Post Author: Charlotte LaForest
October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month.
In the years since my own experience of pregnancy loss, something amazing has happened. An entire world has opened up to me—a world filled with women and men and families who have gone through similar experiences. I’ve heard stories from strangers, friends, even family members.
And because I am a woman who has gone through this experience as well as a priest, I hear a lot from people about the ways the church has handled their loss. I have, of course, heard stories of (and been a part of) faith communities who have lovingly cared for families in their time of loss. And these are beautiful stories of compassion in times of sorrow.
Unfortunately, I have also heard heart-wrenching stories of ways the church has made this impossible experience even more painful.
Clergy have an important role in this because they will learn about the loss of pregnancies that no one else even knew existed. Clergy also have privileged positions in pulpits and behind microphones that can be used to form communities with greater compassion for the women and families suffering in their midst, often in silence.
October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. And so this month, even more than usual, these are the things I wish all clergy understood:
Not all pregnancy losses are alike.
My loss was very early. It was an entirely different experience from someone who loses a pregnancy several months in, and yet it came with its own challenges and confusion that were unique to my circumstances. It’s important to let the person tell you what happened and what that meant to them. So few people want to hear all the details, but as clergy you can create space for those going through loss to tell the whole story and what it was like for them to experience it.
This may not be a one-time event.
Families struggling with infertility may experience recurrent losses as they try to conceive. This requires enormous physical, emotional, and spiritual strength. Be willing to support them for the long haul.
Don’t assume you know how they are feeling.
There’s a wide range of emotions that can be stirred by the loss of a pregnancy, and can vary depending on the feelings about the pregnancy itself. Grief over the loss. Relief over the loss of an unwanted pregnancy. Guilt about feeling relieved. Feelings of guilt for having caused it somehow. Fear that this means it will never be possible to have a baby. Despair. Ask open questions. Be ready for anything.
Pregnancy loss doesn’t only affect moms.
Spouses and partners, children expecting a sibling, as well as extended family and friends are all affected by the loss of a pregnancy. You may encounter stories of loss from unexpected sources.
Platitudes can be downright harmful.
“God needed another angel.” “Everything happens for a reason.” Go ahead and put those away. Now.
It’s important to use scripture carefully.
Stories of “barren” women miraculously conceiving are not necessarily helpful. Neither are passages that try to justify suffering. Look to images of God drawing near to those who suffer, to Jesus’s compassion for those who mourn. Psalms and prayers of lament may be particularly healing.
Advent is hard.
So much Baby Jesus. Consider some seasonal opportunities for prayer and worship that focus on incarnation more broadly, and not just birth.
Pregnancy Loss can be a faith-shaking experience.
People are so quick to talk about God’s blessings during pregnancy, which equates pregnancy with God’s favor. There is a vacuum where nuanced theological language around pregnancy loss should be, so it’s often not talked about. Help your parishioners explore their anger and doubts. Make space for anger and lament. Explore what it might mean to hope after this kind of loss.
Hearing about pregnancy loss from the pulpit can be life changing.
This experience is so rarely talked about that women and families can feel alone and isolated. Simply naming it as something you care about helps people to imagine that perhaps it’s something that God cares about.
And, finally, a principle that applies to so many pastoral circumstances, not just this one:
Caring is better than answers.
You don’t need to fix this. Just be there.
Clergy have the ability to frame the narrative and help their congregations become more welcoming and supportive places for families facing pregnancy loss. Help make our churches places of refuge for women and families in the midst of their grief. Our faith is rooted in a God who suffers with us, who comforts those who mourn. Even though we cannot know what lies ahead, as clergy we can offer hope to those struggling with pregnancy loss in the simple facts that we are with them, that God is with them, that they are not alone.
The Rev. Charlotte LaForest is an Episcopal priest serving at St. James’s Episcopal Church in West Hartford, Connecticut. She grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, and attended college at Georgetown University before moving to Boston to pursue graduate degrees in Social Work and Pastoral Ministry at Boston College. Charlotte spent several years working as a hospice chaplain before pursuing her MDiv at Yale Divinity School, and was ordained a priest in 2015.
Charlotte and her husband Eric live on campus at the boarding school where Eric works, and have three children, August (born in 2014) and twins Rowan and Evelyn (born in 2017), as well as a slobbery dog named Whitman. Charlotte loves reading, knitting, fancy coffee, and going on family walks.
Image by: Ylanite Koppens
Used with permission