Faith, hope, love and grief have marked Rex and Rachel Yabut’s life together
The question is always awkward for these parents, no matter how common.
“Is this your first?”
Now, which answer to give the friendly stranger?
The shorter, simpler one that keeps things pleasant and is also a lie?
Or the longer, more vulnerable truth, which this person might not understand or know how to respond to?
The truth: No, the unbelievably precious baby girl you’re admiring is not Rex and Rachel Yabut’s first child. She has 10 equally precious older siblings, but they’re all in heaven. They all died long before they could be born, and their parents will never stop grieving them.
In these situations, Rex and Rachel haven’t always told the whole truth. But to a remarkable degree, they’ve committed to being open and honest and even public about the too-brief lives and early deaths that have so painfully and profoundly shaped their lives and their marriage.
It’s not easy, because even though 10% to 20% of known pregnancies end in miscarriage, talking about it is “almost taboo,” Rachel said.
But for the Yabuts, sharing their family’s story is a matter of upholding the reality and the dignity of all their children’s lives, and of letting other grieving parents know that they are not alone.
‘However many God blesses us with’
At Rex and Rachel’s wedding Mass in the summer of 2010, the priest asked them how many kids they wanted to have. Rachel answered, “However many God blesses us with.”
They were young and in love and on fire for the faith.
Rachel had just graduated from St. Martin’s University in Lacey and taken a job as a youth minister at St. Michael Parish and School in Olympia. (Rachel is now a teacher at the school; Rex is the parish’s steward for time, talent, treasure and parish life.)
They’d known each other since high school, when they met through youth ministry events — Rachel was a parishioner of Our Lady Queen of Heaven in Tacoma, Rex of St. Frances Cabrini in Lakewood.
Back then, they were just friends — Rachel had a long-term boyfriend, she explained, while “Rex was telling everybody he was going to be a priest.”
But when they ran into each other at a Starbucks a few years later, those commitments had fallen away, and Rex jumped at the opportunity to ask Rachel to dinner. The date didn’t go quite as planned — Rachel wasn’t sure it was a date, and so asked a friend to come along — but it all worked out, and six months later they were engaged.
Their personalities were very different — Rex calls himself an “optimistic, in-the-clouds extrovert,” while Rachel is a “realistic, down-to-earth introvert” who sometimes rolls her eyes at Rex’s jokes. But they were united by their faith.
“We were both in a relationship with God,” Rachel said. “We were both praying and we both were trying to seek his will.”
They also shared a vision for their family, hoping that by 30 they’d have a handful of kids running around.
Rex and Rachel keep this name board in their bedroom. Each day they ask for the prayers of their 10 children who died before birth. Photo: Catara Carrell
‘The grief could have ended us’
“Quickly we learned that things don’t always turn out the way that we hope,” Rachel said.
There was no hoped-for “honeymoon baby.” For two years, there was no baby at all.
“It was kind of like, ‘Is this ever going to happen? Is this possible?’” Rachel said.
Then, in the summer of 2012, Rachel went to the doctor. Rex remembers getting the phone call at work, Rachel “sobbing in joy.” She was pregnant.
The joy didn’t last long. A few weeks later, an ultrasound showed that the embryo had stopped growing.
“It was world-crushing,” Rex said.
They named their baby Casey Francis and buried him at St. Michael’s parish cemetery.
Over the next five years, Casey Francis would be joined by nine siblings: Andrew Joseph, Catherine Hope, James Aloysius, Abigail Therese, Nathanael Patrick, Damien John, Marian Grace, Dominic Michael and Gianna Marie.
They haven’t bought a headstone, Rachel said, “because we just didn’t know how many more names we’d have to add.”
With each new life came a familiar rollercoaster of emotions: joy and hope mixed with fear, followed by deep grief.
“As time went on, the disappointment after disappointment really stretched their faith,” said Father Jim Lee, the Yabuts’ pastor at St. Michael’s. “You could just see it … a sadness that would pour out of them.”
“The grief really could have ended our lives, ended our marriage — just ended us — if we didn’t have faith,” Rex said.
“There’s a peace knowing that God has given us this cross,” he added. “This is sanctifying our marriage.”
In some ways, having so many children in heaven has strengthened and enriched the Yabuts’ faith.
“We ask them to pray for us every day,” Rex said. “And then every time we go to Mass, I invite them to be with us as we partake in holy Communion, because this is the one meal that we can share together for sure, at a table that connects heaven and earth. … It’s mealtime with our family.”
