Last summer, when I was round with my second child, perpetually devouring ice cubes as Natalie somersaulted in my womb, a friend came to visit. I had heard that she’d recently had a miscarriage, but she hadn’t yet told me herself. And I was afraid — in the way that everyone seems to be — of what I would say and how I would say it. I hoped that I could somehow be present to her, that my ever-expanding belly would not create a chasm between us.
As I drove to the airport, I wondered how she might bring it up, or if I should, and if I did, how I would. Despite my healthy pregnancy, the shadow of grief covered most of that year — we’d lost three friends in eight months, all under the age of 30. In our tiny church, five women conceived and announced their pregnancies, but only three of us would bring the babies to term. Death was all around us, and yet I found myself tongue tied when my friend climbed into the car beside me.
After telling me a little bit about her flight, she mentioned the miscarriage, and then she said something I’ll never forget. She said, “After my miscarriage, I realized that I needed to tell my story in the same way that women needed to share the stories of the birth of their children.”
As much as she needed to tell her story, there were some that weren’t ready to hear it. And it troubled her that so many people who knew about the miscarriage chose to say nothing. An awkward silence does seem to surround those who grieve this kind of loss — even if they are brave enough to be open about it.
In The Eldest Child by Maeve Brennan, she describes a mother grappling with the death of her 3-day-old infant:
At the time he died, she said that she would never get used to it, and what she meant by that was that as long as she lived she would never accept what had happened in the mechanical subdued way the rest of them had accepted it…. They behaved as though what had happened was finished, as though some ordinary event had taken place and come to an end in a natural way. There had not been an ordinary event, and it had not come to and end.
What Not To Say
In the Old Testament Book of Job, after everything is taken from him in a heartbeat — his children, his riches, his health — his friends all step in to offer words of consolation, and each friend is more unhelpful than the last, until Job finally says, “How long will you torment me, and break me in pieces with words?” (Job 19:2)
Couples who suffer a miscarriage often also suffer from their friends’ inability to grasp the magnitude of what has happened. Like Job’s friends, they might say insensitive things like “You’ll have other children one day,” or “There was probably something wrong with the baby.”
These statements minimize the bond the parents had with the baby growing in its mother’s belly — a child that they were just beginning to know but may have already come to love deeply. In a letter to his friend after the death of his mother, Phillip Brooks wrote, “People bring us well-meant but miserable consolations when they tell us what time will do to help our grief. We do not want to lose our grief, because our grief is bound up with our love.”
After a miscarriage couples struggle through unanswerable questions. Why would God allow them to conceive only to allow the baby to die? Why hope when life is so fragile? Or “What did I do wrong?”
All these questions, the guilt and blame, and the feelings of divine betrayal that might be connected with a miscarriage only highlight the essential wrongness of what has happened. There are no answers to these questions, because we were not created for death, sickness or sin. No matter how often we wrestle through these things on earth, some stubborn holy streak in us clings to the memory of Eden. A Jewish friend recently told me that in her tradition, there are no prayers for the death of a child, because this kind of thing is not supposed to happen.
Maeve Brennan describes this grieving mother, struggling with those who tell her the death was God’s will:
When she spoke for any length of time they always silenced her by telling her it was God’s will. She had accepted God’s will all her life without argument, and she was not arguing now, but she knew that what had happened was not finished and she was sure that it was not God’s will that she not be left in this bewilderment…. All she wanted to do was say how she felt, but they mentioned God’s will as if they were slamming a door between her and some territory that was forbidden to her.
Naming the Child
The friend I mentioned at the beginning of this article found healing as she grappled with the concrete details of her loss. She and her husband requested that they be allowed to take their tiny baby home from the hospital, they named their child, built a casket for him, and as a family, buried him at a monastery. Their two young girls helped sprinkle dirt on the casket, and perhaps because of this, they know in a very real way that they have a sibling in heaven that they will one day see again.
Even if a couple can’t identify exactly when a miscarriage occurred, making a burial impossible, the act of naming the child is a powerful way to bring to light the reality of that child’s existence. Naming is a holy thing — it was the first act that God trusted Adam with — and Adam’s first opportunity to be God-like. I have heard that there is an Eskimo legend that a newborn baby cries because it has not yet been given a name. We all ache to be fully known, to become who we were meant to be, and a name can be our first guidepost along the way.
Naming a miscarried baby not only makes the loss more concrete — it also allows the parents to bond with their child, to claim her and to prepare for reunion with her — even as they offer her back to the one who is Life.
Maeve Brennan concludes her passage about the grieving mother this way:
She was much calmer than she had been, and she no longer feared that she would lose sight of the shape that had drifted, she noticed, much further away while she slept. He was traveling a long way but she would watch him. She was his mother, and it was all she could do for him now…. She was weak, and the world was very shaky, but the light of other days shone steadily and showed the truth. She was no longer bewildered, and the next time Martin came to stand hopefully beside her bed, she smiled at him and spoke to him in her ordinary voice.
Copyright 2007 Jenny Schroedel. All rights reserved.