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Church Responses to Infertility, Miscarriage, and Pregnancy Loss

After decades of silence, church leaders and congregations have begun accompanying people who mourn losing children before or soon after birth or letting go of dreams to form a family.

As the COVID-19 pandemic began upending lives, people started to humorously predict a boom in “quarantine babies.” But these jokes—along with nativity scenes, baptisms, observances of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, or other milestone celebrations—often reawaken pain for those who have experienced infertility, miscarriages, stillbirths, or other reproductive losses.

Many churches talk a lot about abortion but rarely address these other losses in congregational life or worship. Instead, women and men often grieve alone. The advice to not announce a pregnancy until the second trimester is part of a culture of absence, an “imposed forgetting,” a “veil of silence,” theology professor Susan B. Reynolds writes. She shares her story of multiple miscarriages in Of Womb and Tomb: Prayer in Time of Infertility, Miscarriage, and Stillbirth, edited by Kate Williams.

Your church can accompany individuals, couples, and families who mourn infertility, miscarriages, stillbirths, other pregnancy-related losses, and losing children to violence. The first step is to break the silence about this common yet hidden grief. Your congregation can address the issues in worship and find ways to reach into your community. Even with the new coronavirus uncertainties and restrictions, you can create a community of couples and families who experience God holding and loving us through death into hope and new life.

Common yet hidden grief

The 2020 Calvin Symposium on Worship hosted a seminar and a workshop focused on worship and pastoral responses to infertility, miscarriages, and stillbirths. Leaders and participants shared stories in and beyond the seminar and workshop.

Pastor Reggie Smith, now director of diversity for the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA), recalled a couple for whom every Sanctity of Life service was painful. “While some were getting rid of their babies, Bertha and Peter were infertile,” he said. “Over the years, they kept moving further back in the pews and, finally, into the balcony.” Another couple had had a baby born dead. The husband cried through every baptism. The wife kept her head down. Smith said both women felt “less than.” Both couples thought everyone knew about their losses, yet “felt muted because God’s people can’t handle loss and didn’t know how to approach them.”

InSoon G. Hoagland, a counselor and retired CRCNA army chaplain, emphasized that miscarriage and similar issues “aren’t just women’s issues. They are human, couple, marriage, and family issues. I’ve witnessed so many people not able to express their grief. It eventually surfaces in mental health problems. We need to make these communal issues to bring healing and create a true sense of who God is.”

Worship symposium presenters and participants talked about conversations in which someone revealed a miscarriage or infertility, and suddenly their loved ones told of pregnancy-related losses they’d hidden for years, even decades. And they wept.

This hidden grief is common because infertility, miscarriage (before twenty weeks of pregnancy), and stillbirth (after twenty or more weeks of pregnancy) happen more often than people talk about. According to Resolve: The National Infertility Association, infertility affects one of eight couples in the United States. Studies show that black married women experience infertility almost twice as often as white married women do. About one in four women experience at least one miscarriage. Among women who know they’re pregnant, 10 to 15 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage.

In the U.S., stillbirths vary by race and ethnicity, but about one in one hundred pregnancies end in stillbirth. The figure in the United Kingdom is about one in every 250 pregnancies.

Absence in conversation reflects absence in theology

Elise Erikson Barrett was in divinity school to become a United Methodist minister when she first miscarried. At the worship symposium, she said, “I wanted to process that loss theologically, but there was an absence in the theological tradition about what it means when this kind of life is lost.

“A miscarriage feels like a radical loss of personal agency, which leads to questions of theodicy [why God permits evil]. Where was God is this miscarriage? What is personhood? Did that baby matter to God? What scripture stories can we look to?"

"Psalm 139:13 talks about being knit together in a mother’s womb—but does God drop stitches?”                —Elise Erikson Barrett

Barrett explores those questions in her book What Was Lost: A Christian Journey Through Miscarriage. Because churches and theologians rarely address such questions, people don’t know what to say when they have or hear about a pregnancy loss. Sometimes mourners don’t share their stories for fear of insensitive responses.

In her book, Barrett gives examples of how to respond to hurtful comments. For example, people might say, “This is God’s way of taking care of babies that have something wrong with them.” She recommends responding, “I can tell that you are trying to be helpful. Thank you. We may never know why this happened, . . . but we are sad that this little one will not be part of our lives. We would appreciate your prayers.”

Infertility also prompts insensitive comments. Stacey L. Edwards-Dunn, an ordained Church of Christ minister, founded Fertility for Colored Girls, a national organization for black women and couples who struggle with infertility. Edwards-Dunn says, “We feel even worse when people use ‘God language’ from a theological perspective that is antithetical to who God is. People glibly say, ‘God will make a way’ or ‘Maybe it’s a curse’ or ‘Maybe God doesn’t want you to have a baby.’ These statements don’t acknowledge our sovereign God as an inclusive God of love. These statements are also simply bad theology.”

Churches beginning to address reproductive loss in worship

As authors, theologians, and others break the silence, churches are including these losses in worship. Nations around the globe host candlelight vigils every October 15 for Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. Some churches observe Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Sunday on the Sunday closest to October 15.

