How to Handle the Grief of Miscarriage
**I have created an abbreviated and more generic version of this article to address all forms of grief. You can read or print that here.**
‘I thought to grieve you had to have lost something you’d met—like a person that you had talked to—or you could grieve over a baby that maybe you’d held,’ she tells me. ‘I didn’t know anything about grief … I didn’t know whether I should leave that to people who had lost actual people, not a very, very tiny baby that you’ve never met.’
This is from an article titled "Why We Don't Talk About Miscarriage--and How to Start" which came out a couple of weeks ago. It continues:
I never heard of the ‘silent sorrow’ until a few months later. Learning that a phrase existed for women who’ve miscarried made me even sadder. Its presence means that there are untold armies of women marching grimly through life, carrying their silent sorrow like a wound patched up with duct tape, and no one even knows what they’re suffering. Pain will always accompany losing a pregnancy. But silence — that part is optional.
You may know that Jimmy and I lost our first 3 pregnancies. His song, In the Middle, is about the night our third baby died. Like most women, I felt unprepared for this kind of grief. I was 21 when those 2 pink lines first appeared. Soon after, I started bleeding and eventually miscarried in a crowded airport bathroom waiting to board a plane for Houston. I will never forget the excruciating emotional turmoil as I was forced to experience such a sacred moment in that crowded, public, and dirty place. Every person in that terminal felt like an intruder in my moment of raw grief.
At that time, I hardly had any friends who were married, let alone pregnant. Luckily, our life was busy at the time, so I suppressed most of my emotions and moved on with an attitude of "better luck next time I guess."
A couple years later, after losing 2 more babies, emotions weren't so easy to suppress. Aware of the power of God to sustain life, miscarrying shipwrecked my faith. My attempts to reconcile the promises of God with my current circumstances kept me stuck wrestling with God for some time. Though I am forever grateful for the testing of my faith, I remember the haunting discord of circumstances crashing against truth like it was yesterday.
Miscarriage is the membership card to a club you never asked to be in; a union of women sporting badges of infertility, stillbirth, miscarriage, and even abortion. Women who share your emotions, questions, crisis of faith, and isolation, women whose desire to be a parent has been abruptly interrupted by suffering. This post is an effort to encourage those who are grieving and to help friends and family members trying to help.
Encouragement for the Afflicted
Grief occurs when something valuable is lost forever. If you have miscarried, grief is an appropriate emotion. In actuality, your grief glorifies God. It communicates to the world that life is valuable from conception and worth mourning when lost.
Depending on how fresh your loss is, make space for grief. Set aside 30-60 minutes a day to be alone. The pain of miscarriage attacks unexpectedly. The announcement of a coworkers pregnancy or cleaning out the cabinets to find extra pregnancy tests can usher in waves of emotions at the worst times. Having set aside time in advance makes space for these moments to steal away and cry. Crying is good for your soul in times of mourning; don't try to avoid it. Welcome it.
I'm not sure where you are in your faith as you read this, or if you share my Biblically-based faith in a good and sovereign God who saves sinners through the blood of His Son. For me, knowing God to be in control of life and death, made coming to Him in the aftermath of a miscarriage hard. I saw Him as rightfully sovereign over my circumstances and therefore partly responsible for my pain. For the first time in my walk with God, I approached Him hesitantly, bracing myself for more pain.
Having walked with God for many years at that point, I didn't question the Truth of the Bible because I regularly experienced the reality of it and the God it spoke of. I knew too much to walk away. But I didn't really know how to move forward either. What did prayer look like when I didn't trust God's intentions were good? How could I read the Word when my experience now brought doubt instead of confirmation?
Wrestling through your faith, doubts, and fears takes time and courage. There are no shortcuts through Peniel, the place Jacob wrestled with God (Genesis 32:24-32). Like Jacob, to move forward we must face our fears, alone with God. Still convinced there is another way? You can forge ahead with a facade of faith over your fearful, doubting heart, or refuse to move it all; both require a hardened heart.
When your faith is tested by miscarriage, wrestle well. What do I mean by that? I mean 3 things: wrestle with humility, wrestle with honesty, wrestle with patience.
- Wrestle with humility. While God bids us to come to Him with boldness and freedom, He is still God and therefore to be feared. God is not on trial here. Sinners like us deserve one thing from Him (eternal death and judgment) and if we know Him, He has spared us. We have no right to act as a judge to God. But, we can come to Him with questions because we don't understand. Don't bring accusations to God, bring questions to Him.
