Miscarriage: What Pastors Need to Know (Jessalyn Hutto)
Until recently, the topic of miscarriage was a bit taboo. Those who experienced such painful losses tended to keep them quiet, entrusting their grief only to their closest family members and friends—if anyone at all. For this reason, miscarriage has historically been treated with kid gloves. It’s something that we know happens, but for most of us, exactly how often it occurs remains a mystery. Most importantly, the depth of grief that bereaved mothers and fathers experience when a miscarriage takes place has been terribly misunderstood.
Thankfully, this confusion has been partially alleviated in recent years as powerful articles have been published on prominent Christian websites like Desiring God and The Gospel Coalition. As women and men have bravely broken their silence, the church has become more aware of the overwhelming devastation experienced by parents whose children die in the womb, and with this awareness has come a greater understanding of the church’s responsibility to care for these grieving parents.
However, many pastors are still unsure how they can practically help women who miscarry their babies. They don’t know what kind of care the fathers of such children need — if any at all. Those who’ve never been personally acquainted with this type of loss often fear saying or doing the wrong thing, and thus find themselves crippled in their ability to minister to their wounded sheep. This needn’t be the case. Pastors can be a pivotal means of grace in the lives of the mourning mothers and fathers in their congregations if armed with some practical, first-hand knowledge about miscarriage.
With this goal in mind, here are five simple things that you need to know about miscarriage in order to minister effectively to those who suffer from them:
1. Know that Miscarriage is Terribly Common
Miscarriages are typically very private experiences. As such, pastors can be deceived into thinking that they a rare occurrence within their congregations. Medical statistics, however, tell us otherwise. In reality, it is estimated that up to 25% of all clinically recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage.
This means that it is possible that one in every four pregnancies occurring in your church will end in the pain of death rather than new life.
Does this seem like a startlingly exaggerated statistic? Ask any woman in her child-bearing years if she knows of another woman who has recently miscarried and chances are she will be able to give you multiple names. This is especially true in churches that foster an atmosphere that values children and encourages large families. The sheer amount of pregnancies occurring within these congregations allows for these statistics to be more clearly realized.
While many in your congregation will be untouched by this tragedy, others will experience miscarriages over and over again. Some will know only joy in their reproductive years, while others will know only pain and longing. This is a reality that you need to be aware of as the spiritual physician of your church body.
In our broken, sin-infected world, death touches every aspect of life, and miscarriage is an all-to-common manifestation of that truth for young families.
2. Know that Miscarriage is More than a Pregnancy Loss
Terms like “miscarriage” and “pregnancy loss” act as euphemisms for the death of a child in the same way that the word “abortion” is used to describe the murder of a baby. They do not carry the weight that the tragedy deserves.
Mothers and fathers of babies who die in the womb grieve on multiple levels. Most importantly, they grieve the premature death of their son or daughter, but they also grieve the death of their dreams of parenthood, as well as the future they envisioned for their family.
Treating a miscarriage as a death in the family rather than a reproductive setback will help you minister to grieving couples with greater sympathy, sensitivity, and understanding. It will guard you from overlooking the deep depression that often overtakes bereaved mothers for months — even years — after their miscarriages. It will also guard you from ignoring the complex emotions the fathers of miscarried children experience.
Make no mistake, while the death of a baby within the womb is virtually invisible to every other person in the world, to his or her parents, the death is tangible and extremely painful.
3. Know that Couples are Emotionally and Physically Hurt by Their Loss
Ironically, while miscarriages are often seen as more of a bodily ailment than a spiritual trial, the physical suffering it brings can be easily overlooked. Pastors should be aware of the trauma that an impending miscarriage will surely mean for a woman.
Even the earliest of miscarriages can mean long nights of labor pains as a woman’s body seeks to expel her baby’s tiny frame. Thus, she will not only be wracked by the emotional loss of her baby, but the physical pain of delivering him or her into the world.
These early miscarriages can also require medical interventions such as a procedure called a D&C. In this procedure, a woman’s cervix will be dilated and a special instrument will be used to scrape her uterine lining to remove the last traces of her pregnancy. Women who have to undergo this procedure will be gently put under with anesthesia, but they will awake to the cruel reality of their shattered dreams. As they feel the uncomfortable, physical effects of the D&C, they will grasp at their empty wombs, longing for what they once held, and what can no longer be theirs.
Late-term miscarriages will require even more from a mother, as she may be forced to decide between a similar procedure and the option of inducing labor in a delivery ward. Neither choice is an easy one. If she chooses the D&C she will be saved the emotional angst of delivering a lifeless baby, but she will also forfeit the (possible) healing opportunity to say goodbye to her child. She will also have to decide how she feels about a doctor forcibly removing her child from her womb in a D&C — a reality that carries harsher implications when your child is larger and more developed. This painful decision is one that couples may seek your spiritual counsel on, so you must be familiar with each of the option’s ramifications.