During Rachel’s most recent pregnancy, she and Rex prayed a 54-day novena of rosaries. “It gave me a lot of peace and consolation just laying all my fears, all my anxiety, and giving it to Mary,” she said. Photo: Lisa Ellefson
‘One of the biggest lies the devil tries to tell us’
For a while, Rex and Rachel kept their grief to themselves.
“At first we didn’t tell anybody that we were even pregnant,” Rachel said. “Like, I think the first three times nobody even knew except maybe our parents.”
Eventually they opened up to their church small group. Then Father Jim invited them to share their story as witness speakers before a parish eucharistic congress in February of 2015. It struck a chord.
“For weeks, months afterward, people would share with me their own experience, their own loss,” Rachel said. “And some of them were more recent, and some of them had been 50 years.”
That spring, Rachel decided to start a blog, yabutslife.com, to share about their unique family — their blessings, their grief and their hope.
“I think one of the biggest lies the devil tries to tell us is that our story doesn’t matter, and to not talk about how God is working in your life,” Rachel said.
She’d had a hard time finding resources to help her through her grief, especially from a Catholic perspective, and she wanted to offer hope to other families.
“Although it was hard and scary at times to be so vulnerable in public, I knew that’s what God was calling us to do,” she said.
Writing has been therapeutic, Rachel said, and sharing their story — at their parish and online — has opened the door to graces they never anticipated.
“One of the graces we’ve received … is that so many people began praying for us, more than we ever knew, because we had shared,” she said.
“There were moments when it was hard to pray,” she added, “so I know it was those people’s prayers that really helped give that extra grace that I needed in those times of, like, real despair.”
Zelie Rose was born October 24. Holding her for the first time “was just surreal,” Rachel said. Photo: Rex Yabut
‘In awe of God and of what he has gifted us with’
The Yabuts felt the force of all those prayers throughout the past year, when they learned Rachel was pregnant again and the baby kept growing longer than any of its siblings had.
It was the first time Rachel had ever looked pregnant, and people were “super excited” for them. But because of their history and the fear it engendered, she sometimes found the exuberance hard to handle.
“It’s like, ‘I’m happy that you’re excited, but I’m not there — I can’t be.’”
The same fear made Rex stall on preparing a nursery.
“Father Jim has been joking that Zelie is like the royal baby at our parish,” Rachel said. Photo: Courtesy Rex Yabut
Before the due date, Rex and Rachel prayed a 54-day novena of rosaries for a healthy and safe delivery, and for a name for their baby.
“It gave me a lot of peace and consolation just laying all my fears, all my anxiety, and giving it to Mary,” Rachel said.
Still, the fear lingered until their healthy baby girl was delivered October 24. Holding her for the first time “was just surreal,” Rachel said.
“It was just like a flood of pure joy and love and just being in awe of her and of God and of what he has gifted us with.”
They named her Zelie Rose, after St. Zelie Martin (mother of St. Thérèse of Lisieux), who had three children die in infancy. Over the years, Rex and Rachel have found great comfort in a line from one of St. Zelie’s letters: “We shall find our little ones again up above.”
At St. Michael’s, Zelie was an instant celebrity.
“Everyone’s very excited,” Rachel said. “Father Jim has been joking that Zelie is like the royal baby at our parish.”
“There are parishioners who look at her and cry almost because they’re so happy and thankful,” she added. “For a lot of people, it’s an answered prayer for them as well.”
While the Yabuts are over the moon about their “miracle baby,” they are clear: Zelie’s birth doesn’t erase her siblings’ lives and deaths, or the grief they’ve experienced.
The tears still flow freely for the children Rex and Rachel never got the chance to hold.
The grief will always be there, but it has changed.
It once “loomed over many years of our life,” Rex wrote in a recent blogpost.
“Now it is a grief that magnifies the hope proclaimed by the Gospel, which has transformed our family.”
Read the Spanish version of this story.
Northwest Catholic - January/February 2020
Kevin Birnbaum is the editor/associate publisher of Northwest Catholic and a member of Seattle’s Blessed Sacrament Parish. Contact him at Kevin.Birnbaum@seattlearch.org.
Kevin Birnbaum es el editor de la revista Noroeste Católico/Northwest Catholic y miembro de la Parroquia del Sagrado Sacramento en Seattle. Pueden contactarle en: Kevin.Birnbaum@seattlearch.org.