perfect and good plan in my life, even though I couldn't see evidence of His power or His presence at that time, which to me would have been healing Cora.


And I had to decide: Does His blessing on my life or this abundant life of a believer that we read about in His Word, can that include the death of my child? Can that include losing Cora?


And I think that was the beginning of the journey for God to show me that His blessing on my life is so much more than God giving me just the things that I want or God answering my prayers in the way that I want Him to.


Ashley Opliger: [00:21:41] I wanted to talk about that, about the idea of blessing, because we so often associate God's blessings with the good things in our lives.


But after, you realized that blessing could mean more than that. It can mean finding blessing in our suffering and finding blessing in our pain. So what did He reveal to you in that season of what true blessing and a true abundant life in Christ looks like?


Jess McClenahan: [00:22:06] Yes. I think what God really taught me through that time was just having a better understanding of the Gospel, really.


And the moment I accepted Christ was when my story intersected with God's story, because what I deserve is to be standing under God's wrath. And we often avoid talking about God's wrath and we just focus on God’s goodness and blessing, because the Bible says that my sin deserves death and I fall short of the glory of God.


And then in Romans 5, that God shows and proves His love for me by the fact that while I was still a sinner, Christ died for me. So the only reason that I am standing under God's blessing is because He sent His precious Son to stand under the cursing that I deserved, in my place. And He sent Jesus to die a horrible, painful death in my place because He longs for me, He longs for us to be standing under the stream of His blessing now and for all eternity.


So I think understanding how the Gospel transforms every part of my life, not just how it saves me, and reflecting on all that I had in Christ and how that made a difference in my life as I faced tragedy, and then thinking through, “If God sent His only Son to die in my place, He's not going to leave me stranded now in my grief. He's going to walk with me through that and He's not going to abandon me in my sorrow.” And if God walked through the worst pain and suffering imaginable for me, He wasn't going to abandon me now here in the lesser pain and suffering that my grief had brought.


And again, if my greatest need is in salvation and He had already met that need in Jesus, then He was going to continue to meet any other needs that I had. So I think just coming to a place where I could say, “God is worthy of my trust because of His death on the cross. And I may not understand what I'm going through right now. I may not understand why He didn't heal Cora. I may not understand why He chose the death of my child to be part of my story, but I can trust Him because He is trustworthy.”


And it wasn't like all those questions went away and suddenly I felt good about losing Cora and grief was easy. All that stuff was still so hard, but just coming to the place where I could say, “This is going to be super hard. And I really don't know how I'm going to get up and face the next day, honestly, but I know I can trust God. And I know He's going to walk with me through this.”


Ashley Opliger: [00:25:22] Amen. I think when you're walking with Christ, your entire perspective changes of life and death and Heaven and earth.


Jess McClenahan: [00:25:31] Yes.


Ashley Opliger: [00:25:31] Everything, your perspective of suffering changes and your outlook, when you have an eternal perspective and you understand you will get to see Cora again.


She is alive and cancer-free with her Savior and with our Creator right now and we will get to see her again.


Jess McClenahan: [00:25:49] Yeah.


Ashley Opliger: [00:25:50] Knowing that is Truth and that we have hope to see her again, it does change our perspective on the rest of our days here on earth. Our days are numbered just like our children's days are numbered, and in the grand scheme of eternity, all of our days are so short. And the best, the greatest gift that we could ever have is the salvation of our sin.


Jess McClenahan: [00:26:13] Yes.


Ashley Opliger: [00:26:14] And I think for me, sometimes, even in this ministry, I want to be careful when talking about the hope of Heaven and the hope of the Gospel, because I don't want to overlook the part about sin and the part about God's wrath, because there's no need for a Savior if there's not sin.


And if we just keep saying, “Well, everyone will get to see their babies again in Heaven,” and of course we want everyone to see their babies again in Heaven and I do believe that babies go to Heaven, but we have to have that faith and repentance of our own sin and realize that we are under God's wrath and we are deserving of God's wrath because of our sin.


And so I don't want to overlook or downplay sin. Because of the sin that came from the fall with Adam and Eve, we are under God’s wrath and we all fall short of the glory of God. And we need a Savior, our repentance of sin, and our turning in our faith in the Messiah, Jesus Christ, and only in His name and no other name can we have that reconciliation with God, our Father.


