There is an internal drive within most women to create, foster, and nourish life for themselves. Deep within a woman’s experience lies her intense desire to co-create with God, to settle down and “nest” and to be identified as a mother. For many, this begins as early as childhood. I have had a significant amount of experience working with children of all ages, ethnic backgrounds, and cultures. I have worked with city kids and rural kids, kids from big families and only children, and I have found a common thread among many of them. Without any direction on my part, giving the preschool children a chance to have free play, boys will naturally gravitate towards tools and sports equipment and girls tend to “play house” or with dolls or stuffed animals. There are, of course, exceptions to the norm, and plenty of argumentation that this is only the case because of cultural expectations, however, I do not believe this is necessarily true. I believe this is because there is something that stirs in a woman’s heart almost right from the moment of conception that enables her to want to be a mother. This is also why even women who never marry or have children, often still have an internal sense of how to respond when a baby is present. Our eyes light up, our voices change, we become so excited, and we want to hold and cuddle that young child even though he or she might be a complete stranger to us. On the other hand, while there are some men who would feel and react in the same way, I have more often than not met clueless men than clueless women when it comes to childcare.
Nevertheless, it is an insanely unfair reality that for whatever reason God, the very One who created us with this passion and drive for motherhood, withholds or even revokes that very life we so desired to create. While I cannot express in words the deep pain, anguish, and aggravation this causes not only to potential mothers but to their partners and wider families, I want each of you to know that I grieve with you. October 15th is the named Infant and Pregnancy Loss Awareness Day. It may only be one day for many of us, but for others of us, the loss of a child continues on long after this day ends. Thus, although I cannot offer a profound method for overcoming this terrible trauma, I would like to highlight a few things I have learned over the years through my studies, and through my own experience walking alongside those who have lost their children to provide some ways for you to begin to understand some helpful ways to encourage dialogue and to promote healing and hurt rather than to shut down someone’s vulnerability.
#1: Losing a child is one of the most horrific acts anyone can experience. It is a theft of life, a complete shattering of one’s expectations, and a re-altering of one’s perception of what is good and fair in the world. Being able to open up about this experience takes a profound amount of courage, intimacy and trust, and being able to walk with someone through it requires careful attention, integrity, and compassion.
Losing a child at any age is a painful reminder of all that could have been, but that no longer will be. It does not matter at what stage the child passed away – whether he was 6 years old, 6 months old, or 6 months in utero. Losing a child is one of the most profoundly spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically altering experiences anyone can face and experts in the field classify the emotional impact as having the same results as being diagnosed with a terminal illness or being raped (although most mothers would say they would rather have taken on a physical illness themselves than have anything happen to their precious little one). But, of course, while experts can often be helpful, the truth is, the majority of them have never had to live through such trauma themselves. Each person decides for herself what she is comfortable sharing with and with whom. There is often pressure to share with certain people for example parents, the father of the child, or clergy, but each woman gets to decide for herself the key people that would really benefit her to walk with. Sometimes you may meet a woman who is so closed that she doesn’t tell this secret to anyone, at other times you may meet a woman who is so open she relates her pain even to those who do not know her well. I urge you in either case not to make a judgement. Do not think of the woman who is closed as being too secretive or private – perhaps it is fear that keeps her locked in. On the other hand ,resist the temptation to accuse an open woman as being vulnerable in her attempt to “exploit” others or simply to look for sympathy. Many women actually find it to be a great source of encouragement, comfort, healing, and even therapy to relate their experiences. While you may have heard the story before or it may seem that she is going around in circles or constantly repeating herself, it’s important not to make snap comments about circular arguments or stating that you already know what she’s going to share. Remember, each time the trauma is relayed in a relaxed, loving environment the pain lessens. It’s important not to retraumatize the woman by asking her trivial questions about her pregnancy or loss simply out of curiosity. On the other hand, be respectful of her story and understand that while you may not want to hear about it anymore, it is helping her and as her true friend this is a sacrifice you should be willing to make.
#2: Avoid judgements at all costs.
We often assume that we know people much better than we do, but when it comes to topics as sensitive as abortion, miscarriage, and loss of life, we should avoid such rash decision making and without our preconceived ideas of who the person is.
For example, if one of your friends makes a comment about miscarriage, do not right away step in by remarking “you have no idea what it’s like.” Do you know that for a fact, 100%? It could be that this person actually has lived through the horror of this reality, but maybe they have never shared that with you before.
You may assume that the person in question hasn’t lived through this for reasons such as: they already have a 5 kids, they are a “good little church girl” and thus never would have gotten involved in something like that, they were not in an official relationship during the time they are claiming they were pregnant, or you have known them throughout your life and surely if that was the case, they would have opened up and told you. None of these are good reasons for making such a bold assumption.
