In the following post, Emily and Colin share their own personal experience in dealing with child loss.
We met in college almost 20 years ago, but our first date didn’t occur until 2010. Though once in the same place at the same time, our paths had diverged as we independently settled into careers and dated, wondering when, if ever, we’d realize the shared desires of our hearts: to be married and to raise a family. God, in His mercy, blessed that first date after we reconnected, and we found one of the two desires met in a way that surpassed our expectations even if it much later than we might have guessed. Colin takes the blame for the gap between the first date and marriage proposal!
We were married four years later, naively thinking that children would come easily and “on-demand” whenever we determined to have them. The reality—as many of you reading this might know firsthand—was far harsher. We spent 1.5 years struggling through the hope-disappointment cycle, eventually visiting with a fertility doctor and considering—to our great chagrin—that maybe our dream to have children would not be realized. Compared to many couples struggling to get pregnant, our wait was not significant, but at the time, it felt like an eternity. Our first pregnancy wasn’t without its concerns here and there, but it was not a bumpy ride either. We welcomed our daughter Abigail (Abby) in April of 2016 with great joy.
We anticipated another long, challenging wait to have child number two, so we were shocked to find out that Abby would have a sibling – and soon! We began to wonder how life would be with two little ones, only 15 months apart.
In July of 2017, a week shy of the due date, Emily grew concerned that she hadn’t felt the baby move in several hours. A mixture of worry and hopeful excitement, we left for the hospital, thinking we might be hours away from meeting our second child. Instead, it would be the worst day of our lives. At the hospital, we heard the wretched words which will forever be seared on our hearts: “I’m sorry – there is no heartbeat.” This baby (we found out in the same moment that it was a boy) whom we felt/saw growing for nine months, named, joyfully anticipated, and planned for, was gone. Our precious son, Luke Andrew, was stillborn at 39 weeks. The cause we were given: a tight knot in the umbilical cord. We have grieved his loss ever since. In the time following, we have experienced two miscarriages – salt in the wound, spiking our pain.
Thinking we’d overcome our initial pregnancy worries, sadness, and depression with the birth of our daughter, our fairytale came crashing down. In place of that fiction (the assumption, planning, and expectation that everything will come to pass when we want it), we have seen a true story take shape instead as we experienced the sustaining power of a sovereign, heavenly Father.
When we were approached to write a short piece on how to comfort grieving parents who have lost a child, we wondered if we were the right authors. After all, there are parents who have grieved the loss of a young child whom they laughed with, who have lost multiple children in a car accident, or who have walked through a horrific cancer diagnosis, only to see their child be taken away. However, in other ways, we feel writing on the topic – especially this month during Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness – is altogether fitting and appropriate. Pregnancy Loss is discussed more today than it has been at any point in history. We’ve come a long way from the standard of keeping these losses secret, suppressing the pain, and toughing it out – even if that’s undoubtedly still the temptation. That said, many people yet don’t know how to comfort grieving parents.
When we considered how to present our thoughts on this subject, we searched for elegant ways to provide our insights. But the best we’ve come up with is a list of Dos and Don’ts.
Ask what you can do to help out. If you are close to the parents, insist on helping in some specific way: perhaps with meals, yard care, babysitting other kids to provide private time, deciphering medical bill problems – anything. Parents who are experiencing the loss of an infant or a pregnancy are wrecked. We stumble around in a daze, and simple daily tasks are much tougher. On top of that – especially in the case of miscarriage – we are wrongly convinced that our loss doesn’t “stack up” and we should be able to move on quickly.
Disappear. While some private time is helpful to the mourner, grieving parents will quickly wonder where everyone went. Your presence, or at least availability, will be appreciated.
Bring up the loss. It may be tempting to shy away from saying anything out of fear; it will remind grieving parents of their pain and take them to a sad place – when they might otherwise have had a good day. Parents dealing with the loss of a baby are already used to the challenging oscillation between sadness and “being okay.” The key is to ask in an open-ended way, such as: “You have been on my mind recently; how are you feeling lately?” or “How can I pray for you?”.
