AFTER EVERY STORM COMES A RAINBOW. A sentiment that couldn’t be truer for Jenni Shepard, TMU Athletic Director and Head Women’s Softball Coach, and her husband, Josh, welcoming life after experiencing a loss.
Shepard, who grew up the youngest of four, found herself struggling with poor health during a significant part of her childhood. However, those who know Shepard can attest to her strong-willed demeanor and her drive to not let illness defeat her love for sports. As a youngster, her drive to win was evident. She excelled through karate, on the stage in dance and even on the football field. “I was very active as a child,” Shepard shared. “When I got into trouble, my mother would make me run laps around the house because she realized that was the best form of discipline for me and it benefited me to be active.”
Shepard shared, “I grew up in a Christian home attending my mother’s church in the country that met once a month and then the church my Dad grew up in the other three Sundays.”
Her love for sports was strong but her love for Jesus outshined any other activity. “I remember the day that I accepted Jesus Christ,” she recalled. “It was [in Vacation Bible School] as a child. The book of colors was brought to my attention one evening. As the teacher explained each color, black for sin, red for the blood of Jesus, white for the cleanse of salvation, gold for heaven and green for growth, I knew I needed give my heart to Christ.
In high school, Shepard kept herself busy with a plethora of activities which included: cheerleading, football, band, girl scouts, basketball and softball.
After high school, Shepard shared that she reaffirmed her faith in the Lord. She was a big part of the Baptist Student Union and really begin to share her faith with others throughout her college years.
“After graduation, I was offered a job at the college and was able to really find my calling and passion as a coach. I went on to earn my Master’s in Early Childhood [Education] and continued to work there as Assistant Softball Coach.”
At the age of 23, Shepard sought the Lord’s calling for her to be a part of the faculty and coaching staff at Truett McConnell University. “There,” she says, “I have made amazing relationships with the girls that I coach. I am able to not only teach them about the game, but how to work together with teammates, overcome adversity, performing to the best of your ability, basically, a lot of life lessons.”
“I also get to share my faith, which is very important to me,” Shepard said. “With my testimony, it’s only fitting to share God’s faithfulness, and at Truett, I am able to do that.”
Shepard took the next couple of years pouring everything she had into the softball program at TMU. “There were tough times, I’m not going to lie. Many prayers and many tears shed. But we’ve come full circle from where we were when I first came and I am proud of the fundraising, the mission efforts and volunteer work done by previous players and those today. We worked hard to get where we are today.”
Shepard joked how her husband, Josh, who is “her complete opposite”, has always stood by her no matter what. “He’s always listening, allowing me to vent and letting me know how proud of me he is.”
The two met on her 26th birthday. She had gone tubing with some friends who had also invited others. Josh happened to be one of those attending the fun-filled day and the two begin dating, and shortly, were married.
The couple enjoy hiking and camping together but they both knew right after they were married they wanted to start a family.
The moment they found out they were expecting a son was mere bliss. The thought of an energetic little boy who would love sports flooded Shepard’s mind. It was as if a window to her husband’s childhood was about to be open. The memories they would make, the vacations they would take and the privilege of teaching him to grow up to be a good man just like his Dad. More than anything, he’ll have that soft side just for Mom.
The gleam of motherhood was fitting to this soon-to-be mom. Family, friends and even the girls on her team were anticipating the arrival of the little one.
With many pregnancies, slight complications can arise as in the case with the Shepard. Early on, Shepard dealt with a blood clot which led to a hospital stay and doctor’s had concerns for uterine fibroids they had noticed. Per Shepard, “the rest of the pregnancy seemed fine. It was more a concern for me than our son at the time.”
“I was put on blood thinners during the pregnancy, and after doing an [amniocentesis] test, to check his lungs, they decided to induce me around 36 weeks so that they could control the birth should any complications arise,” she explained.
The day had finally come for the first-time parents. They found themselves in the delivery room awaiting that first cry from their newborn son. Family and friends, eager to meet Zane, had come prepared to welcome the infant after the birth.
“I remembered being induced, and sometime after that, my water breaking.” With her husband, mom and mother-in-law in the birthing suite, she remembered shouting out, “Something is happening. Something is happening!”
Shepard new the something she was feeling was not right. As her team of doctors and nurses evaluated the mom and baby’s condition, she could tell the baby was in distress. She paused, then expressed, “I knew something was wrong. I remember pushing and doing all I could do.”
Suddenly, the room seemed to be filled with a thousand people. The image of nurses and doctors flooding the small area to work on baby Zane still etched in her memory. “It’s an image you don’t forget,” she explained. The ecstasy of the day quickly turned into agony as the words “he didn’t make it” came from the doctor’s mouth. It was as if someone took her breath away.