It's appropriate to remember God's conversation with Job as he was in his own season of wrestling:
Then the Lord said to Job, "Will the faultfinder contend with the Almighty? Let him who reproves God answer it."
Then Job answered the Lord and said, "Behold, I am insignificant; what can I reply to You? I lay my hand on my mouth. Once I have spoke, and I will not answer; even twice, and I will add nothing more." (Job 40:1-5)
Job wrestled with God in his grief and loss, but also quickly humbled himself. (see also Job 42:1-6) Let's wrestle with a humility like that.
- Wrestle with Honesty. Please, let us be people who believe the Truth over our feelings and experiences. But in seasons of grief, I don't think it's helpful to push down feelings and forcibly speak in Bible quotes. Talk honestly with God about how you feel, the doubts you have about His promises, the anger you have about friends who are pregnant, etc.
But beware, not all honesty is rightly motivated. There is an honesty that seeks distance from God ("I feel betrayed by you, God! I'm done with this!") and there is an honesty that seeks nearness to Him ("I feel betrayed by you, God! I don't know how to move toward you, but if you can show me how I'll try."). Be honest with God, but do so in hopes to be reconciled with Him, not further away from Him. Let the Psalms lead the way as you learn how to draw near to God in honesty and faith.
- Wrestle with Patience. If you are going to ask God questions, leave space for His answers. Your prayer life cannot be all talking and no listening if you expect to hear His still small voice. (1 Kings 19:9-14) Learn the discipline of waiting on God. Create moments of active waiting through solitude and silence. Read through the Psalms and pay attention to how the Psalmists wait on God. Be patient and listen.
Help others help you.
One surprising part of grief is realizing that you often have to help your loved ones help you. We assume our friends and family will know what we need and say the right things instinctually. But most of the time, the compassion of others spills out in clueless and clumsy ways. Be prepared to tell your friends what you need, what to say, what not to say, how to help and what is unhelpful. It's counterintuitive to tell others what kind of help you need, but it will make a world of difference if you will.
"Can you call me on Thursday afternoons for a while? That's when I miscarried and those days are harder than usual. I think it would help to have someone to talk to."
"Please don't tell me how God is going to use this for good. It makes me feel like I should stop being sad and should move on. Instead, can you ask me how my walk with God is? Can you ask if I am humbly wrestling with Him through this?"
"It's ok that you don't know what to say. Honestly, I'd rather just have your company and not talk about this all the time. Can you come over today and we can cook dinner together and talk about something different?"
Be willing to tell others what you need. That takes humility, but it will bless you and them.
Let isolation lead you to God.
Grief is isolating. For those who are married, a miscarriage can often create a chasm between spouses. Your husband won't understand why or how you feel, and that's ok. Honestly, no one will fully understand what you feel, because they have not housed this death in their body like you have. But instead of trying to fix this and make everyone understand, let that feeling of isolation lead you to the throne room of God. He understands loss and isolation in ways we never will.
Find a way to remember.
When someone dies, we do things to remember them. We keep pictures out to remind us, or a favorite item of our loved ones. But when you lose your unborn child, you often don't have any tangible items. But you can make one. For our 3, Jimmy painted a picture that stays in our kitchen where I can remember. I also keep a box of any mementos from those lives: pregnancy tests, ultrasound photos, wrist bands from being in the hospital during my miscarriages, onesies I bought to surprise family with the news I was pregnant, etc. We lost our 3rd baby near Christmas time, so we bought an ornament as a memorial. I still love getting it out every Christmas, even though it is bittersweet.
Help for Comforters
No one wants to be a sorry comforter to a friend in suffering. But this is Job's description of his friends in the aftermath of his losses:
I have heard many such things; sorry comforters are you all. Is there no limit to windy words? Or what plagues you that you answer? I too could speak like you, if I were in your place. I could compose words against you and shake my head at you. My friends are my scoffers; my eye weeps to God. O that a man might plead with God as a man with his neighbor! (Job 16:2-4, 20-21, NASB)
You can hear the longing in Job's words for friends that would stop telling him what to do and simply be in the wrestling with him, that they would plead with God with him. But shouldering the suffering of others, feeling the weight of the unanswered questions and unresolved tension, is uncomfortable. It's easier to give blanket statements and quote Bible verses. But often, those are the very promises someone in suffering is wrestling with. The question of someone in grief isn't "Do you have the answer?" it's "Will you sit with me in the dissonance of my unanswered questions?"
Here are a few practical things you can do for a love one who is grieving the loss of unborn children.
Recognize the Absence of Life.
