Take a break from world news, sit back, and relax because here is the third and final installment of my Q & A with Pastor Elise Erikson Barrett, author of What Was Lost. We definitely saved the best for last.
You interviewed many women who experienced miscarriages for the book. What surprised you the most in your research?
This is especially interesting given your blog's topic, but there were so many women who just loved hearing some of the comments that made me want to go ballistic. The "God needed little angels in heaven" one was supremely comforting to some beautiful, lovely, bright, sincere women I interviewed. I wanted to say, "Are you KIDDING me?" but instead, I had to discipline myself to say, "Okay, this comment made me crazy, but this other woman is a terrific human being and she found comfort in this (appalling) comment. Why? What was comforting about it? What sort of underlying truth or hope did she sense in this?"
In your role as a pastor how to you see miscarriage affecting your congregation or the people who come to you for pastoral care?
You know, it tends to marginalize this whole group of people. Congregations tend to make a big deal out of welcoming children - and according to Jesus, this is right on. But there is often no acknowledgment of or space for people who are childless, particularly those who desire children greatly and have experienced pregnancy losses.
So you have this whole public narrative that sounds like, "Children's Sabbath is this week! Come to children's choir! Here's a baptism! Easter Egg hunt at the Smith's house! Family Festival on Wednesday night!" And these announcements and events just batter the ears and hearts of people who have lost babies. I've heard of people skipping Sundays when they know there's going to be a baptism or infant dedication; it's just too painful. And it's hard for people to find a place to process their grief, especially if they find themselves in a Sunday school class or Bible study group with a lot of young parents who, reasonably enough, mostly talk about their children.
I started trying to name as many of these kinds of silent, secret grief burdens as I could in pastoral prayers and sermons -- pregnancy loss, but also infertility, mental illness, dementia, Alzheimer's -- the burdens of loss people lug around in silence because they're ashamed and don't know how to bring them to their community of faith or their God. Just allowing those kinds of losses to slip into the public narrative seemed to break the seal for some people and give them a reason to contact a pastor for pastoral counseling, or just to acknowledge that they were struggling and needed prayer.
Many of my readers have emailed me to say that a certain comment made by a friend or family member has driven a permanent wedge between them. How can we try to heal these relationships without minimizing our grief?
It's so hard. I think that occasionally, the relationship was already either not all that deep or troubled to start with, and the response to the pregnancy loss seemed to nail the coffin shut, or to shake into dust something that was already lifeless. I think in other cases the relationship is important and worth preserving... which in some ways is more difficult than being estranged from your second cousin whom you only saw twice a year anyway.
You typically have at least two options, it seems to me. One is to say nothing, to let time soften your anger against that person, and eventually to come to a place where you can allow the relationship to function more or less normally, with that place of hurt covered over but still very much a part of your feelings toward the person. This can actually be the best way to go IF you have other people with whom you are processing the grief well and IF there is no possible way that you can help the person understand that what they said was hurtful. (It might apply, for example, if you have a great-grandmother who lost everyone she loved in the second World War and had two miscarriages herself, and functioned for the rest of her life by "keeping a stiff upper lip." Her worldview is almost certainly not going to change, and it may be more pain for you than it's worth to try, but by saying nothing more to her, you may find that the edges of whatever she said are smoothed over with time and grace and love.)
The second option is to approach that person and explain how they've hurt you, why what they said hurt, and to tell them a way to restore the relationship. This is certainly both more scriptural and more likely to bring deep healing to the relationship. It's also more awkward, more difficult, and more liable to explode on you. But if it's a relationship that matters to you, it's worth the risk. I think that you have to be very clear with yourself both about why the comment hurt and what you hope will come of any confrontation, so you can be clear about those things with the other person.
So, instead of, "I think you owe me an apology for what you said," you might try saying something like, "Mom, I love you, and that's why I feel like I need to talk to you. When you said, 'Think of all the money you'll save!' after John and I lost our baby, it felt to me like you didn't understand how much we were hurting. I think you wanted to help us find something positive about the situation, but it really just felt hurtful and dismissive. What I need instead is for you to just understand how sad we are, and to take this loss seriously, because we do. Maybe you would be willing to come to the memorial service our pastor is having for us at our home next week. And I have a book/blog/article about miscarriage that I was hoping you might be willing to read and then we can talk again. Would you be willing to do that?"
Sometimes it can be better to do this in a letter, particularly if the person is someone who may get defensive and lash out to protect her/himself in a face-to-face situation. You do, of course, have to be prepared to be hurt again. But nothing worthwhile -- not babies, not marriages, not relationships -- comes without an attendant vulnerability and risk.
God bless you, both you who are writing and you who are reading this blog, and may God hold and uphold you in this risky, painful, beautiful life we share.