“A friend who’d miscarried talked about not knowing how to grieve when there was no funeral. I remember thinking, ‘If I ever get ordained, I’m going to figure out how to make space for memorial, lament, and loss for people who experience miscarriage or infertility,’” Tish Harrison Warren says.

After she gave birth to two daughters and became an Anglican priest, she and her husband, Jonathan Warren (also an Anglican priest), experienced two miscarriages within six months. “One was so early that there was no body,” she said. “The second baby was fourteen weeks along, so we knew he was a boy. We named him Augustine and had a little service with friends at our church to help us process our grief. Separate from that, about six months later, we put together a public service of memorial and lament at our current church, Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.”

They held the service on the evening of Baptism of Our Lord Sunday. Through church announcements, bulletins, and the website, they explained that the service was for anyone in or beyond the congregation who had experienced infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth, or a regretted abortion. About fifty people attended. Since then people have asked the Warrens to lead private services, and Jonathan Warren led one virtually after the COVID-19 lockdown began.

Tish Warren Harrison and Stacey Edwards-Dunn both say that even though entire services are helpful, the best first step is for churches to start mentioning pregnancy losses. Congregational prayers and sermons about suffering can include these examples along with job loss or relationship breakdown.

The books Of Womb and Tomb and What Was Lost offer prayers, rites, rituals, and service outlines. Worship symposium speakers and participants shared examples of tangible memorials to acknowledge a pregnancy loss. This might be a shell, a candle, a memory box, a booklet, a tree or plant in a memorial garden, a sculpture of tiny hands on which to write a name, a grief ornament, or a prayer shawl.

Congregations reaching out to community

Some congregations host or offer support groups about infertility or pregnancy loss. Others gather health-care workers and medical social workers within their congregation to make connections with hospitals.

St. Anna Greek Orthodox Church in Roseville, California, has a ministry of intercession for infertile couples. Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Illinois, hosts monthly meetings for the local Fertility for Colored Girls (FFCG) chapter. These meetings also address and include husbands.

Elise Erikson Barrett has led four-week support groups based on her book What Was Lost: A Christian Journey Through Miscarriage. “I wrote the book to be used in a book study or support group setting,” she said. “Each chapter concludes with reflection questions and an exercise. The curriculum is open and loose, because the key is for the facilitator to be a non-anxious presence. The goodness comes through allowing space for these complicated losses to be narrated, validated, and held in the church.”.

Talking with health-care and social workers in your church can help you find out how local hospitals respond to parents who’ve just lost a baby. Some doctors think of a miscarriage or stillbirth as “discarded tissue.” This happened to Tish Warren Harrison and her husband when they asked for their son’s body. “The assumption in the medical community is that this is sad but common,” she said. “Especially in hospitals that do abortions, the remains are viewed as a non-person. Anglicans for Life helped us get our son’s body back, and they also had books for our daughters.”

River of Life, a nondenominational church in Mason, Texas, and Early Pregnancy Loss Association (EPLA), based in Hillsdale, Michigan, supply hospital chaplains with printed or online resources to share about miscarriage and aftercare. EPLA creates miscarriage kits for local hospitals. These include sanitary pads, disposable bed pads, disposable gloves, hot packs, cold packs, a body retrieval kit from Heaven’s Gain ministries, a small box, knitted blankets, and comfort items such as tea, lip balm, flower seeds, and sympathy notes written by volunteers.

LINKS

LEARN MORE

Listen to this National Association of Pastoral Musicians interview with Kate Williams, who compiled and edited Of Womb and Tomb, and this GIA podcast with her about the book. Read Elise Erikson Barrett’s advice on what not to say after someone’s miscarriage.

Use or adapt this public service of memorial and lament held at Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Learn how to start a miscarriage ministry. Use or adapt this sample web form to request miscarriage support.

Share: Pregnancy & Infant Loss Support offers support groups in most U.S. states. Find faith-based support and resources at Early Pregnancy Loss Association, Fertility for Colored Girls, M.E.N.D. (Mommies Enduring Neonatal Death), Project Pomegranate, and Still Remembered.

Request to download a free copy of Rainbows and Redemptions: Encouragement for the Journey of Pregnancy After Loss, a devotional guide written by ten American and Canadian women. Project Pomegranate posted a Father’s Day prayer that includes men who long to be fathers. The website Grief Watch sells books, pamphlets, and cards about men and grief.

Catholic Miscarriage Support offers practical advice specific to stillbirth so that families can honor and process this sad but important event. It also suggests resources for bereaved fathers.

Be Not Afraid is a ministry that supports couples who receive a difficult prenatal diagnosis but decide to carry the baby to full term.

START A DISCUSSION

Feel free to print and distribute this story at your staff, board, pastoral care, adult education, or worship committee meeting. These questions will help people start a conversation about dealing with infertility and reproductive loss:

  • Have you heard about congregants who experience infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth, infant death, or other pregnancy losses? How have you responded?
  • How often and in what ways does your church mention, acknowledge, or seek to heal these losses?
  • What first steps might your church or ministry take to become more informed about how pregnancy loss influences faith, worship, and life?

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