Jess McClenahan: [00:27:19] Yes.


Ashley Opliger: [00:27:19] And so I don't ever want to overlook that, because as much as I am wanting to preach the hope of Heaven, it comes through faith in Jesus and our repentance and our understanding that we are sinful and that we need a Savior.


And that's the only way to the Father. That's the only way to Heaven, to our babies again. And I'm not saying that in a manipulative way of saying, “Well, if you don't do this, then you won't get to see your babies.” It's just the truth. It's the Truth that's in God's Word. We can't stray from that. We can't downplay our need for a Savior and the impact that sin has on our eternal state.


If we do not have a relationship with Jesus, we will have eternal separation from God. And that's not because God doesn't love us. He doesn't desire that for us. He desires to have our hearts. He desires for us to choose Him and to love Him.


We hope you are enjoying this episode so far. We wanted to take a quick break to tell you about some other hope-filled resources our ministry provides to grieving families.


On our website, bridgetscradles.com, you can find many resources on grieving and healing including memorial ideas, quotes & Scripture, blog articles, featured stories, recommended books, and other support organizations. We share ideas on how to navigate difficult days such as due dates, Heaven days, and holidays. We also have a page with ideas on how to care for a friend or family member who has experienced pregnancy loss.


In addition, every month I lead free Christ-centered support groups for bereaved moms called Hope Gatherings, both in-person and online. You can find a list of upcoming dates and sign up for our next support group on our website. You can also join our private Cradled in Hope Facebook group for grieving moms to find friendship and support. We would be honored to hear your baby’s story and be praying for you by name.


Lastly, our Pinterest page has beautiful graphics of quotes & Scripture from this episode, along with many other resources that you can pin and save. We would also love for you to connect with us on Facebook and Instagram. You can find us on these three pages: @bridgetscradles, @cradledinhope, and my personal page @ashleyopliger. We’d love for you to follow along and spread the word about the Cradled in Hope Podcast. Now let’s get back to our episode.


Ashley Opliger: [00:29:48] It's a basic question everyone wants to know, is: Why does God allow suffering?


Jess McClenahan: [00:29:53] Well, I think just walking through losing Cora, I didn't understand that at all. Like, “How does this fit in with who You are? Why would You allow a 10-month-old to get cancer? And why would You allow me to lose my first child? And why can't I be a mom right now? Because that's all I really want to be is be a mom.”


So all these things, I really wanted to understand why. And I think I realized in a lot of areas of my life, that I was putting God in a box. And then I thought, “Did I really want God to be this predictable God that I always understand as a fallen human being, that's really no bigger than my limited understanding? Or do I want to serve a God like it describes in Isaiah and Psalms, whose ways are higher than our ways and whose knowledge is too wonderful for us to attain.


And so I think I had to come to grips with the fact that I serve a God who is all-wise, all-good, all-knowing, and I am not going to understand Him ever.


There are things He reveals to us in His kindness to us, and of course, He reveals the things that we need to know. But there are things that we're never going to totally understand because He's God and we're not.


And I think at least for me walking through grief, it was good for me to come to that realization. Like, “It's okay if I don’t understand all these things”. And again, I just have to go back to trusting in who God is, even if I don't have all the answers, and that's okay.


Ashley Opliger: [00:31:38] Yes, absolutely. And that's where getting into Scripture and just studying who God is and His character, and the fact that He is sovereign, He is good, He's never changing, He doesn't change based on our circumstances.


So the fact that He's never changing and that He's good means that He's always good in all things.


Jess McClenahan: [00:31:59] Right.


Ashley Opliger: [00:32:00] And that's what gives me comfort, because a lot of times my perspective of God changes based on my circumstances. But God is higher than that. He's always the same. He's always good. He can't change.


And that has given me a lot of peace, knowing that He's not changing. My circumstances may change. My perspective may change, but He's always the same. And we can trust Him even when we don't have the answers. Even when we don't understand, when we get to Heaven we will understand.


There was this book that I had read a long time ago and it had given this beautiful picture that helped me understand looking at something from an earthly perspective and a Heavenly perspective.


And basically, it was this tapestry that was flipped over. And maybe you've heard this analogy before, but it was a tapestry and on the backside, there's all these knots and twists and turns, and everything's very chaotic and nothing really makes sense.


