Invisible Grief? Theological Reflections on Miscarriage
It is the hard work of mothering always to remember.
About six minutes into what will become a ninety-minute conversation, the woman on the other side of the kitchen table begins to cry. As I fight—and fail—to hold back my own tears, I am struck that so far in my research, I’m five for five in reducing these women, some of them strangers to me, to tears. As they tell their stories of having suffered one or more miscarriages, I realize also that I’m five for five in crying right along with them. I am reminded, as I reach for a tissue, that objectivity in qualitative research is sometimes an impossible goal, particularly when a researcher’s own story and experience closely resembles the stories and experiences of her research participants.
Nearly six years ago, my body betrayed me in one of the most painful of ways. It failed—I failed—to nurture and grow the much-wanted child1 that had resulted from the mutual love between my spouse and me. In the weeks and months that followed my miscarriage, I would come to think differently about my body’s “failure,” but at the time failure was the only way I could think about this loss. As nearly any woman who has miscarried will echo, my first reaction was to wonder what I had done prior to the miscarriage to cause it to happen. Was it the two glasses of wine I had at a family gathering before I knew I was pregnant? Was it that slow-paced, mile-long jog? Was it the salmon I ate the previous week?
I learned from my doctor that contrary to most couples’ expectations, miscarriage is shockingly common. And as I disclosed my sorrow and disappointment to other women, at first in hushed and tearful tones, I was astonished to learn how many of my colleagues, close friends, and family members had privately suffered through this particular form of grief and loss. Perhaps this silence is one of the reasons that women who are happy to find themselves pregnant and then miscarry are so shocked when miscarriage occurs. Until it happens to us—and unless we disclose our suffering to others—most of us have no idea that our mothers, sisters, friends, and coworkers have suffered the same loss. Only when we risk sharing what we believe is a very uncommon occurrence do we learn that so many others share in our experience.
I am virtually incapable of hiding my emotions (and here my husband would laugh at my use of the word virtually), and so I had little choice but to talk about my miscarriage, which occurred very early in my pregnancy. I tried to function normally, but friends and colleagues could tell immediately that something was wrong. As I told my story, they reciprocated with their own stories, and those stories of sadness and disappointment, of quiet struggle, not only helped me deal with my grief—they also sparked my professional interest. As a practical theologian, I found my own pain mingling with my desire to understand miscarriage and the aftermath of miscarriage theologically. I wanted theological answers to raw questions—Why did this happen to me? Was it punishment for some past sin or part of some divine plan? Didn’t God know how much I wanted this child? As a theologian, I recognized the simplicity of these questions, yet my anguish and the anguish of others who suffer miscarriage demanded a response. Other questions arose as I dealt with my grief and listened to the stories of other women—How are we to cope with suffering when we can’t fathom why such suffering occurs? How do we square our own profound disappointment with theological notions of divine sovereignty? What is the hope of afterlife for a miscarried child, particularly after a very early miscarriage when the child is little more than a microscopic mass of cells? What is the role of the faith community in responding to this unique kind of grief, and why is this grief often hidden and invisible to others? How do we minister to those who grieve a miscarriage and encourage people to share their pain rather than suppress it? What are some appropriate and meaningful ways that the faith community can help people mark and ritualize this unique form of loss in a culture that has no normative practices for memorializing loss through miscarriage?
I knew I wasn’t the first person to wrestle with these questions, so I set out to explore these theological issues with other women who had suffered the loss of a child by miscarriage. As part of this exploration, I interviewed women of Christian faith who had experienced one or more miscarriages, asking each to give voice to her grief and journey toward healing. Each interview lasted from ninety minutes to two hours, and I began by asking the women to share their stories in their own words and to emphasize the components of the experience that they found most compelling or important. Then I asked the women to talk about how they had coped with their loss, particularly whether they had discovered faith- or church-based resources to support them in their grief. Finally, I asked questions that were designed to encourage further theological reflection: I inquired about how the experience had challenged their understanding and practice of Christian faith, and I prompted reflections around theological categories such as human suffering, divine sovereignty or will, and human life and the afterlife. In asking these questions, I hoped to underscore the lived experience of women who have suffered this particular kind of loss, emphasizing some of the insights and challenges, theological and otherwise, arising from that experience.2 This project was also an effort to encourage women to share what has otherwise been a quite private experience of loss, which in turn may offer other women the space to reflect upon and share their own experience of miscarriage.
A number of theological insights arose from my conversations. First, and unsurprisingly, my interviewees were nearly unanimous in claiming that the experience of miscarriage had further cemented their hope and expectation of a heavenly afterlife. For these women, the sorrow following their loss was and continues to be tempered by the firm belief that they will one day be reunited with their lost children. In a few instances, women reported that their other living children have added to this hope by speaking very matter-of-factly about the sibling or siblings they will one day get to play with in heaven. One woman, who miscarried twice after having her first child, relayed a moving story of a visit to the zoo with her daughter, who at one point inadvertently let go of her balloon. The mother fully expected her daughter to burst into tears as the balloon floated into the sky, but instead the woman was moved to tears when the little girl shrugged, smiled, and said, “That’s OK. The babies can have it.” That pure, unadulterated belief in the resurrected existence of miscarried children becomes a powerful gift to grieving women. Indeed, faith communities might best serve their hurting members by sharing their beliefs and stories in ways that make the hope of resurrection real and definite in the face of sadness and loss.