Awkwardly avoid the topic or change the subject after it’s already come up. It may be the only opportunity the parents have had to cry, talk about their child, or vent. Changing the subject (even if well-intentioned) is much worse. Allowing the grieving parents to change the subject shows that you are available. Avoiding the topic altogether is more painful than stumbling through an awkward conversation.
Remember anniversaries. Birthdays, due dates, anniversaries of hearing bad news, etc. are naturally challenging. When loved ones remember through a text, comment, phone call, or hug on those days – parents don’t feel they are going through it alone. Also, they’ll know their little one is not forgotten.
Forget. Support naturally dwindles as time passes. Messages months or years later are very special. Don’t presume that parents become “over it.” It is a loss they will deal with for the rest of their lives.
Be extra sensitive. Be aware of triggers. These will be specific to the situation but could include: news of others having children, seeing baby items (clothes/toys/etc.), or watching new parents hold their little ones. This is not an easy skill. Nonchalant comments (even though they are true and not at all malicious) can be very grating. Did parents know the gender and lose a son? Hearing “Ugh – raising boys is so hard” will be angering. Did parents miscarry after having a child already? Hearing “I love to see my kids playing together” will be saddening. If a couple is struggling to have their first, dealing with a loss may mean they cannot attend a baby shower or birthday party – even if they want to. If a couple named their child, hearing that name again in reference to another adorable, smiling, growing baby would be difficult.
Judge what makes them sad. It might be tempting to think, “Saying ___ would not make me sad, so I am in the clear.” Grieving parents are not in control over what might trigger tears. It’s best to try to observe and learn how they are dealing with the sorrow, and then adapt word-choice. They may never know the efforts you are making to accommodate them, but it’s a wonderful gift you can give.
Allow their loss to make a change in how you see pregnancy and childbirth. Even with modern medicine and a high “success rate,” bringing new life into this world is a miracle every time it occurs. Choose to see the incredible wonder when children are born!
Speak about having children in certain terms. When we hear couples say, “we’re going to have a child running around this time next year,” we often look at each other and whisper “Deo volente” (Lord willing). We have learned that nothing is guaranteed in this process.
Give false hope, provide empty consolation, or compare grief. “You’re young – you’ll have more.” “At least it was early in the pregnancy.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “Time heals all wounds.” “It just wasn’t God’s plan.” “God won’t give you anything you can’t handle.” Trite comments will never provide comfort. Furthermore, “I know how you feel” is never fully true… even if you have lost a loved one similarly, their journey is unique. Allow their grief to stand on its own.
Point the grieving family to the enduring hope that we have in Christ. Remind them that they are not alone, but that God is with them, and this is a truth woven throughout Scripture; you can be confident in repeating it often. Pray for them. When they are despondent, give them space to cry and be downhearted. (Don’t try to expedite them into happiness.) However, don’t leave without reminding them of the goodness of God and our eternal hope. This hope isn’t a cover-up: “at least we have God, so you don’t need to be sad”… but a prompt to put eyes on God’s forever plan to reconcile us to Him (how wonderful that good news is!) and that the perfect solution to our soul’s deepest need – Jesus – is caringly holding their child.
After sharing all of this “insider advice” with you, don’t worry about being perfect. If you say or do the “wrong thing,” it’s okay. But if you’ve read this far, you care about supporting your loved ones. Let that shine through. Tell them you love them and that you will never forget their baby. Not a day goes by where we don’t wonder what our son and miscarried babies would be like. If you are unsure about how to reach out to a friend or family member in a similar situation, we hope our suggestions provide some insight. Don’t be afraid to bring up the loss in an open-ended way and offer specific help. Be sensitive. More than anything, pray for deep and lasting comfort from the Lord of Creation. His peace that passes all understanding will sustain them.
Colin and Emily McFerren
If you know of someone grieving such a loss, there is a loving community of support at Christ Community Chapel ready to walk this journey with them. A monthly Pregnancy and Infant Loss Support Group offers a safe place for grieving parents to talk to each other – all while ultimately being reminded of the hope we have. Visit the following pages to learn more about our Care & Support Ministry, and the Pregnancy and Infant Loss Support Group. If you would like more information, please reach out to Lori McMillen at [email protected].