You just see a lot of different strings and knots and all these different colors thrown about, and we don't understand it, looking at it on this side. It looks messy. It doesn't look like there's any sort of rhyme or reason or purpose.


But then if you turn it over and you see that the outside or the front side of the tapestry is this beautiful pattern and this beautiful image. And that's the side that God is seeing.


And we're seeing the messy, broken side of this earth and He is working all these things together for our good. We don't always understand. We can't always see it. I think sometimes God allows us to see things work out for our good on earth, but some of those things we may not see until Heaven, until we get there.


Jess McClenahan: [00:33:44] Right.


Ashley Opliger: [00:32:00] And so I love what you said about just trusting in His character, even when we can't fully understand the story that's being written on earth.


Jess McClenahan: [00:33:53] Yes. I've heard that analogy before too, and I think that is such a great visual for us, just thinking about the way that God wants us to live.


And it reminds me, actually, of the verse in 2 Corinthians 4. I jotted it down before we talked because it came to mind, and it says, “Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, for what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”


And I love that, the way Paul reminds us that the world is not our permanent home, and it kind of goes along with that imagery of the tapestry that you were just describing, and just acknowledging that our circumstances and troubles are very real and very hard, but they're only temporary.


And he gives us instruction on what to do, that we're not supposed to fix our eyes on what is seen, on the circumstances and struggles that you were just talking about that change all the time. But he tells us to fix our eyes on Jesus, who is unchanging and who is our rock and our hope, our only hope. So I love that. That reminded me of that verse.


Ashley Opliger: [00:35:24] Yes, Jess, I love that verse. It's perfect for what we are talking about. So how would you say that we should keep our eyes on Him? How do we focus on Jesus in the midst of our pain?


Jess McClenahan: [00:35:34] I remember, after Cora passed away, thinking that exact question. “How in the world am I going to pick up the pieces of my life and keep going? And how am I supposed to keep walking with God with this huge grief that I'm facing?”

And honestly, I didn't really know if I could make it. I didn't know if my marriage could make it. But I did know that there was nothing that could make this pain better or nothing that could make this go away. And I knew that if I was going to make it through this, that my only hope was to trust in Jesus.


And so I think it was nothing within me or within my own strength, but just choosing to put my hope and trust in Jesus, and to keep walking and trust Him that even though I didn't know how I was going to get out of bed the next day and face whatever that day held, that I was going to trust that He was going to give me what I needed each day.


And it makes me think of “His mercies are new every morning.” I just had to trust that, that He was going to give me what I needed. So I think, as I look back on that time, there were a few things that were definitely the key to that walking or continuing to walk through my grief and not giving up. And one of those things was just being in God's Word.


God's Word is so alive and powerful and it's true. And His promises are our hope. I think sometimes we forget that the Bible is God's words to us, honestly. And after losing Cora, I was challenged by several different women to dig into God's Word, and so that's what I did. I just started meeting with God every day, reading His Word, because honestly, that's just all I knew to do, because I felt like I couldn't keep going.


But I was like, “I'm just going to open my Bible every day and trust that He's going to meet me with what I need.” I actually read or I heard someone say that God wants us to read His Word because He wants to be known, but also because He cares about how hopeful we are. And that was taken kind of from Romans 15:4, where it says these words were written that we might have hope.


And I love that, because that's what's been so true in my own life. As I continued to press into God, I began to experience healing that only God's Truth can bring. And I began to shed misconceptions that I had about God and really grow in my understanding of who He really is.


And during that time, the Bible really felt like a lifeline to me, like a lifeline to God's voice as I was searching for answers and trying to find comfort. And He truly brought hope to what felt really hopeless in my life. And I think that just speaks to the physical power of Scripture.


I think that was the first time I really had experienced the physical power of Scripture, really meeting me every day and providing just what I need. So I guess when I meet with or talk to women who are experiencing grief or walking through something similar, that's one thing we all can do.


We all can go to God's Word because it's alive and powerful and personal, and it's going to meet you wherever you're at. Your story might look different than my story or Ashley's story, but God's Word has just what you need.


Ashley Opliger: [00:39:29] Yes. And I would like to add, too, in the world, when you're going through grief, there's going to be conflicting messages on how to heal or where your hope should come from, or coping mechanisms that you should do to get through the pain.