A second insight from my interviews is indicative, I suspect, of the confusion or inconsistency that runs rampant through lay Christian perspectives on suffering, particularly following instances of untimely or “unjust” death. In relaying their stories initially, interviewees consistently reported taking comfort in the idea that everything happens according to God’s “will” or “plan” or that all things, including human suffering, are part of a “bigger picture” that God has “ordained.” As one whose theological perspectives on suffering have been shaped by the insights of individuals like Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, I found myself pressing this issue a bit with my interviewees. When so pressed, each woman admitted to discomfort with the idea that God somehow wills their pain and suffering, and they tended to renegotiate or qualify their statements to say that we cannot really know if the miscarriage was God’s will, that God does not will bad things to happen but does bring good out of them, or that God is present in our suffering even if God did not cause it directly—significant departures from the notion that one’s miscarriage is a direct result of God exercising God’s own will in one’s life. Such theological confusion about why humans must suffer and what God’s role is in our suffering means that pastors and ministers must carefully consider what constitutes a theologically truthful, appropriate, and pastorally helpful (as these need not be mutually exclusive) perspective on suffering, not just for those grieving after a miscarriage but for other kinds of loss as well.
A third, and I suggest very important, insight from this project is the particularity of the grief and sense of loss that results from miscarriage. As I too experienced in the weeks and months following my miscarriage, my interviewees consistently reported a genuine uncertainty about how to grieve. We all know the general protocols and customs following the death of a loved one in our respective cultures. But the uncertainty about how—indeed, even whether—to mourn a child lost through miscarriage, and the resulting range of responses to their own grief by my interviewees, is telling of the uniqueness of the kind of loss experienced in miscarriage. As one interviewee explained it, what one mourns is the expectation for the future and of what could have been rather than the loss of a person with whom one is intimately connected and has shared memories and time and experiences. Beyond the immediate emotional attachment that a mother can have toward the child in her womb, there is an intangibility to this grief which makes it especially unique.
Another participant reported that despite her very real and profound grief following a miscarriage, she felt “silly” about expressing her anguish. She worried that people would think that she was being “melodramatic” if she mourned too much, too long, or too publicly. This uncertainty is not unfounded given the kind of “comfort” that interviewees received from others following their miscarriages: “Well, you weren’t that far along.” “You already have one [or more] healthy child[ren],” and “At least you can try again for another child,” as if one lost beloved child might simply be replaced with another. By and large, the most painful response by family and friends to my interviewees’ grief was silence and an unwillingness (or an inability) to acknowledge the miscarriage.3 The interviewees were all keenly aware of how different the response by family and friends would have been had they instead lost a parent, a spouse, or a child who had lived beyond birth.
In a culture where women and their partners often endure the emotional pain of miscarriage privately, a culture in which people can’t agree about whether what was lost in the miscarriage was a life or not, it can be difficult to determine how and whether to memorialize or ritualize loss through miscarriage. Some of my interviewees did little or nothing to memorialize their loss. Others named their miscarried children; marked and remembered the date of the miscarriage, in most cases privately or only with immediate family; or performed a one-time ritual following the miscarriage, such as planting a tree in memory of the lost child. This is a space where a faith community can provide concrete support in ministering to women and their families who have experienced a miscarriage and are struggling to deal with the grief associated with it. Churches can develop prayers, liturgies, or an outline for a memorial service that is specifically aimed to comfort grieving women and their families following a miscarriage. Yet only one interviewee reported having access to a grief support group. Having such options more readily available, so that women who experience a miscarriage can express their grief in a safe space, might help to prevent what happened to a friend, who miscarried during her eighth week of pregnancy and reported that when she and her husband took an ultrasound photo to their pastor in search of prayer and comfort, the pastor seemed to struggle to find words to alleviate their grief.
The women who have shared their experiences of miscarriage with me not only provide insight for those of us looking to understand our own experiences of grief and loss through miscarriage, but also challenge the community of faith to work toward more tangible support for what can be a rather intangible and invisible sorrow. I am grateful to the women I interviewed for sharing their pain and their wisdom with me, often a stranger to them, and I pray that their courage in sharing their stories might give others permission to do the same. And in fact, they give me courage to share a bit more of my own story, parts of which I have never shared before.
Almost six years after my miscarriage, I admit that my feelings of grief over the child I lost in 2008 have, to a certain extent, subsided. I gave birth to two healthy daughters in 2009 and 2011, and my husband and I were recently licensed through our county’s foster-to-adopt program. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life to grieve too much for what might have been, or perhaps as a working mother there is just too little time for reflection on the past.