Zane Grayson Shepard was born into this world and left into the arms of Jesus at 5:15 p.m.
Through Christ who gives me strength
No books, pamphlets or classes can prepare someone for the heartache of losing a child. A child that was loved deeply since the first moment his little heartbeat was faintly heard. His life illustrated the fragile line between life’s possibilities and its impossibilities.
They cleaned the newborn and wrapped him in a blanket before handing him to his mother. His beautiful blonde hair and tiny facial features resembled both his mom and dad. “I held him for six hours and was able to say goodbye,” she said somberly.
“About 6 a.m.,” she remembered, “I started feeling contractions and felt the need to push. Once I did, the bed was covered in blood.” Doctors rushed her into emergency surgery where she underwent a 4-hour hysterectomy to save her life.
“It was touch and go there for a while,” Shepard remembered. “I was given 12 units of blood and 3 or 4 bags of glucose. But I made it through. I made it through.”
The doctors said that she had a placenta abruption which caused the placenta to tear before he could be delivered. The family held a small funeral for Zane. Shepard explained how her large family never left her side. They were her shoulder to cry on; her prayer warriors. “After the funeral, I kept myself busy. I threw myself into my work.”
“I cried every day for the first year. Everyone at Truett, especially my softball girls, got me through the hard times.” Pointing up at pictures in her office, she explained the effort her players had made to show her compassion. “They painted Z’s on their faces and wore bracelets in memory of Zane,” she said with a smile. “You know it wasn’t just my baby, it was theirs too.”
“Most importantly,” she said, “was my faith that got me through the loss.”
Philippians 4:13 has always been significant to the softball coach as she grew up as sort of the ‘underdog.’ But now, the words spoken in the passage provide the answer she needed to get through loss of her son – “through Christ,” the scripture proclaims, “who gives me strength.”
Shepard also shared her favorite song, which, even today, brings comfort. The chorus from Casting Crown’s Praise You in This Storm reads:
And I’ll praise You in this storm
And I will lift my hands
That You are who You are
No matter where I am
And every tear I’ve cried
You hold in Your hand
You never left my side
And though my heart is torn
I will praise You in this storm
An act of kindness
“Before they wheeled me back into surgery, I begged the doctor to promise me that they would save my ovaries,” she explained. “I remember lying in the bed, sobbing, thinking that I would never be able to have another child.” At that moment, her husband revealed to her the doctors were able to save her ovaries.
For Shepard, saving the ovaries meant hope and reassurance. Although she could not carry a child herself, using a gestational surrogate to carry out the pregnancy restored her desire to have children who would carry the same genes as she and her husband.
“I recall my cousin, Jill, calling me and wanting to come and visit. I had just gotten out of the hospital that very day and she and her husband Kevin came by to check on me.”
Right there in her living room, Jill offered to carry a child for the couple. She told Shepard she knew that God was calling her to do this for the grieving parents.
“I became so emotional,” Shepard said. “To see a selfless act be done through trusting God and trying to follow God’s will for your life, I think that says a lot. She just wanted to bring us happiness.”
“We started the process six weeks after Zane’s passing,” she shared. Both couples underwent a series of psychological and physical screenings to make sure that the process was going to work.”
“There was still a lot of legal documentation we had to do,” she explained. “We had to do a surrogacy contract and a pre-birth order before the delivery.”
In gestational surrogacy, the baby is not genetically related to the gestational surrogate. The egg comes from the intended mother and the sperm comes from the intended father. Using In vitro fertilization (IVF), eggs and sperm are combined through the IVF process and the resulting embryo or embryos are then transferred to the gestational surrogate’s uterus
Baby A and Baby B
“On Father’s Day of the same year, they transferred two embryos. Right around July 4th, we found out we were pregnant with twins,” she shared with excitement even after many years later.
“There was a part of me that was a little nervous throughout the pregnancy,” Shepard reluctantly shared. “Would she change her mind? Would she grow attached to the babies? But she never did. All she cared about was our happiness and fulfilling what God had laid on her heart.”
Shepard’s cousin would eventually be placed on bedrest at 15 weeks due to some complications, the family kept in touch throughout the whole pregnancy and Shepard was at every doctor’s appointment she could be up until the delivery at 36 weeks.
On the day the twins where to be born, her cousin had to undergo a cesarean due to the fact that one of the twins had gone breech just before delivery.
“It was exciting because I got to be in the operating room,” she shared. “It was such a rare thing for them to allow that but I was ecstatic when they allowed me.”