And especially in today's age and today's culture, there's so much out there with grief, even other nonprofit organizations that don't come at grief from a Christian perspective. And it might seem like it's good. But our hope needs to come from Truth and the only Truth that there is. There can only be one Truth and that Truth is in God's Word.


And when you're going through grief, like for me, I just felt like I needed to cling to what was good and what was true and what was right, because there were so many other messages out there and my soul was just longing for Truth and longing for hope. And we find that when we meet God in His Word.


And like you said, it's alive. His Word is alive. And I know so many times people say this, it's silly, like where you just flip open your Bible and you're like, “Okay, God, speak to me on this page.”


There have been times where He's done that for me, where I’m asking Him, “Okay. God, lead me to the book and to the chapter and to the verse that You have for me.” And even in my Bible app to this day, there'll be times where I get on my app and I'm like, “Okay, God, I'm going to listen.” I like to listen to it, to the audio version of the Bible sometimes, and it's amazing.


I'll be in a reading plan and the Scripture will come up and I'll be listening to it. I'm like, “Oh my goodness, God, You knew I needed this exact Scripture for my heart today,” because His Holy Spirit is here, is present with us and He is there and He meets us in His Word.


So I just wanted to share that as well, because I think it's very easy for us to be lured by other things you see on social media or online, or what people say, or sometimes other nonprofits that, like I said, it might seem good or might seem okay. But unless we're anchored in the hope and the Truth of Christ, we're really being led astray of where we should be heading in our grief and where we should be looking for Truth.


Jess McClenahan: [00:41:58] Yes. Yes, and I would say even just knowing and being grounded in Truth to have a framework for what God has done, the same thing that you just described in my life, brought a verse to mind, or I've seen it somewhere else. And I'm like, “Man, that's exactly what I needed.”


But I think in today's culture, we’re a social media culture, of Instagram posts or Facebook or whatever, where we just see these clips of a verse here, a verse there. And if we don't have that framework of the Bible of understanding the context, I think we just in our humanness can make the verse mean whatever we want to, based on our circumstances or feelings at that time.


I know that's not what you meant by what you were saying earlier, because I too have had verses that have come up and I'm like, “God, that is exactly what I needed to read today.” But also being careful to be women that really are grounded in Truth and know God's Word so that we aren't swayed by things popping up here and there, because we don't know the context of that.


And it's so easy. I think, especially as women, to be swayed by our circumstances and feelings and to fit that into whatever we want to hear. So knowing and depending on God's Truth and really being grounded in that has been so important to me, both in grief and just in life in general.


Ashley Opliger: [00:43:33] Absolutely. Yes. And I want to add to that as well. When I was mentioning that, I definitely think that there's a propensity in our culture to pick and choose verses here and there, and try to get our Truth from that without a fuller framework in context of the Bible as a whole, not just the New Testament, but also going back to the Old Testament and looking at God's full story.


And I'm actually going through a Bible study right now, it's called Faithful, and it's looking at all of the covenants from the beginning, from the Old Testament through the New Testament that is every covenant that God has made is fulfilled in Christ. But it's going all the way back to the beginning of the world and creation of the universe, how God has always planned for Christ to be our Savior.


And I guess what I'm wanting to add, too, is that being in Scripture and studying Scripture, it's great to do Bible studies. It's great to do your Bible reading plans. Like I mentioned, it's great to read Scripture on social media and Bridget’s Cradles and Cradled in Hope, where we put Bible verses out there all the time and it's great to read that.


But I think what you're saying and what I want to add to what you're saying is that it's important to have context and to read all of Scripture, who it was written for, when it was written, who was writing it, where does this play into the bigger picture of the entire story that God's writing in the Bible, so that we do fully understand the Truth and we do fully understand God's story. So thank you for sharing that, because that is so important.


So, Jess, I love that you talked about being in Scripture. Is there anything else that you would recommend to a mom who has gone through loss and is wanting to use her story for others and to glorify God in the middle of her pain or as she’s walking this grief journey? What else would you say to a momma who's walked this journey?


Jess McClenahan: [00:45:27] Talking about Scripture actually is a great way to lead into it because I feel like Scripture gives us a great framework, especially in Psalms, for how we can use our grief and our heartache and the things we don't understand, and pour those things out to God.