A miscarriage is the death of a person. A tiny, unborn person. It can be tempting to minimize that life but this isn't helpful in the grieving process. Many times, people inadvertently minimized the lives I lost by saying:
- I'm sure your next pregnancy will work out better.
- This happens to a lot of women, I'm sure nothing is wrong.
- It just wasn't meant to be.
Each time someone tried to cheer me up by minimizing what I had lost, my soul was screaming: "But it mattered to me! That life was precious to me!" Instead, find ways to show that you understand something valuable has been lost. My favorite way to do this is to send flowers. We do this anytime someone dies. It's an expression of sympathy and honoring the loved one who is gone. Buy a small plant, a simple floral arrangement, and leave a small note: "In memory of your little one. We love you." This type of heartfelt expression goes a long way.
I lost our 3rd baby in December. When that month rolls around, I have a few good friends who bring up the memory of our miscarried children. Truly, just remembering and asking means the world. Years later, they still recognize that I lost something valuable.
Don't Fear Sadness.
It's hard for us to see the purpose to sadness. It becomes an emotion we hope to push past quickly, moving into the other more beneficial emotions. But sorrow is healthy in the appropriate seasons. Become a person who is comfortable with sadness, someone who doesn't respond to every grief-filled comment with, "He works all things for good!"
The latest Pixar movie, Inside Out, did a great job showcasing the purpose for sadness by personifying our emotions. One of my favorite scenes begins as Bingbong has lost something precious to him. Joy attempts to move him quickly out of his grief to no avail. Then Sadness steps in and welcomes the grief to Bingbong's ultimate wellbeing. (Watch this scene here.)
Sadness: "I'm sorry they took your rocket. They took something that you loved. It's gone. Forever."
Bingbong: "It's all I had left of Riley"
Sadness: "I bet you and Riley had great adventures."
Bingbong: "Oh, they were wonderful. Once we flew back in time and had breakfast twice that day."
Sadness: "That sounds amazing. I bet Riley liked it."
Bingbong: "Oh She did. We were best friends."
Sadness: "Yeah, it's sad."
*They both cry together.*
Bingbong: "I'm ok now."
Now, it might sound silly for me to use a kid's movie for a good example of how to love a friend who is grieving, but honestly, it's such a perfect example! Sadness does the opposite of what most of us do naturally: she acknowledges what is lost, and how utterly lost that thing is. She creates a safe place for Bingbong to express why that lost thing was so precious. And she doesn't try to fix it or patch it up. So simple, yet just what we want when we're grieving.
Be a friend who doesn't get scared off by sadness, but work to become comfortable with the raw grief of others.
Offer Your Presence, Not a Solution.
Job's friends started off well by doing just this:
Now when Job's three friends heard of all this adversity that had come up on him, they came each one from his own place. and they made an appointment together to come to sympathize with him and comfort him. When they lifted up their eyes at a distance and did not recognize him, they raised their voices and wept. And each of them tore his robe and they threw dust over their heads toward the sky. Then they sat down on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights with no one speaking a word to him, for they saw that his pain was very great. (Job 2:11-13, NASB)
They simply came and sat with Job, no words necessary. What can that look like? To offer your presence to someone? It can literally look just like that: offering to come and sit in silence. I like to offer my grieving friends a hug: "If you need a hug today, let me know." All I am saying is, my presence is available if you want it. If you don't live near, this could be sending things that remind her of you, like a candle she can burn and be reminded that you're there for her.
My senior year of high school was one of my first seasons of suffering. A friend of mine came to my house while I was gone and decorated my room with colored Christmas lights, hung some of my favorite Bible verses on the wall, and left a plate of brownies. That meant the world to me. In effect, she communicated: "I want you to remember when you walk into your room that you aren't alone. I'm here for you." That changed forever how I comforted others in their grief.
Plead with God.
Be the comforter that Job wished he had: "a man that pleads with God." Know that there are lots of questions birthed from lost pregnancies. It is often the entrance gate to the tumultuous field of wrestling alone with God. Plead on her behalf for strength for that journey, for courage to move forward when it's painful, for faith to listen for God's answers when she doesn't really care to hear them, for grace for the battlefield of grief. Be an intercessor, and plead with God as if it were you on that rocky path.
Stay in the Word
Whatever side you are on, afflicted or comforter, stay in the Word. Not necessarily for answers, but because nothing good comes apart from a clear view of God's unchanging character expressed through His Inspired Word. If we will stay in the Word, even as we wrestle, it will revive us.
This is my comfort in my affliction,
That Your word has revived me.