July 10, 2013. It was the day I was supposed to go to the hospital and find out the gender of my unborn child, a mid-point milestone of pregnancy in the 21st century. Every day, mothers and fathers walk into the doctor’s office and wait with eager anticipation as the ultrasound technician helps them discover whether they will paint their nursery blue or pink. Will they plan for the creative destruction of a little boy or the emotional tempest of a teenage daughter? Will they clean peas and cheese smashed into the floor or entertain intense disquisitions about mermaids?
My wife and I already have three children and chose to forego this knowledge with each of them. We were happily surprised with a daughter and then two sons. Our fourth child, the fourth in only four-and-a-half years, threw our life into utter chaos. The baby was a surprise, actually a complete shock, and yet we had adjusted to the logistically nightmarish shape our life took on in March when we discovered this baby’s existence. We had four months to talk about a different house, different car, and contemplate the possibility of three kids simultaneously in diapers. We came to love the chaos brought on by the mysterious and awful power of new life. Who were we to judge what God had chosen to do in his providence?
Stillborn: But we did not go to the hospital on that Wednesday in July. We did not go to find out the gender of our little girl because we found out who she was when she passed from this world into the next at 17 weeks old. Our baby, our second daughter, was taken from us before we ever had the chance to know her. This far along in pregnancy, death in utero means that the mother must labor and deliver the stillborn child.
Stillborn child: Was she stillborn, or was this just a miscarriage? Just a miscarriage? Medically speaking a child is considered stillborn in the United States once she reaches 20 weeks and beyond in the womb. Earlier death is considered a miscarriage. What do these words mean, though? Either way it means the extinction of human life. I do not know what to call it, but I know that I held my daughter in all her beauty for several hours in that hospital room; I beheld her lovely little toes and fingers and her glorious, if yet largely unformed face. I pleaded with God to welcome her into his kingdom with open arms and be a better father to her than I could ever be. I pleaded with my heavenly Father to help me deal with jealousy and envy at the reality that others would be spending time with my girl and not me. I begged him to keep me content on this earth, for the desire to be absent from this body and present with the Lord and my little Emma Llewellyn positively overwhelmed me. I did not think about suicide but rather a simple urgency just to be gone, to be taken from the pain of this world. Grief is strange that way.
I prayed that my wife would be cared for in the coming months, because I knew that her road ahead was different from mine in some ways. She actually delivered our lifeless child and has wrestled with the possibility she may have done something wrong. However rational her response, if you have experienced this kind of loss, such fears cannot simply be explained away. What if I had not indulged that one sip of wine? Did I inhale toxic fumes? Did I not love this baby in my heart and soul as much as my previous children? What about that potent medication I took four years ago on which you are not supposed to become pregnant?
It is a tender mercy of God that we learned soon after Emma’s death that she died for a specific reason. A fairly rare condition had developed in which the umbilical cord had not attached to the placenta the way that it should have, resulting in a tenuous connection between baby and placenta. That connection failed when Emma began moving around in the womb.
Whether you know the reason or not, your pain is real. Your family has died to what it would have been. Those in your family, church, or community may not understand your pain. They may say insensitive things, act aloof, and fail to understand why you cannot get over losing a person you never met. You can always have another one, right? No, we know it is not that simple. Someone made in the image of eternal God has left your earthly family forever.
Grace must abound in the wake of the death of a child in the womb precisely because others do not understand. And I do not mean grace from others to you, but rather your grace with others. God may call you to the primary task of ministering to others, even as they attempt to minister to you. Their lack of understanding may call for patience and gentleness you can barely muster. God gives this strength, even as he continues to console your heart with his Spirit.
Comforting Those Who Wait for the Resurrection: Death, that most hateful of things, awaits every one of us, yet its sting is unique when it takes a helpless babe. While we believe Jesus conquered death at the cross, we wait for the resurrection to fully realize the death of death. Until then we must bear the burdens of and mourn with those around us.
The comfort and hope of the resurrection give us great resources for responding to those in your community who have suffered the pains of miscarriage. Here are six thoughts to keep in mind as you comfort and console.
Be content simply to “mourn with those who mourn” (Rom. 12:15). Know that your words of comfort will not be much consolation in the short run, even if you have experienced miscarriage yourself. As with most other kinds of loss, each person’s experience is profoundly different.
Don’t try to be the hero. You may desire to utter just the right words that will bring healing and resolution to mom and dad’s pain. But that desire may arise more from your own struggle to reconcile the reality of death with the hope of Christ than from the need of those suffering to hear your words.
Remember mom. Her pain will linger after most people have ceased asking about it. Don’t be afraid to broach the subject and encourage her six, nine, or even twelve months after the fact.
Remember dad. A miscarriage is not a set of circumstances in which mom suffers the pain and dad gives support. It’s tempting to think that mom bears all the pain, but a father feels helpless in his own way. He needs much love and encouragement.
Be patient. My wife and I have struggled over and over again to choose worship and dependence rather than despair or indifference. Sometimes we have failed. Be patient with those who seem not to be “getting over” their loss. Pray for the truth of God’s goodness to break through. Love, love, love on your friends who have lost.
Read them the Psalms. Just pick them up and start reading. They give lyrical shape to the confusion, anger, pain, relief, hope, and every other possible emotion the suffering feel. Reading the Psalms helps us to live emotionally with a doxological mindset. Psalm 34 has been a key text for me.
Miscarriage, like all other loss, presents an opportunity to seek refuge in bitterness, independence, and hobbies or to rest in the bottomless grace of a God who has known the most severe pain and sorrow. His compassion for a family’s lost child is matched only by his goodness to us.
John Patton is director of admissions at Covenant Theological Seminary and a ThM student in ethics. He lives in St. Louis with his wife and three children. Copyright © 2013 by the author listed above.