Justice and Comfort: Calvary Chapel Mother Fights for the Parents of Stillborn Children
Story by Carmel Flippen
Photos courtesy of Julianna Grace Ministry
In honor of Infant Loss Awareness Month in October, we are running this story on Julianna Grace Ministry (JGM), a ministry of Calvary Chapel Shreveport, LA. To read the original series, click here.
Jessica Armstrong learned she was having a daughter at the same moment she learned she had lost her.
Having a son and daughter already, ages 2 and 4, the Armstrongs wanted their third child’s gender to be a surprise. The baby’s personality, however, was clear—it was a ball of energy, bouncing around inside the womb. When the movement suddenly stopped at 27 weeks, Jessica knew something was wrong, but she expected to need bed rest or some other medical intervention. Neither she nor her husband expected to learn their daughter had died, a twisted umbilical cord having cut off essential sustenance.
The Armstrong children hold the family’s new baby, born after the stillborn delivery of Isabella Grace in 2018, and a special gift from God. But they still include Isabella in their Easter celebration by adding a new cross to her grave. Her gravesite has been crucial for the Armstrongs in processing their grief and keeping her memory alive. However, the financial strain families face after a stillbirth often makes a traditional burial—or even paying their medical bills—impossible. Louisiana’s Act 467 seeks to help those families.
They named her Isabella Grace. After her stillbirth on November 6, 2018, they were able to spend seven hours with her. “When [the funeral director] took her away, that was when it really hit,” Jessica remembered through tears. “I was absolutely devastated.” Though grateful for how their community rallied around her, “I felt alone,” she continued. “I didn’t know anyone who had lost a baby beyond a very early pregnancy. My friends had no idea what I was going through.”
Then a basket arrived from Julianna Grace Ministry (JGM), packed full of items that other mothers who had experienced infant loss knew Jessica would need. “The basket is absolutely wonderful,” said Jessica. “I felt so loved, felt that there were people there for me, people I didn’t even know.”
Calvary Chapel Shreveport’s Julianna Grace Ministry (JGM) sends baskets to families grieving an infant loss. Handpicked by other grieving mothers, the items in the basket help provide physical, spiritual, and emotional comfort. JGM also offers ongoing support through their blog, videos, and online community.
While Jessica understands why other families might choose differently, when deciding what to do with Isabella’s body, “we did not want to cremate her,” she explained. “We wanted her to be buried so we had a place to visit. But it was a big chunk of money at one time taking care of that. When we were meeting with the funeral home director and the headstone people, prices were always in the back of our mind. Grieving the loss of our daughter and trying to take care of things [financially] took a very big toll on me mentally.”
As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you. Isaiah 66:13a
After the trauma of a stillbirth, grieving families face tremendous financial burdens. JGM’s founder, Lisa Rowell, elaborated, “Your bills come in weeks or months after your stillborn child, reminding you that you had a baby, but it’s not alive. Insurance may not cover blood tests or stays in the maternity ward because you didn’t produce a live baby. Some jobs won’t give a mother time off for maternity leave, and people living paycheck to paycheck can’t take time off.” That is why, in addition to helping families facing infant loss through JGM’s baskets and online community, Lisa also tirelessly advocates for better legislation for them. This spring, at long last, the Louisiana legislature passed Act 467, which offers a one-time tax credit to parents of a stillborn child to help offset their many expenses.
Jessica realizes that compared to some of the other costs grieving families face, a grave may seem optional, but “it was definitely something I needed at the beginning,” she insisted. “My kids would go to daycare, and I would spend time there and talk.” To this day, the gravesite is an integral part of the Armstrongs’ life, helping them acknowledge that despite Isabella’s brief life, “she’s still very much a part of our lives,” Jessica said. “My kids know they have a little sister in heaven. Every season we put out a new cross and a new flower arrangement. Every birthday we bring balloons and cake.
“We were very fortunate at the time to be able to pull the funds to get plots and a headstone, but many might not be so lucky. This bill would certainly help ease any financial worry when it comes to the death of a child and doing what is best for the family when it comes to laying them to rest.”
Lisa Rowell enjoys time with her second daughter, Gabriella. The stillbirth of Lisa’s first child, Julianna, inspired her to help other parents of stillborn children through Julianna Grace Ministry and multiple legislative efforts.
Insult after Injury
In 2013, Lisa’s daughter Julianna Grace died at 23 weeks from the same extremely rare complication which took Isabella. A basket left in the hospital for her by a loving stranger inspired her to later start JGM, sending baskets to grieving parents around the nation and even throughout the world (click here to learn more about Lisa’s story and JGM)
Allison, the then-stranger whose kindness inspired Lisa to start Julianna Grace Ministry, kisses the top of her newborn daughter Sophia’s head. Sophia later died suddenly at three weeks old. Years later, when Allison was hired to photograph Lisa’s stillborn daughter Julianna, she was moved to leave a basket filled with everything she knew Lisa would need.
While still reeling from Julianna’s death, the Rowells were hit by bill after bill. Lisa called the hospital about each one, trying to get the costs reduced. Each call was salt in an open wound. “They would say, ‘Congratulations on your baby!’ and I’d have to explain all over again that she was a stillbirth,” grieved Lisa, remembering how the person’s tone would change completely as they sadly explained insurance would not cover it. At the calls’ ends, those on both ends were traumatized. Then the next bill would arrive, and the process restarted. Amidst this struggle, “I felt God quietly telling me that I wasn’t the only one going through this—that we could make a law that could help,” said Lisa. “I just kind of tucked it away.”
Years passed as Lisa started JGM and raised her second child, Gabriella. As she continued hearing stories of other families’ suffering, however, the idea for new legislation was never far from her mind. Finally, she began researching in earnest. She discovered that only a handful of states offer a stillbirth tax credit; her home state of Louisiana was not one of them. She contacted a state senator with the idea of a one-time tax credit based on successful bills in other states. While Lisa believes the senator was well-intentioned, “He just gave me lip service for years,” she lamented. “It was always, ‘I’ll do it next year.’ About three years in, I just wanted to give up. But I felt God was telling me to keep going, keep asking. My husband Stephen said, ‘The worst someone can tell you is No. And then you move on.’”
“Ask and keep on asking and it will be given to you; seek and keep on seeking and you will find; knock and keep on knocking and the door will be opened to you.” Matthew 7:7, AMP
His successor, also initially excited, did not follow through either. A friend pointed Lisa toward state Rep. Dodie Horton. At first, Lisa feared things were following the same pattern, but although Rep. Horton was unable to champion the bill herself, she was instrumental in connecting Lisa to state Rep. Stephanie Hilferty. Rep. Hilferty was introducing a similar bill at the request of Saul’s Light, an organization which provides resources to NICU families. Like Lisa, founder Kimberly Novad began Saul’s Light after the loss of her own child.
“I reached out to Kimberly. She had a personal meeting with me to see if I had an agenda,” recalled Lisa, noting that she had learned the hard way that this was a valid concern in the political world. “I said, ‘I don’t care who gets credit; it just needs to pass.’” Kimberly bristled after learning Lisa was a Christian; she shared her negative feelings on Christianity, based mostly on unfeeling comments she has frequently heard from alleged Christians through her work with Saul’s Light. Lisa listened compassionately. After losing Julianna, she had been hurt by some of the same remarks made by people who did not understand her pain. (To hear Lisa’s advice on showing love to those who have suffered through infant loss, click here.) Lisa continued, “I said, ‘I understand, and I respect where you’re at. I think we can agree to disagree and still cooperate.’ She was totally on board with that.” From then on, Lisa sought through her actions and kindness to provide Kimberly with a better picture of who Jesus is, and what His followers stand for.
After the sudden death of her 14-month-old son Barrett, Natalie Boggs received a bear in a Julianna Grace Ministry basket which helped her through her grief. The Boggs family created Barrett’s Bears to provide personalized bears to comfort other families after an infant loss. Natalie’s bears are now included in many JGM baskets.