If a woman does decide to induce labor, she will undergo all of the same physical pain and suffering that a regular delivery would require of a woman, only at the end of her efforts her reward will be relegated to the fleeting opportunity to hold and say a final goodbye to her precious child. While the room next to her may echo with the loud, jubilant wails of another family’s bundle of joy, her delivery room will resound with the gut-wrenching wails of a mother and father who’ve been stripped of their most precious possession.
If couples who deliver healthy babies regularly receive visits from their pastors, should not those who are called to stare death in the face in the delivery ward? How much more so?
4. Know How the Church Can Practically Minister to Them
Seeing a miscarriage as a death in the family and understanding the physical suffering a woman will experience as a result of her loss will greatly aid churches in knowing how to practically minister to these couples.
All the care and thoughtfulness given to others when they experience a family death or intense physical trauma, should be given to them as well. Condolence flowers, meals, notes of sympathy, pastoral visits, and corporate prayer for the bereaved parents are all kind and loving ways of serve them.
Pastors are busy people, to be sure, but you cannot overestimate how much a simple phone call or visit from you means to each grieving couple. They are desperate to know that their loss is seen by their church body. They need to know that their child’s death isn’t invisible to those closest to them.
I would only add that these couples should be remembered in the future. If the Lord blesses them with a new pregnancy, they will need spiritual encouragement to trust the Lord with the life of their new baby. Pregnancy after miscarriage can often be psychologically and spiritually trying. Yes, a new pregnancy brings great joy, but it also brings great temptation to fear the possibility of another loss.
On the other hand, couples who continue to struggle to become pregnant again after a miscarriage need particular encouragement. While the sting of death will be alleviated for many by the birth of a new baby, these women and men continue to mourn their great loss over the span of months or even years. Each negative pregnancy test brings with it more disappointment and more pain. They will need the consistent prayers and counsel of their pastors to remind them of God’s good sovereignty over their lives — even in denying them such a good and precious gift as children.
5. Know What Theological Concepts These Couples Will be Wrestling With
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, pastors need to know how to minister to these couples theologically. When parents lose a child, it is natural for them to question God’s goodness, to wonder if he truly is in control of all things, and to fear that they could have done something to prevent their miscarriage. It is when terrible tragedies befall us, that our theological beliefs are put to the test.
Doctrines that we may have taken for granted in the past or mentally assented to, must be thoughtfully teased out and personally owned when their reality results in deprivation rather than blessing. It is not enough to say, “God is in control,” to a mother or father who’s lost their baby, for their most basic understanding of God’s sovereignty is being challenged in this terrible trial. Somehow, they must seek to reconcile their belief in his complete control and infinite goodness with the terrible event he has allowed into their lives.
These theological concepts can be difficult to navigate, but the grieving Christian is lost without them. As I discuss in my book, Inheritance of Tears: Trusting the Lord of Life When Death Visits the Womb, theology is not a burden to grieving parents, it is a strong buttress, capable of upholding them in the most terrifying and depressing of circumstances. The truths of God’s word are relevant and healing for grieving parents, but they may need you to help them in applying the balm of these truths correctly.
You need to be able to explain how God’s sovereignty is a comfort in the most difficult times. You need to be able to explain the doctrine of the fall, and how sin has compromised everything on this earth — even our wombs. You must be able to lead them to Christ and the hope of his gospel, reminding them that it was for this very reason (to conquer death) that Jesus came to die on the cross for our sins. You must point them to the coming day when sin and death will be no more, and when Jesus himself will wipe away all our tears. You need to have a firm grasp on what the Bible has to say about infant salvation, for they will be desperate to know that their child is indeed with the our heavenly Father.
I am not advocating that you launch into a theological homily the moment you step through their door. You must be sensitive and thoughtful in the way you minister to these grieving couples, but you also need to be prepared for them to pose deep and difficult questions regarding the death of their baby. When they approach you with these questions, offer them your knowledge of the Word in all its majesty. For the biblical truths that you have to offer will act as sturdy stones for them to step upon on the path to healing.
Jessalyn Hutto is a regular contributor to Credo Magazine and the author of Inheritance of Tears: Trusting the Lord of Life When Death Visits the Womb. She lives near Houston, Texas where she serves alongside her husband in his ministry as a church planter. They are blessed to have four young children: Elliot, Hudson, Owen, and Roseveare. She frequently writes about theology, shares personal devotions, and reviews books for women at JessalynHutto.com.