EXHAUSTED from labour, I lay back on the hospital bed. I reached for my partner’s hand. And then I sent out a social-media announcement: “Ezra was born at 11.47 pm, joining his brother Isaac in the arms of God.”
In 2015, after three-and-a-half years of infertility, I became pregnant through IVF. It was an easy and uncomplicated pregnancy, until my waters broke at 26 weeks. I was hospitalised and monitored on 31 July, at 27 weeks and four days pregnant, and I woke up in labour. A few hours later, I was having an emergency c-section with a neonatal team on standby, ready to stabilise the very premature baby and whisk him off to the newborn intensive-care unit.
He never made it that far. Isaac crashed as he was delivered, and could not be resuscitated. Half an hour later, his chest could be seen rising and falling, lifesaving attempts were again made, and failed. He was first ruled a stillbirth, then a live birth, and then, after a coroner’s inquest, a stillbirth. I have two certificates for him: a regular birth certificate and a certificate of stillbirth.
In 2018, I became unexpectedly pregnant without medical assistance. This pregnancy was complicated from the start, and this, in addition to the difficulty of coping with a pregnancy after loss, made it a traumatic time. Again, in March this year, I ended up hospitalised. My waters broke this time at only 18 weeks — too early for the baby, which we knew was another boy, to be born and survive.
We were told, after a scan, that the rupture was complete — there was now no chance for his lungs to develop in a way that was compatible with life. We made the decision to end the pregnancy. However, Ezra’s heart stopped on its own before labour began. I gave birth naturally to a baby I knew was already dead. This one, unlike Isaac, was born before the magic 24-week point that makes him legally a person.
ONE in 150 pregnancies in the UK ends in stillbirth — and that is not counting pregnancies that end before 24 weeks, or neonatal deaths. Although we may not like to think about it, it is likely that some of the families that we come into contact with in church, and in our communities, have lost pregnancies or lost babies.
Any loss before 24 weeks of pregnancy is considered a miscarriage. Early losses that occur before the 12th week might leave the parents feeling isolated, as they may not have told people about their pregnancy. Later miscarriages might mean that the family had a body to bury or cremate, and knew the sex of their child, and named them, and yet the child was still not legally considered a person.
The death of a baby after 24 weeks of pregnancy, but before labour begins, is referred to as a stillbirth. Parents often have to go through the labour for a child they already know has died (this may also happen with late miscarriages). Deaths also occur during labour itself, either at full-term or in premature births. The death of a baby within the first month of life is called a neonatal death.
Some parents might have made the agonising decision to turn off their baby’s life support. Some might have had a devastating diagnosis late in pregnancy, and had to decide whether to terminate a wanted pregnancy to save their child from a life that would consist only of a few hours or days, in immense pain.
Many parents I know who have had to make these decisions have felt judged by their churches. None of us can know what we would do in such a situation until we are faced with it, and all the parents I know who have had to make that call have done what they believed to be the most loving thing for their child. Some have not told their church leaders what they have had to do; so, be aware, if you preach on these issues.
There is nothing that we can do or say that will alleviate the grief and trauma of these parents. But, over and over again, bereaved parents tell me that the way in which their communities, including their church, treated them either helped to relieve their suffering, or made it worse.
WHEN the loss happens to someone whom we already know in our church community, our instinct is to offer comfort. And, sometimes, that means that we want to give answers. Unfortunately, that often leads to dismissing their natural negative emotions, which are a crucial part of grieving.
“I was told by someone not to be angry with God, as it was part of God’s plan,” Jane says of her miscarriage. “Someone else gave me a book, and one of the ideas was that doubt or lack of faith causes miscarriage.” From people at church, she says, “we had a mixture of ‘God will give you a baby: I’m sure of it,’ and ‘God has other plans for you: just trust him.’ I wanted to respond to both with ‘How on earth do you know?’ After my second loss, I was told by a kindly church member that ‘Some things just aren’t meant to be.’”
These responses are meant kindly, but they can be damaging. Saying that a lack of faith causes miscarriage, and that prayer will give you a baby, places responsibility for the baby’s death on the parents. Saying that a loss is part of God’s plan implies that their baby’s death was supposed to happen, or that God wanted it to happen, and that they have to accept it as good.