Even so, I do think often about the child I never had the chance to know. Sometimes when my daughters do or say something that displays the uniqueness of their developing personalities, I wonder what that lost child might have been like—would she have had her father’s curly hair that I so desperately wanted my other children to have? What personality quirks or special talents would she have possessed? Would she have been a he? And then there is the matter of the small box in my office.
The box has sat, unopened, on the bottom of one of my bookshelves for almost six years now. Its presence and its contents are known to me alone; until now, I think even my husband was unaware of it. On that Thursday morning in March 2008, the same morning I learned I was pregnant, I ordered a newborn-size Red Sox onesie. My plan was to keep the happy secret all to myself for a few days as I awaited the arrival of this tiny article of clothing, and then give my husband, a loyal member of Red Sox Nation since childhood, the gift to announce his new identity as “Daddy.”
I forgot about the onesie over the course of the next three days as my body released that precious, already beloved being from our lives. Later the following week, the box arrived at my office. Too numb and wounded to deal with it, I tucked it into a corner where it has sat, untouched, for almost six years now. Occasionally, when I’m attempting to bring order to my office or I’m looking for a particular book, my eyes come to rest on the box. I stiffen with ache for a few moments, and then I carry on with my day.
I suppose a time will come when I will feel compelled to open it. That onesie is, in a strange way, the one tangible thing I have to connect me to the little stranger that I loved so intensely, so spontaneously in the very moment I knew of her presence within my body. I’m not sure why I’ve never opened it. I know only that I could never give it away or dispose of it because it is a reminder that no matter what children are or will become part of our family, there was—is—another child who first possessed my heart. And although there are no memories of who she was, she is forever defined by that instantaneous and unfettered love. Perhaps that, in the words of Walter Brueggemann, is part of the “hard work of mothering” following a miscarriage—to always remember that love.
1. Already, there are some issues to unpack. First, in this project I refer to miscarriage as the loss of a child, not a fetus. For the women I interviewed, and for myself as well, this thing that was lost was no thing at all; it was a beloved child, comprising countless future hopes, hurtling its mother into new relationship with itself, and symbolizing one of God’s many wonderful gifts to the human race: participation in the creation of new life. To call this thing anything less than a real life and a real baby not only detracts from the experience of the women I interviewed, whose identities as mother began at the moment they knew they were pregnant, but also subverts their agency in naming and describing their very real feelings of grief and loss. The advice in manuals and modules for pastoral care of women who have miscarried is the same: use terms like child and baby rather than fetus when counseling and caring for a woman who has miscarried. It is not at all my intention to push a particular view of the abortion issue here, but I recognize that this designation of losing a child is not without serious political tensions. L. Serene Jones points to the paradox of trying to maintain one’s pro-choice commitments while at the same time grieving a miscarriage. She recounts the painful story of helping a friend to ritualize what was felt to be a very real loss: “[My friend] had collected in her grandmother’s handkerchief a few small remnants of her loss—a combination of bloody tissue and dashed dreams. We placed these in the earth and tried to think of something profound to say, but words wouldn’t come. . . . We were and continue to be strong advocates for ‘women’s right to choose,’ and so praying for ‘a lost life’ also struck us as wrong” (Jones, “Hope Deferred: Theological Reflections on Reproductive Loss (Infertility, Miscarriage, Stillbirth),” Modern Theology 17, no. 2 [April 2001]: 227). For Jones and her friend, even in the midst of profound sorrow at the loss of this wanted child, the choice of language to express having lost something much beloved and longed for had to be subverted to what they viewed as the greater good of advocating for reproductive choice. Suffice it to say that these are very complex issues indeed, and how we talk about miscarriage must certainly have connections to how we talk about abortion—and a host of other moral and theological questions and issues. But that is a discussion for another time.
2. When discussing this project with others, I often get some version of the following questions: What about the experience of men? Doesn’t their suffering matter? It is true that in my work I have emphasized the experience of women, not of their husbands or partners, in having miscarried; even when reflecting on my own experience, I often refer to my loss without reference to the feelings of loss that my spouse may have experienced. I am not unaware that women’s partners also experience grief following a miscarriage. But my own experience and the experiences of the women I interviewed indicate a different level or kind of grief for women who experience firsthand the trauma of miscarriage (and the potential feelings of responsibility for that loss) than for their partners whose bodies are not the locale of the miscarriage. In addition, much of the literature on pastoral care following miscarriage emphasizes the grief of the woman who miscarries and less so, if at all, the grief of the father or partner. Certainly there is room for further inquiry into this particular issue.
3. There is, of course, much irony in this response given the strong pro-life sentiment of many American Christians. One wonders how it is that the pro-life segment of the church, so vocal and active in its insistence that life begins at conception, can fail so miserably to respond in loving and kind ways when a woman loses her child through miscarriage. Many of those who strongly disapprove of pro-choice sentiments are the same people who fail to properly acknowledge the grief and sense of loss experienced as a result of miscarriage.
Nicole L. Johnson is an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio.