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Loss of a baby

Time is not much of a healer when it comes to grief.

This article originally appeared in The Record, the monthly magazine of the Free Church of Scotland, in March 2021

Miscarriage, infant loss and infertility sadly will be issues that many of us have journeyed through, either personally or alongside loved ones. The statistics are high for miscarriage in early term, and repeat miscarriages are the experience of many couples. Yet, for how many young couples (Christian or not) does the thought enter their heads that they might lose an infant in the womb? Would they have heard it spoken about it in church? Would they be aware that older couples in the fellowship — perhaps now with children — went through it maybe several times, or even that they had siblings who were short-lived on this earth? Marriage preparation classes seldom mention loss like this, yet why not, given its prevalence?

Often it takes celebrities to raise the profile of an issue like infant loss. This is perhaps to be expected in society at large, but not in the church. Not in the local fellowship where pains and griefs and losses are shared and carried, where the older are to teach and instruct the younger, and where adversity and hardship are tools of glory and grace.

Avoiding grief is a very common phenomenon in our society. We employ undertakers to keep it at arm’s length. We speak of the dead in terms that avoid the impact — they aren’t gone, they are just ‘unseen’. We keep children away from the whole process — often the funeral service too. The church should know better but often acquiesces, perhaps thinking that grieving discredits God, or is a result of a lack of faith, or disbelief in heaven.

Yet grief is not just a healthy, natural human process but one endorsed in scripture. We well remember those words of Jesus, often repeated at committals, ‘I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live’ (John 11:25). But, just as often, we forget the grief of the speaker and his tears of grief — even though he must have known he was about to reverse the death process in Lazarus.

Our own experience of miscarriage will be familiar to some. We were told at a routine appointment that our baby seemed to have no heartbeat. A hospital scan an hour later would confirm this, and 48 hours later, our first baby was delivered at 21 weeks — a tiny baby girl we named Charis. This utterly devastating loss, experienced by so many, would mark the beginning of a new journey of grieving and the testing of our faith.

We went on to welcome three healthy children in the following years, but also lived through another three miscarriages. During this time it became apparent that there was a lack of Christian resources on miscarriage, infant loss and infertility. This was compounded by a lack of understanding of these issues within the church. Often people did not know how to respond with compassion and love, which seemed to make the grieving process so much more difficult.

In the midst of this process, a need became apparent for a reliable and biblical resource to support those directly affected, and also to equip family and friends and those pastoring others.

Making support available online

In 2011, Under the Rainbow (UTR) was launched as an online resource. It became a ministry of Rutherford House in 2015. Rutherford House, now Rutherford Centre for Reformed Theology (RCRT), exists to promote orthodox Christianity and to help people to think biblically and theologically. To accomplish this, their vision is to encourage scholarship and writing, to educate and train church leaders and to promote evangelical church life across Scotland.

UTR has grown over the years and now includes lived experiences of men and women alongside Bible studies, medical information and practical advice for families and carers. It is found entirely online and so is readily accessible. Central to the ethos of this resource is that it is underpinned by biblical truths surrounding loss. One of the most recent additions to the site is a video focusing on men and grieving, and features the story of Andy, whose son Jacob died soon after birth.

The platform has received much support from various contributors representing a breadth of denominations. Ministers, retired ministers, full-time Christian workers, policemen, medics, allied health professionals, stay-at-home parents and foster carers have all contributed. It is a testimony to how widespread the issue of miscarriage is within our churches.

Time is not much of a healer when it comes to grief. UTR is preparing a resource for men in prison, whose lifestyles often discourage grieving — that is until time comes in abundance in prison and grief descends. A prisoner serving a life sentence told us about his grief at losing twins over 20 years previously.

So time can’t be relied on; what can? As Christians, where can we look to grieve? As the church, where can we point others to? The church should be a safe place for all of us when we are struggling, grieving or going through hardship. So often, sadly, that is not the case, and increasingly people find themselves looking outwith their church community for care and support.

The presence of God

Isolation is an issue for many in lockdown, and the same is true of many in grieving the loss of an unborn child. We have a God who is himself a parent, a God who is with us, a God who knows us.

He knows when we can’t sit in a gathering of God’s people anymore because the focus on family life in the service is unbearable. He knows the effect of infant baptisms on the grieving. He knows the wounds inflicted when others attempt to comfort with false comforts — ‘At least the little one didn’t actually breathe’; ‘It’s a blessing in disguise — your little one would probably have been handicapped’; ‘You’ll be pregnant again in no time’; ‘They were really too young for a funeral service…’

He knows the dark nights of all our souls and we need reminded that, like the Psalmist, we can cry out to him. We can tell him our soul is full of troubles because his will for us has been so hard to bear (Psalm 88). We can tell him that we feel like escaping, that we feel cast away by him and that it’s like we are drowning in darkness. We can ask God how we are to make it through this, and if he is really there (Psalm 121). There are layers to our grief and different people see different layers — very few seeing the deeper ones — but God knows them all. And he knows the comfort that is needed at each layer. He doesn’t just know it but he provides it, above all other comforts (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

It doesn’t go without saying — pray for those who have lost loved ones. Don’t just tell them you will pray, pray. Don’t just think about them, pray. Pray that they will have their daily bread — that their greatest needs each day will be met by their heavenly Father who knows what they need.

Amongst other things grief can cause great feelings of loneliness, causing people to feel unconnected with friends, family and often God. Pray against these feelings and for a very real presence of God’s comforting Holy Spirit.

The presence of others

The church is the place for the primary care of our souls. It is not the place simply of friendly, happy people and platitudes. It is the place where people know us best. The place where people listen before they speak. A place where people know the power of words — the honey they can be and the anguish they can bring to a heart already aching. The church is the place where others know we are struggling and lovingly re-orientate us back towards God, and not towards the world.

To speak or not to speak — many within the church have confessed struggling with this, and at times both silence and words are helpful, but people’s presence seems to be more important than words. Feelings of inadequacy and helplessness are understandable, and finding words is difficult, but presence matters more.

We have a minister friend who visited our home in the immediate aftermath of our loss, and from the time he entered the house till he left half an hour later he didn’t say more than ten words. He simply sat with us and wept. It wasn’t awkward and it was truly comforting — he was weeping with those who weep. Job’s comforters came and sat with him in silence for seven days after his loss (Job 2:13) — things went wrong when they eventually did speak! Mentioning the child might be difficult but it acknowledges the life God was forming in the womb — the significance of that creation and the sadness of its loss.

‘Silent comfort is a balm. When there are no words to say the silent presence of a friend “speaks volumes”. To the comforter there may be awkwardness as time passes in silence. To the bereaved there is not; time stands still’ (Nigel Barge).

No one size fits all. Everyone grieves differently; some want to be busy like Martha, and others reflect and seek God quietly like Mary. Some of us like to talk about what we are feeling a lot; others are emotionally illiterate. We are all unique and the circumstances around grief are too. We don’t know exactly how someone feels (even if we also have experienced the loss of a baby). But all God’s people at some point need reminded that God doesn’t promise to keep us from severe hardships, but he does promise to keep us through them (Isaiah 43:1-3). All God’s people need their church family to care for their souls, and to speak truth to them.

The loss of a baby is not something that people ‘get over’. Time may allow for the process of God’s healing and work in people’s hearts and lives, but the separation death causes between a parent and baby can only be fully reconciled in eternity.

And we mustn’t forget — much comfort flows from the kitchen. Preparing a meal, getting the shopping, walking the dog can all seem quite insurmountable tasks in grief, and for others to help with these tasks are ways of demonstrating love.

For most the pain of child loss and the ache of disappointment doesn’t get any easier with subsequent losses. But having people to speak truth, to speak to about their bereavement, and meeting others who have experienced similar difficulties can be so helpful, especially in those earlier years when the pain is raw. And it’s a big part of what the church family is there for.

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