Validating parents’ emotions, however, can bring healing. Becky, who has also had two miscarriages, says: “My minister said I was allowed to be angry at God, and he was, too. That felt like real validation rather than cheap talk. He also made lots of time to talk with me, didn’t try to offer any glib reassurance, just did a lot of listening and assured me I was allowed to feel however I felt.”
I am lucky that my own experiences with the language used by clergy have been more like Becky’s than Jane’s. One friend, who is a vicar, came to see me and to bless Ezra in hospital. He arrived, and I turned to him, and swore violently. He replied simply “Amen.” Later, he said that these emotions, and the way in which I expressed them, struck him as a perfectly legitimate prayer of lament.
SAYING “I’m so sorry,” “I don’t know what to say,” “I can’t imagine what you’re feeling right now,” or even just “You are in my prayers” can show concern and care without dismissing the negative emotions. You can also ask “Would you like to talk about your baby?” and, if the baby was named, refer to them by name.
Practical help is often appreciated. Jessica, whose son lived for a few minutes, says: “The church were very supportive, with lots of pastoral support and practical support such as meals. One of our friends from church said he would come and mow our lawn every week to take that stress away.”
The loss of a baby can also, of course, be a difficult time spiritually. “I have experienced people who have been prayed for and lived, and others had died; we lived in that tension,” Jessica says.
ALAMYMelancholy by Albert Gyorgy
Deconstruction and doubt in the wake of tragedy is normal and natural. Faith is a lifetime journey, an ever evolving, living thing. Loving our neighbours as ourselves means journeying with them in their grief and doubt, not pushing them towards a particular outcome or understanding.
Theologies that hold that our well-being and happiness on earth is a direct result of God’s favour — if we pray, and follow God’s laws, we will be rewarded by being given exactly what we want — can set people up for this exact crisis when things, sadly, do not turn out that way. A theology that reminds us that God’s people have struggled, failed, been oppressed, and lost things of real value, and that those are not signs of God’s absence or God’s disfavour, can help people to weather this sort of storm.
The Bible is full of people raging at and arguing with God. The discussion, the back- and-forth with God, the wrestling with angels, is part of our faith journey. We do not have to have an answer to the horror of a baby’s death. We can sit with people in their questions, struggles, rage, and lamentation. There is scriptural precedent for that, not least in the Saviour who cried out the Psalmist’s words in the face of death: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
Children, especially, may need time and patience as they wrestle with their feelings and with their understanding of God. They need their church leaders to accompany them as they journey through the confusion of grief, to answer questions honestly — even if that means admitting that we don’t know why this happened — and to reassure them that we belong to a God whose love is stronger than death, but that that doesn’t mean we cannot be sad, or angry, or confused.
At my church, I give a blank notebook to children who have been bereaved. I tell them they can use it for whatever they want — they can write to the person who died, they can draw, they can rip up the pages if they are feeling angry — it is theirs, and it is private.
PARENTS might want a service to mark their child’s life, even if the pregnancy did not reach 24 weeks.
We had a big memorial service for Isaac, and a smaller one for Ezra. Both times, the clergy leading the services showed, without hesitation, that they considered my son to be a person, known and loved by God, and worthy of respect and dignity. Both sacred and secular readings and music were permitted. Both times, we were encouraged to bring in displays of things for a table at the front: blankets that had belonged to them, their footprints, Ezra’s ashes, and so on. We also had a statue of the Good Shepherd at both memorial services.
The Church of England’s book of Alternative Pastoral Prayers contains litanies to mark a miscarriage and a stillbirth, and the diocese of Toronto has a liturgy for the blessing of a stillborn infant. If parents want a more formal memorial, I have collected readings and music that might be appropriate, in a downloadable file (see end of article).
At the end of Ezra’s service, I wrote a section based on the baptism service — his father and I were asked his name, and spoke it aloud. We were then commissioned to shine the light of his life out into the world, in memory of him, and given a candle with an “E” on it, and a packet of forget-me-not seeds. We also gave forget-me-not seeds to everyone in the congregation. The celebrant who conducted Isaac’s burial service gave us a tree for our garden.