Especially when it comes to being a “good little church girl” you may assume that the person would never have considered premarital sex. However, this is an entirely unfair statement to make. First of all, even Christians struggle with the same passionate desires non-Christians do. Maybe in a moment of weakness they gave in and felt terrible about it afterwards. Maybe it is exactly because of that strong faith and their commitment to purity before marriage that they still hold guilt and regret years later. It may sound crazy to an outsider, but church kids actually statistically have a higher rate of abortions because they are trying to hide their “sin.” Sometimes they may even wrongfully blame themselves for the miscarriage because they believe it was God’s way of judging them for something they should never have done.
Conversely, a woman may only give you half the story in order to protect herself. For example, I know a young woman very well who was the unfortunate recipient of a sexual assault which resulted in her pregnancy. This woman lost her baby fairly early on, and has not told many people about it. However, when she has occasionally opened up, she often classifies this solely as a miscarriage. Although what happened was entirely not her fault, she still blames herself because of the double stigma she faces (not only the stigma of losing a child, but also of being raped) she would much rather just have people assume she intentionally had pre-marital sex than let them know the truth. Therefore, it is important not only for church leaders, but for all Christians to not make judgement calls about a person’s pregnancy. Resist any urge to point out the “sin” in someone’s life because we simply don’t know the full picture.
It is fine if someone is making a comment you disagree with related to pregnancy or infant loss to question it or even to word your response by saying “I’m not sure whether you or someone very close to you has lived through this, but…” However, NEVER assume the person’s life hasn’t been touched or altered by this reality in some way.
#3: Encourage meaningful dialogue
The Western culture often believes things need to be a certain way and when they aren’t we try to hide from them. For example, young people aren’t supposed to die, so we engage in the cult of youth and believe we are immortal. Babies are supposed to grow up, be healthy, and lead productive lives as citizens of our fine country, so when a baby passes away we right away get our defense mechanisms up because we don’t want to admit that it could happen to us too.
Sometimes because of our own lack of understanding, our inability to wrap our minds around the tragedy, or our own uncomfortableness, we avoid the topic altogether. However, what I have found is that most women actually heal quicker when they are given the space to be free to express their thoughts and emotions rather than when culture tells them to repress it. If your friend is grieving but you personally have never experienced such a profound loss, it is entirely fair to tell your friend you don’t really know what to think or how to react. However, it is even more important just to be there, to let her rant and rave if that’s what she wants to do, and to hold her and support her as she cries. Avoid proof-texting and throwing Bible verses at her. Don’t tell her everything’s going to be okay, because chances are it’s not. Don’t remind her that she’s young and will have another opportunity to get pregnant because that child she lost is a unique one to her. She may never have known him, but he still will always be a part of her. Even if she has 7 other kids, that child she lost would have been completely different from the other 7. Don’t encourage her to simply forget about her loss and move on with life focusing on her career or even trying to pursue adoption. Life continues on with or without that child she carried in her womb, but so does the loss. It may have happened 3, 4, or even 15 years ago. You might think it no longer affects her, but on the child’s birthday it may still hit her full force. She may go days without thinking about him, and then all of a sudden become an emotional wreck seemingly out of nowhere. Don’t judge, don’t rush along the healing process because it is, after all, a process.
It is a terrible fact, but the majority of us will experience our lives being rocked by infant loss at one time or another. It may not be our own loss (and I sincerely pray God will shield you of such a burden), but it might be a friend or family member’s loss or the loss of a child within our congregation. Infant loss happens more frequently than we realize because of our cultural taboos which suppress our voices on the issue. However, I urge you to become aware of people who may be experiencing this sad reality and to learn how to truly make your journey together. It is indeed a privilege to be able to walk with someone through such a season of grief, but it also comes with a large amount of personal responsibility. Books, DVDs, conferences, and other resources are helpful, but they only get you so far. They make generalizations which are better than nothing, but they do not prepare you for the reality of actually having a friend or colleague open up in such a vulnerable way. I pray that when such an experience arises, you may be able to hold their story gently, and to walk with them even when the road is rough and steep.
Post-Script: For purposes of this blog, I have stuck to the experience of the woman, however, it is also important to note the emotional, spiritual, and psychological impacts infant loss has the the father. Both genders are affected when a child passes away and it is important to remember that.
Also, the scope of this blog has looked at infant loss including miscarriage and abortion, however, it is important to note that there are many other complications related to both in different ways which I unfortunately did not have time to engage in. Hopefully in another blog I may be able to pick up a bit more on the abortion piece and how this reality rocks a Christian’s worldview and how hope and healing is still possible even amidst great remorse and pain.