Yet we see David doing those things, and while he wasn't always confident in his circumstances, he always came back to who God is and His attributes. And so we see his circumstances driving him to God and to praising God for who He is, and how that becomes a framework for his circumstances and what he's going through or the rock that he can stand on.


And I think it shows us how to come to God in transparent prayer, in every situation in our life, in losing a child or grief, but really in everything and how we can find hope and joy in knowing Him.


But I think asking God to help me develop an attitude of praise in the midst of my difficulties was an important area that I needed to grow in, because honestly, there doesn't feel like there's a lot to praise God for when you're in that dark place, especially those first days and weeks and months.


And like you said, God is so gracious to reveal His goodness and how He's working, even in those hard things, and He did that in my life. But it's still so hard, because it's just not going how you wanted it to or your prayer wasn't answered how you wanted to. So how do you see God's goodness in that?


So I just started asking God, “Lord, help me to notice Your goodness in this really hard situation.” And right after Cora died, sometimes that just looked like me thanking God for giving me the strength to get out of bed and face whatever I had to try to do that day, because getting in my car and going anywhere was really hard because I had to put on this face to talk to people, even though I didn't feel like it.


So just thanking God for giving me the strength to do that or thanking God for His promise that He's close to the broken-hearted, because I was experiencing that. I felt His nearness and I knew that He was close to me in my brokenness then.


So even when we can't see anything good in our situation, which a lot of times we can come up with something good that we see coming out of it, but even if we can't see anything good, we can always praise God for who He is and what He has done for us in our salvation and saving us and rescuing us, and just allow that Truth of who He is to permeate our minds and our situation. And I feel like that just gives us such a new perspective of seeing how God's working even in the heartache.


Ashley Opliger: [00:48:50] Yeah. I love that: Praising in the middle. I feel like in the middle of grief, you're really taking it one moment at a time and one hour at a time. You can't even think about the next day or the next week, because you're in survival mode when you're in grief. You're just thinking, “How am I going to survive this next day? And how am I going to get through the next hour?”


And so just having God be there to rely on for every breath for every moment, and as hard as it is, just praising Him. And for me, sometimes the easiest way for me to do that is to have worship music on and to be singing the words, even if my heart's not feeling it, but to be singing and speaking Truth.


And as you're worshiping God, I feel like there's this moment where your heart does catch up to what you're saying.


Jess McClenahan: [00:49:39] Yes.


Ashley Opliger: [00:49:39] Your mouth is saying the Truth and Scripture in worship songs, and then your heart starts to feel it. And you're like, “I can praise Him in the storm. I am praising Him because He's good, and He's here with me, and He's sustaining me through this trial and through this grief.


So I love that you shared that because it's not talked about often, to be praising Him in the middle. Oftentimes we think about praising Him after we've walked through this journey and He's gotten us through it or we've seen something good come from it.

But really, it's in that hard in-between place, which I would say we're all in, this in-between place of walking between the Garden of Eden and the coming Garden that God will restore on this earth when He makes the New Earth and the New Heavens. We're walking through this earth in brokenness of sin and death and illness.


That's why cancer is here. That's why families lose babies, because of brokenness. And how do we praise Him in the in-between place when we're dealing with that? And I love that you shared that because it's so hard to do, but I do think that really bonds you to the Lord and brings you closer to Him in the middle of your suffering.


Jess McClenahan: [00:50:49] And I think sometimes that is the internal, private working out with the Lord. I've heard people say, “Preach the Gospel to yourself.” And that's what you're doing sometimes in those times, is just remembering, reminding yourself of the Gospel, of who God is, and praising Him through that. And then down the road, when you can step back and see, with a little clearer vision maybe, some of God's purposes, or at least see the work He's done in you.


So it's been 12 years and I wish I could go into detail about all the things that God has done in me and in Joel, in our family, and in people around us. God has been so gracious to give us a glimpse of some of the things He did through Cora’s story.


And I think that that is when we can verbalize it a little more and tell others like we were talking about earlier, what God has done through the hard places in our life. And that can be so encouraging to someone who is in the dark places or just starting out on that road through grief because they can see someone who's a little further along than them.

As I went along, I realized the story is so much more about God and so much less about me and less about even Cora. It is what God is doing, but I can use Cora’s story to share what God has done in my life, what He continues to do.


