When I worked as a hospital chaplain, I was called into a variety of rooms and circumstances. Some of the most heartbreaking were the phone calls that I received from the Labor and Delivery ward in the event of pregnancy loss. I saw the broken heart and dreams in the parent's eyes, I sometimes saw the baby laying motionless, and I wept tears I believe Jesus would weep in those bitter moments.
I still remember one afternoon that I got a call from the Labor and Delivery nursing staff. They requested a chaplain because a mother was clutching her stillborn child and refusing to let it go. It had been some time, and the staff was getting concerned. I walked into the room to find the mother nestling her child in a swaddling blanket. The father was bent over the bed.
As I approached the bed, the infant under the blanket came into view. It was neither fully grown nor fully formed. There were hallowed sockets where eyes should have been. While the child did not have skin nor a defined skeleton, the mother clung to its weight. She pulsed with an unconditional, fierce, yet tender love for her child. It was a moment of insurmountable love and utter brokenness.
While God is a God of life and wholeness, our world knows death and brokenness too. We have a call as people of faith to come alongside those who are hurting, to be the hands and feet of Jesus, and to plant seeds of hope and light in the blackness of night. When the pain is all too real, there's a salve that's all too needed. Brokenness can be mended by intentional community, and community done in Jesus' name is that much stronger.
I rested my hand on the blanket and said a prayer for the child. I proclaimed God's love for the child and listened to the parents share and weep. After a time, we performed a bedside liturgy in which the three of us prayed. Following the liturgy the parents did say goodbye, although I’m sure their child and grief lives on in their hearts.
While the situation I encountered in the hospital was not typical, pregnancy loss is sadly not uncommon. While stillbirths occur about one in every one hundred and sixty pregnancies in the United States, the rate of miscarriage is roughly one in every four known pregnancies. That means miscarriage will statistically touch our lives either personally or through someone we know.
Its prevalence demands that we know how to sensitively and effectively handle it. Yet what tends to happen is that it is not mentioned or addressed at all. People who are grieving are wary to share in their vulnerable state. Others are uncomfortable dealing with loss in general.
What’s needed are some simple guidelines for creating a safe place to share and usher in healing. For those of you who are looking to be that safe place, here are six ways that you can support a friend who is grieving pregnancy loss:
1. Say “I want to listen” and mean it.
People who are grieving often want to share but struggle finding someone who will really listen. Allowing someone the space to share without any agenda of your own can be healing indeed. Grief needs expression.
2. Keep your comments simple.
Don’t attempt to lift the person up by searching for a life lesson or the silver lining. Instead, comments like "I'm sorry for your loss" or "I can only imagine your grief" are often better received.
3. Demonstrate your care through continued action.
Send a card, make a phone call, or offer a prayer. Remember that grief is a process, not a single event. Follow up.
4. If you pray, ask for prayer requests.
Doing so not only alerts you to clues in phrasing your prayer with sensitivity, but it also opens the door for further support.
5. Make one gentle suggestion.
In my chaplaincy training, we were told to encourage mothers who had a pregnancy loss to name that child. Naming actually aids the grieving process as loved ones are now able to grieve someone. It also symbolizes the full dignity of the life, and on that note, can be healing indeed.
6. If appropriate, consider sharing this liturgy.
It’s one that I have performed before, like in the hospital situation above, and has been well-received. It is composed of pertinent scripture and prayer. One such scripture describes how the Good Shepherd’s eye is upon every lost sheep in Matthew 18:10-14:
Jesus said, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven. What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.”
With these six ways to support a friend in mind, you can be a helpful presence for those who are grieving pregnancy loss. Don’t be afraid to reach out and try - what matters most is showing you truly care.
Noelle Kirchner is a minister and mom who believes there's an inseparable link between the two. She blogs at noellekirchner.com and has been a featured guest author at (in)courage. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook. J