The question how much to emphasise the promise of resurrection and life after death can be difficult. For many church leaders, it might seem obvious that this is a source of hope and promise — and many bereaved parents find it to be just that. But, for some, it might feel dismissive of the real loss of their child’s whole life.
I trust that I will see Isaac and Ezra again, but that is sometimes cold comfort in the face of the fact that I will never rock them to sleep, never dress them (except for their burials), never take a first-day-of-school picture. I will never help them with homework, never meet the people who would have been their friends. I will never know the grandchildren they might have given me. Unlike the death of a person in his or her natural time, the death of a baby robs parents of things that cannot be replaced, even in the resurrection. Simple open questions in planning memorial services can help to guide you to what individual parents will find helpful or not.
Memorial services affirm the reality of the baby’s life, and commend them to God’s care. Judith, whose son, Thomas, was stillborn, says: “After his cremation, there was a service in church. Because it could be held back until after my hospital discharge, a week after birth, I was able to attend it. They offered to place his container of ashes to one side of the altar, so he could be a part of it.”
Anniversaries are also important. If your church regularly prays for anniversaries of death, or has a book with names of our beloved dead in it, ask parents if they would like their baby’s name included.
BABY loss is different from other losses in many ways. The older someone is when they die, the less time there is for you to imagine the parallel “What if . . . ?” life they might have had. When you lose a baby, that parallel life is for ever. I will always be aware of what ages my sons should be, what they should be doing now — and that includes in church.
A few snapshots: Christmas, 2015. Isaac would have been an infant, and the plan was for him to be baby Jesus in our Christmas pageant, a dramatised lessons-and-carols service which I, as Children’s Worker, directed, and played the angel in (the one most able to push kids into place if need be). On the day of the pageant, I held another baby in my arms. I placed him in the manger. I listened to the congregation’s muted “Aww” sounds. One of the mums hugged me afterwards: she remembered.
My first eucharist after having Isaac. I watch the priest pour the water and the wine together in the cup. I hear the words of consecration, about the wine as blood. All I can see are my blood-stained, water-stained trousers, when my waters broke, and the mingling of blood and water that was both Isaac’s birth and his death. I think of Mary, and about whether, when she saw the blood and water pour from Jesus’s side, she remembered the blood and water of his birth. I think, how profoundly and intimately gynaecological the eucharist is, and those men have no idea. I see birth and death together at the table.
MARGARET HOUSTONThe table commemorating Ezra at the memorial service
Mothering Sunday. Flowers are handed out by the children, first to their mothers and then to all the women in the congregation. Child after child presses flowers into my hands. I plant some of those flowers at Isaac’s grave. I don’t know what to feel. It’s kind, but it’s not the same. It feels like a consolation prize, or being included out of pity. But I’m also grateful that I wasn’t left out.
A month later, we have confirmation, and the teenagers’ testimonies often mention me by name as part of what formed their faith as a child. “I hope it’s OK for me to say this,” one of their mothers says afterwards, “but look at this picture.” She shows me a picture she just took of a dozen teenagers, self-consciously posing around the Bishop, holding their candles. “Those are also your kids.” It’s the right thing to say, but only because she knows me well enough; a stranger saying it would be different.
“Oh, you’ll come to Holy Hamsters!” my friend Courtney said, hugging me, when I told her that I was pregnant with Ezra. This is the baby and toddler group, which includes worship, at one of the churches near me — I know Courtney and several of the other mothers there. Now, every Thursday morning, I know I’m not there. I’m not having coffee and a chat and a Bible story at a toddler group. I’m not part of that community. Ezra is not part of that community. There are friends that he would have made there who will never know him, and I will never know them. Courtney and I sometimes go to evensong together, when our schedules permit.
A curate I know whose daughter was stillborn tells me how hard it is to hold a baby and baptise it, knowing that her child will never experience that. There is a cost to being soaked day in and day out with the realities of life in ministry — especially ministry with children — when your own children have died. And the oft-spoken desire that churches have for a “vicar with children of their own, who will help kick-start growth with young families and be relatable”, is doubly painful for those who are childless not by choice, or whose children have died.