And that's such a gift that He allows us into that, to be a part of what He's doing. I know He used people in my life, in my grief journey, who were ahead of me to encourage me in that way. And so I think any time we have the opportunity to just share, even if it's just a little bit of what God has done, that's so powerful.


Ashley Opliger: [00:52:54] And that's what we were just talking about: you and your faithfulness to write your faith testimony after losing Cora helped me in my journey. I didn't share this earlier, but I found your blog, the blog that you were talking about in 2009.


This was before Matt and I were married. This is before I had lost Bridget. I was a Christian and I was walking with God and had stumbled upon your blog, shared somewhere.

And I remember just being captivated by your story and seeing this mother, even though I wasn't a mom yet, just seeing a mother lose her child and walk through everything that you had walked through with Cora and her cancer and her treatments, and seeing your faith through that.


I remember it really hitting me, of being like, “Wow, she is such a strong Christian. I don't know if I could rely on God like that,” or, “I don't know if I could survive something like that.” Obviously now I know God was planting that seed because I would one day walk a different journey, but losing my daughter in a different way.


And so the obedience and the faithfulness that you had to share your testimony and to share what God was doing in your life back five years before I lost Bridget, that was planted in me so that when I did lose Bridget, I went back to your blog and that's how I found you again.


One of the things that you would always post about on your blog was the family tradition that you have with your boys. Well, you now have a little girl, Annie, but at the time that I was following you, actually, I was following you the whole time as each boy entered into the world.


But this tradition was something that you started from the very beginning, painting rocks and bringing them to Cora's grave. And that was just so beautiful to me, seeing how you honored her life with your family and with your living children. And so that was something that Matt and I adopted as one of our traditions.


And then we started doing that at Bridget’s Cradles as a Create and Remember craft night for moms. And we had the honor of welcoming you to the first time that we did that at our headquarters, because I felt like it was so important to have you there, because it was sweet little Cora and your story and your faithfulness of sharing how your family was processing your grief and how your family was honoring Cora and sharing the Gospel.

So you were able to share a similar message that we're talking about today on the podcast to a group of women, and we all painted rocks together. That was so special. Do you want to share anything more about that?


Jess McClenahan: [00:55:36] Yes. I loved being there that day. It was very special for me to be a part of that too. I don't exactly know how the rock tradition started, except that Cora, her Heaven birthday is what we call it, is in February.


And we live in Kansas, and so February is like horrible weather here. I'm pretty sure every time we visit the grave, it's snowing or terrible wind, and so just thinking through like, ”Okay, I could bring out flowers to the grave, but they're going to be gone in two seconds because the weather is so horrible.”


So I can't remember if I saw that somewhere or I just saw painting rocks and thought that could be something we could do, but I thought if we paint rocks, it's something I can do with my kids that they can be a part of and a way to include Cora in our family since she's obviously not here with us. And it's something that can't blow away or go away. It'll always be there.


So we started this, I would have to look back to see when we started it. But we started painting rocks, and the boys would do it with me, and we would take them to Cora's grave for her Heaven birthday. And now we've left the rocks there and some of the paint’s come off, and they've weathered because of Kansas weather, but there's just this pile of rocks around her grave.


And I love both the tradition of allowing my kids here on earth to be a part of remembering their sister, but also just what that represents in God, our Rock, and how He is our firm and secure foundation. And even through losing Cora and losing their sister, it doesn't change who He is.


And so I just love both the tradition and what it has come to mean to us as a family. And even just seeing the rocks pile up reminds me of His faithfulness to us over all these years. He just continues to be faithful and faithful year after year, and I love that.


Ashley Opliger: [00:57:52] I do too, and I love that when we did connect after Bridget passed away, you invited me out and I got to come to your farmhouse, and then I got to go and visit Cora at her grave.


And that meant so much to me because we were able to connect over the loss of our daughters and our shared hope of Jesus in Heaven. And I guess what I'm wanting to encourage other women is that by sharing your story and by sharing the Gospel, God will connect you to other women.


And you don't know what seeds you'll be planting when you do share your story. And it may be years later, like it was for me. I heard your story and I was touched and impacted and moved by your faith, how strong a faith you had, and God tucked it in my heart. And then years later, I was walking my own journey and remembered you, and you just happened to live near me.


