When Whitney and Zach Bates renewed their wedding vows last summer, their son Bradley took a moment to share a special announcement.
Matching his father in a cream suit, the 4-year-old turned to face the crowd at the reception. “Mommy have a baby in her belly,” the little blond boy garbled as the guests cheered.
But the next week, doctors couldn’t find a heartbeat.
“They started me on Progesterone because it was still a little bit too early, so they didn’t want to say for sure. About two weeks later, I went back in and that’s when they clarified we had lost the baby,” Whitney, 25, tells PEOPLE.
Their joy at learning they were expecting baby no. 3 — and grief over the miscarriage — was captured this season on the devoutly Christian family’s reality show, Bringing Up Bates. (The UPtv series follows Zach’s parents, Gil and Kelly Jo, as they raise 19 children and nine grandchildren … and counting!)
Whitney and Zach (also parents to daughter Kaci, 2) have found comfort in fans who reached out on social media after watching the heart-rending episodes.
“Our vow renewal and then miscarriage, those were two things that I really struggled with feeling like I wanted to share,” Whitney says. “But there was such a response of people who had been through the same thing.”
She also leaned on sister-in-law Erin Paine. Now a mother of three, Erin suffered several miscarriages due to a blood-clotting issue before she and husband Chad welcomed their first child, son Carson, in 2015.
“Our faith was what really helped us through this journey. We believed that we will see our babies in heaven again,” says Erin, 27. “I will admit, there were days that I think you experience all the emotions. You sense anger, like why did this happen to me when other people don’t even want a baby and they can get pregnant. Just having to realize that I’m not going to understand why all these things happen, knowing that I can just trust God through this and to just lean on other people to encourage us and to strengthen us through this — that’s huge.”
Whitney and Zach had been trying to conceive a third child for a few months when they learned she was pregnant, about a week before their June 14 vow renewal. And their two children, especially Bradley, were thrilled about getting a little sister or brother. When they sat him down to explain they’d lost the baby, “He cried,” Whitney says. “He saw that we were hurt, and he realized he wasn’t getting that baby. He made a comment to me and him and Casey, it just touched our heart. He said, ‘Don’t worry, God is going to put another baby in your belly.” It touched our hearts, and we had to look our two babies and look what God has given us, and we’ll never forget, and we know, and Erin knows, that we’ll see those babies again in heaven. That’s where we find our comfort.”
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Erin and Chad also gave Whitney and Zach a tangible reminder of the child they lost. Together, the families planted a dogwood tree in the baby’s honor.
“I felt like it was something we could all be part of to bond, and to just cry together and love each other,” Erin explains.
The tree is “right outside my kids’ bedroom,” Whitney adds. “When I am with my kids, I can look outside, I still see it, I remember it, it hurts, but at the same time, we know that God has a bigger plan and he brought us through that, and that little baby we planted that tree for is with him. There’s comfort in that. It hurts, but it helps with the healing.”
Now, both women are focusing on their littles ones’ latest milestones (Carson can dress himself now!), helping Carlin Bates plan her wedding and planning to open a dress shop together.
Whitney and Zach are still hoping to conceive again, too.
“We have been trying since October. It’s not happened,” Whitney says. “I’ve called him every month and said, ‘Okay, I’m going to take my test.’ So we’re just waiting for it. Sometimes I overthink it, but I know on God’s time, he’s going to give us another one. So we’re just going to keep trying.”
Bringing Up Bates airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET on UPtv.