The bond that a parent has with an unborn child is extraordinarily strong. That little life is connected to their mum and dad in deeply physical and emotional ways: they share DNA, they inhabit the mother’s womb, the plan is that they will do life together for decades to come. And their birth – that moment when the parents see them face to face for the very first time – a much anticipated event. Of course, no-one is naïve about the challenges of pregnancy – morning sickness is no fun, sleepless nights a chore and labour itself one of the most painful experiences a woman can endure. But the outcome is wonderful, beautiful, isn’t it? Most of the time.
For some, the pregnancy journey has no happy ending. With an estimated quarter of a million miscarriages every year in the UK (that’s 1 in 5 pregnancies) there are plenty of people in our churches and our communities who have started their pregnancies full of excitement and hope but finished with a sense of desolation that is uniquely difficult to bear.
Miscarriages can happen early in the pregnancy or late. “Still birth” is a term that better captures the particular pain of losing a baby in latter times. And while there can be big differences in the physical experience of an early or late loss, the emotional pain has some common themes.
For many, shock is the first port of call. Everything seemed to be going to so well and then everything changed. Maybe there was a searing pain, a quiet absence of any movement, or a routine scan where the nurse’s face .grew serious and pale. Whatever the details, there was a moment, a moment when the parents knew something awful was happening, something that would rip their dreams away.
Numbness can follow on. A sense that this can’t quite be happening. Doctors, nurses, family, friends may all be rushing about doing what needs to be done but life can feel slow-motion, as if caught up in an awful nightmare from which there is no escape.
Maybe tears flow next (though there is no one size fits all in this). An outpouring of grief for the loss of someone known so well and yet never, or only fleetingly, held. Often, parents (and indeed others who are close) cry until there isn’t a single tear left.
Then come the questions. How did this happen? Why did this happen? Could I have stopped it? Is it my fault? Will it happen again? What was God playing at? Why would he let our baby die?
Plus the tensions – how many an argument follows when carrying unspeakable sorrow?
And then the pain-laden conclusions: I’m a failure. I’m a bad parent. I’ll never be a “proper” parent. No-one can possibly understand my pain. God hates me. My spouse doesn’t understand what I am going through. This is has ruined everything. I’m too scared to try again.
To make matters even worse, the enormity of the pain is frequently processed largely alone. We live in a society that isn’t good at talking well about death – somehow we don’t always seem to have the vocabulary. Sometimes it seems easier to lock the memories away where no-one can trample on them or say something that risks wounding even more.
As a church our response is often to take round a few meals and pray. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but woefully inadequate if that’s where we stop. So, what else can we do?
- Spend time with those who are hurting, recovering the lost art of lament. Addressing God, pouring out our complaints, asking for his help, remembering his character and expressing confidence in who he is and what he has promised to do for those he loves are all part of turning to him in trust. This isn’t a “one and done” but a discipline to be engaged in for as long as is needed. Grief is not a race. The Psalms can help us – their writers knew the importance of lamenting well.
- Remember the important dates. Whether that’s the due date or the anniversary of the miscarriage, those dates are likely to hurt for many years to come. Close friends may want to spend time with the family. As a church, marking at least the firsts with flowers and prayer is an important act of care. Remembering that the first Christmas without their little one is another time that is likely to be particularly hard. Some churches even have quiet, contemplative services during advent that focus on the comfort that an incarnate Saviour brings to those who are mourning. And, of course, services of thanksgiving for the life lost can be a huge source of comfort and help.
- Engage with the big questions. Sometimes the “why?” question can’t be answered. As the book of Job reminds, often we can’t know God’s plans for our tragedies but we can turn to him in hope. Doing that isn’t easy, though. We will need to walk alongside people, helping them see the goodness of God, helping them to understand his sovereignty, believe his promises and persevere in his strength. That happens best as we listen to people’s questions (their deep, underlying questions not just the ones they blurt out at first) and bring the soothing balm of God’s word. Sharing our testimonies too can help – especially those testimonies that speak deeply of the days we doubted not just the days we trusted well.
- Offer formal counselling. Not all couples will need this but for those whose struggles are beginning to overwhelm, a skilled counsellor, able to bring Scripture to bear in nuanced ways, can be an invaluable source of help.
- Think through the pressures of being at church. However beautiful a church, however loved the family, the sight and sound of a baby may well feel like a dagger in the heart. That means church can be a desperately hard place to be. In light of the miscarriage, it’s important to ask questions (short term and long) about whether the parents would like to sit somewhere special (near a door), with someone special (who really understands), serve in different ways (maybe not in the creche) or even attend an evening congregation for a while. Are they going to be helped most if others are told about their loss, or not? Would they appreciate being mentioned in the prayers or not? Different people will respond in different ways, but the questions are proper and right. We want church to be a safe place to be.
- Disciple the parents as individuals, not just a couple. It’s good for husbands and wives to grieve together. But sometimes, just sometimes, it’s good for them each to have the opportunity to say things that maybe they feel they can’t say when the other is about. Men and women grieve the loss of a baby differently. It’s important that dads have space to be sad rather than just being expected to be strong. And let’s be practical too – sometimes one of them needs not another opportunity to talk but a chance to cycle 150 miles with mates raising money for the local hospital. Maybe others in the church will love them well by cycling alongside?
- Make the most of new resources. Until recently there has been a notable lack of biblical, sensitive resources on this subject in the UK but there are two wonderful books on their way. Why not pre-order copies for your church? Tragically, they will be needed some time soon.