After the bill was submitted, Lisa contacted Rep. Horton’s assistant to ask how she could help it pass the state House of Representatives. The assistant advised her to write an email sharing her story with all the representatives. Once she did so, “I received emails and phone calls from many representatives whose eyes were opened, and hearts were moved. God had done His work,” she rejoiced. “One man who called was distraught. He hadn’t known this was happening. He said, ‘You absolutely have my vote.‘”
On April 26th, 2021, Kimberly and other bereaved mothers shared their stories with the House. With Louisiana’s budget already overburdened by the pandemic era, no funding had been approved for any other bill. As Chairman Stuart Bishop addressed this bill, however, he declared, “Something of this magnitude, it’s not about dollars and cents; it’s about heart and soul.” It passed by unanimous vote.
And the LORD, He is the One who goes before you. He will be with you, He will not leave you nor forsake you; do not fear nor be dismayed. Deuteronomy 31:8
Jeanne Doggett (left) prayed for Lisa Rowell (right) for years after learning of her from her daughter Allison. When they finally met, Jeanne became Lisa’s spiritual mentor and gave her the encouragement she needed to start Julianna Grace Ministry. Now Jeanne contributes “Heaven Necklaces” to the baskets.
At this time of great celebration, Lisa’s heart remained wary. She knew the struggle was not over yet, and she had been disappointed before. In the weeks approaching the state Senate vote, the prognosis looked grim. Despite bipartisan support, pro-abortion activists feared that the dignity the bill gave these unborn children would undermine their cause. During Kimberly’s statewide campaigning in support of the bill, numerous politicians had told her it would never pass, and even trusted friends had turned against her.
The Senate heard the bill on June 7. Lisa listened on the radio as she drove home with a load of Barrett’s Bears for JGM baskets (click here to learn how JGM helped inspire Barrett’s Bears). She heard the bill hit opposition almost immediately. A senator who had experienced a stillbirth was presenting the bill on Rep. Hilferty’s behalf. Though passionate, she was not as knowledgeable on the bill’s ramifications, and quickly became flustered under questioning. Saying he feared it was a slippery slope, one senator demanded, “So you would be in support of a tax credit for every family that loses a child? Under any circumstance?”
Lisa listened in dismay to the ensuing flurry of questions. Then Sen. Katrina Jackson came to the woman’s rescue. “Did you know that every other parent that has a child born within the year, whether it lives for a minute … gets a tax credit?” she began. “The only parent that does not receive a tax credit … is the parent of a stillborn child.” After her thorough explanation, another senator spoke in support, then it was put to vote.
“I was pulling into my garage when it passed by unanimous vote. That just doesn’t happen—a bill passing without any No’s in the House or Senate,” she declared. “I was screaming and crying.”
Daughter Gabby piped up from the backseat, “What’s wrong, Mom?”
“It passed! The bill passed!” Lisa screamed.
“Is that a good thing?” asked the startled child. Laughing, Lisa assured her it was. It was the faithfulness of God to finish what He had started.
Lisa holds a copy of Louisiana’s Act 467, which will allow parents of stillborn children to claim a child income tax credit in the year their tragedy occurred. She rejoices in God’s faithfulness throughout the grueling five-year battle to make the bill a reality.
Advocate Like a Mother
Months later, Lisa received a package from Kimberly. She cried when she saw a copy of the bill and a t-shirt that read, Advocate Like a Mother. “God is so thoughtful of things we don’t even realize we need,” Lisa proclaimed. “I didn’t even realize I needed a hard copy until then. I’m amazed at how God did this, that He would use me.”
The bill now sits on a shelf beside Julianna’s ashes. Lisa knows the small amount of money provided by her bill is just a drop in the bucket compared to families’ expenses. It could make a difference, though, in whether a parent has resources to seek counseling; in families choosing how their children are laid to rest instead of surrendering them to a mass grave. She knows also that God’s reasons for nudging her to persevere are about something much bigger: “Louisiana finally dignified our children’s lives.”
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. Psalm 139:13-14, NIV
Click to learn more about Julianna Grace Ministry, a ministry of Calvary Chapel Shreveport, LA.
To read our previous series about Julianna Grace Ministry, click here.
All verses above are quoted from the New King James Version, unless otherwise noted.
© 2021 Calvary Chapel Magazine (CCM). All rights reserved. Articles or photographs may not be reproduced without the written permission of CCM. All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.® Used by permission.