The day was overwhelming. She experienced so much joy in preparation of meeting these two precious little humans, anxiety at the thought of beginning this new adventure and even worry and angst as the thought of baby Zane’s birth, and the emotions of that day, reminded Shepard how precious life truly is.
As the doctors proceeded with the cesarean, everyone beamed with excitement as this first baby was delivered. They held up the beautiful baby girl [Baby A as they called her] under those bright operating room lights and Shepard smiled as the little one screamed at the top of her lungs. “Looking back, she has always been the little talkative one. She came into this world wanting to be heard,” Shepard joked.
Nurses quickly took the crying newborn over to be cleaned off while doctors delivered the little boy [Baby B]. Her heart began racing. What seemed to be taking so long? The doctor then called out, “his head seems to be stuck under a rib.”
“I was so nervous. I held my breath for what seemed to be forever,” she stressed. “After three minutes, the doctor held up Baby B so that we could see him, and he just looked around. It was as if he was just checking things out in this new world.”
“I looked at him and immediately shouted, ‘Is he okay?’ I just needed some sort of reassurance.” About that time, the tiny baby let out a cry and Shepard, overcome with emotion, was able to breathe.
“Jill and I were taken to separate rooms. She went to a recovery room, and I and the babies, went into another room.”
On February 6, 2011, as Shepard sat on the bed holding her tiny infant twins, Zoe and Jack, her husband opened the door very gently and quietly walked in to see his family. “It was an amazing feeling to watch him seeing us for the first time,” she said. Tears of joy and excitement filled the eyes of the new parents.
“It was a surreal moment,” she said. “The bright, beautiful rainbow after the storm.”
With tears of happiness gleaming in her eyes, after reliving such a joyous memory, she added, “I am forever thankful for what Jill did for me and my family.” A true bond that will forever be shared between the two women.
A place of peace
On special occasions, or whenever the mood takes them, Shepard, her husband, and the twins, drive to her parent’s property and make their way into the peaceful wooded area that surrounds the family cemetery. The children usually run ahead—they know the way—exploring the beauty of nature that changes with every season that passes, while mom and dad somberly stroll to the spot where their son Zane rests.
The headstone is surrounded by colorful flowers the family planted that bloom just as the warm glow of spring shines through the trees. Some days they go just to visit, to say a few words or tend to the memorial. Just this March, after they celebrated what would have been Zane’s 6th birthday, the kids made their way with shovels in hand and dug their very own holes to plant rose bushes for their brother.
As March 5 rolls around each year, it can be a tough day for the family. A reminder of how precious life is. How the Father gives and how He takes away. For Shepard, it’s a day to share where this journey has brought her. One year, she wrote to friends and family: “3 years ago I held you in my arms. I will cherish those moments forever. You made me a better person and a better mother. I strive to never take anything for granted. I won’t ever know why you couldn’t stay here with us, but I thank God for the moments we had. Thanks to the doctors who saved me and tried so hard to save you. I think of you all the time. God’s plan is bigger and I just have to continue to trust in Him. I love you and miss you every day. You will forever be my baby Zane…”
“The twins, who are five now, still don’t ask a lot of questions,” she said, “but I am sure that is to come.”
Shepard and her husband have been preparing for that day for a long time. “We never want to lie or be deceptive when sharing with them how they were born.” With the help of Dr. Holly Haynes, Dean of the Leonhard Schiemer School of Psychology and Biblical Counseling and Associate Professor of Behavioral Sciences, and a student player on her team, the three made a book that explains just what took place. “I gave it to my children for Christmas last year and they constantly ask me to read it to them.”
Time goes on
It’s been seven years since Zane was called to Heaven. Being rich in church, prayer and faith has brought Shepard out of her darkest hours. “I will always share my story. When people ask me if twins run in my family, I tell them the whole story of God’s love and how there are still good and amazing people in this world.”
She shared how her softball players have all heard her testimony which is a way for her to teach them, in her words, “that you never know when you might have a chance to positively influence someone’s life or share the gospel. Softball is just a game, God is the victory.”
“I know I will see my beautiful baby boy again in heaven,” the coach said with reassurance. “The Lord has promised me that. Until then, every unanswered question, doubt, insecurity that comes my way, I find my way back to this life-changing experience and how trusting in God and keeping my faith in Him will get me through every struggle I may face.”
Without a doubt, the smiles on Zoe’s and Jack’s faces in each photo in Shepard’s office is a testament to His faithfulness. God has a reason and a plan for everything. “Sometimes it is hard to see it in the moment,” she said, “but you have to trust that there are bigger and better things ahead.”
“They are my blessings!” she proclaimed. “My promise of hope after the storm.”
Jenny Gregory is the Digital Content Specialist for TMU’s Marketing and Communications department.Return to News Archive