And so I think for other women who are listening to this: Be encouraged to share your story and to share the hope that you have in Heaven through Jesus Christ, because you don't know the seed that you're planting. And just as you said, it's so much more about God's story than it is about Ashley and Jess’ story, or Bridget and Cora's story.


It's the story of Jesus and the redemption story that He's written for humanity, for us, for our children, and the hope that we have. And I would love for us to close on Isaiah 26 you had written out for us because it ties back into what you just said about the rocks and the symbolism there. So would you mind reading that and then closing us in prayer?


Jess McClenahan: [00:59:35] Isaiah 26: 3-4. And this has been such, oh, this verse, I feel like God brings to mind and has brought to mind over the years in many different circumstances just one that I continue to go back to when I am forgetting His faithfulness and forgetting that this thing that I'm going to face, He's going to be faithful, just like He always has been. And I can trust Him.


So I love this verse. It's one that I've clung to many times. Isaiah 26:3-4. “You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast because they trust in You. Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord, the Lord Himself is the Rock eternal.”


And Lord, I just thank You so much for this conversation that I was able to have with Ashley today. I thank You for Bridget’s Cradles and the ministry that You have given to Ashley and her husband, and the many lives it has impacted because of their faithfulness to You, and because of their love for You and wanting to give the hope they have in You to other people, wanting to share that hope with other people. So we thank You for that.

Thank You for this podcast. And we just ask that the words that we shared today would remind people of who You are, that You are our Savior and Redeemer, that You are unchanging, Lord, you’re all-knowing, faithful, loving, and good, and that no matter what they are facing in their life right now, whether it is the loss of a child or grief or whatever heartache they might be facing, that You are their Comforter and that You long to be near to them and their broken hearts, and that we would just be reminded of that Truth today.

Thank You again for this conversation. Thank You for Your love for us. Thank You for Jesus and for sending Him to save us, and we love You so much. Amen.


Ashley Opliger: [01:01:48] Amen. Thank you so much, Jess. Before we close, would you mind sharing how people can connect with you and also sharing your blog website?


Jess McClenahan: [01:02:00] Yes. My blog website is jessmcclenahan.com and I just have to warn you that it has been pretty inactive, since I think the last post I posted on there was maybe when Annie was six months. Annie’s our youngest and she's three now.

So it's been a while, but all of my posts from the past are on there from the time that we are walking through Cora’s cancer and losing her. And then I continued to blog over all those years just about what God was teaching me. And so you can look back at all of those, if that would be helpful to you. So that's still there.


I also have an Instagram account. It also is @jessmclenehan and I will warn you about that. It has pretty much become my photo album of my family. So if that is not helpful to you, don't go visit my Instagram, because I know that's hard when you're facing losing a baby or infertility, any of those things. Yeah, it's hard to see people’s family sometimes. So just a warning about that, but you can find me in those places.


Ashley Opliger: [01:03:09] Thank you for sharing that. And I really love the articles that you have on your website. And so I would encourage people to go on there and dig back through your old posts because they're still relevant. That Truth is never changing. So even if they were written however many years ago, the Truth does not change. And you have so many wonderful articles on there, so we will link those in our show notes. Jess, thank you so much for being on.


Jess McClenahan: [01:03:35] Yes. Thank you for having me, Ashley.


Ashley Opliger: [01:03:37] Thank you for listening to the Cradled in Hope Podcast. We pray that you found hope & healing in today’s message. Don’t forget to subscribe so you don’t miss a future episode. New episodes will be shared on the 1st and 15th of every month. You can also find this episode’s show notes and a full transcript on our website at bridgetscradles.com/podcast.


There you can download a free PDF for each episode, called the Hope Guide, that is filled with notes, Scripture, links, discussion questions, and so much more. Be sure to leave your email address so that we can keep you updated on podcast episodes, upcoming support groups, and other hope-filled resources.


If you’re interested in volunteering or donating to Bridget’s Cradles in memory of a baby in Heaven, you can find information on our website on how you can get involved and spread hope to other grieving families.


One way you can spread hope is by leaving a review of this podcast on iTunes [or Apple Podcasts app]. Consider the two minutes of your time as a way YOU can personally share this hope with a mom whose heart is broken and needs healing. Thank you so much for listening and sharing. Until next time, we will be praying for you. And remember, as Jesus cradles our babies in Heaven, He cradles us in hope. Though we may grieve, we do not grieve without hope.




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