Churches need to be welcoming to families, and to honour the central part that parenting has in many people’s lives and spirituality. But it is difficult. Thanks to my position in the diocese, and my own story, I am simultaneously the one pushing churches to be welcoming to children, and the one who sometimes finds the presence of children difficult.
Where are the places in your church that focus intensively on birth metaphors, on community-building around parenthood, or on the celebration of childhood and family life as a sign of community, renewal, or, at Christmas, salvation? What can be done to open up some of those spaces for people whose experiences of childbearing are more complex?
EVEN if there is nobody in your congregation who you are aware has been through the loss of a baby, there are ways in which your church can engage in ministry to bereaved families. Here are a few:
1. Consider a service during Baby Loss Awareness Week, which runs from 9-15 October. You may want to contact your local branch of Sands — the stillbirth and neonatal death charity — for guidance on putting one together. You can find your local group here: www.sands.org.uk/support-you/how-we-offer-support/sands-groups. I’ve also written some tips for worship leaders of baby loss services, which can be found here: stalbanscme.com/2018/09/06/baby-loss-services-tips-for-worship-leaders.
2. Both Isaac and Ezra were brought to us in hospital in handmade outfits and blankets. If you have knitters, check with your local hospital to see if they need donations of blankets or clothes. The chaplaincy team can put you in touch with the right person. These might also be used for poorly babies in the neonatal ward.
3. Mothering Sunday and Christmas can be painful for bereaved parents. Is there space in your Mothering Sunday service for those for whom it is difficult, or is it all “pink and smiles”, as one mother put it? Some churches have started “Blue Christmas” services for those who find Christmas difficult. If you have Mothering Sunday or Christmas services that are safe places for grieving parents, let your local Sands group know about them.
4. After Isaac died, I started a tradition at my church whereby people have an opportunity to write the names of children they have mothered, who have died, on a piece of cloth, which is blessed at the end of the Mothering Sunday service. Even before I had personal experience of it, we prayed for bereaved mothers — as well as those whose mothers had died, those who had abusive mothers, and those who were stepmothers, foster mothers, and adoptive mothers.
5. Many families who have had a baby die go on to have other children. When I was a Children’s Worker, a couple with a three-year-old and a baby came to us for the baby’s christening. During preparation, it emerged that their older daughter was the surviving one of a set of twins. The twins had an emergency baptism in the neonatal unit. Because of oxygen tanks, they couldn’t light the baptism candles at the service, and the candle of the twin who died had never been lit. I suggested that they bring both their older daughters’ candles to the christening, and that we light them both, and speak the names of both the older sisters. The parents wrote to us after the ceremony to tell us how much this meant to them.
6. If you have good relationships with funeral directors, contact them and let them know that you’d be happy to be referred to families who are looking for a celebrant for a baby funeral.
7. Consider a baby-and-toddler playgroup for bereaved parents who also have living children. Some bereaved parents stay away from playgroups because they feel different from “normal” parents. Ordinary small talk like, “Is this your first?” can be tough. And, as one friend put it, “Talking about my baby who died, to a mum at playgroup who has a toddler and a bump, makes me feel like the Grim Reaper.”
The general lingo in baby-loss circles for babies born after a loss is “rainbow baby”. Those born before are “sunshine babies”. There is a Sunshine and Rainbows playgroup in Cambridge that is specifically for families that have experienced baby loss. Again, let your local Sands group and antenatal ward know about this.
The church has a vital part to play in supporting congregants when a baby dies, and in reaching out to bereaved families in the community. When this is done with sensitivity and respect, and a fearless acknowledgement of the difficulty and struggles of this experience, it can be a ministry that shows people light in a time of darkness and connects them to a community of support, meaning, and hope.
Margaret Pritchard Houston is the Children’s Mission Enabler in the diocese of St Albans.
Saying Goodbye: www.sayinggoodbye.org
Saltwater and Honey: saltwaterandhoney.org
TAMBA bereavement support, for the loss of babies in twins/triplets: www.tamba.org.uk/bereavement
Miscarriage Association: www.miscarriageassociation.org.uk
Lullaby Trust: www.lullabytrust.org.uk/bereavement-support
Winston’s Wish: www.winstonswish.org
Child Bereavement UK: www.childbereavementuk.org
Childhood Bereavement Network: www.childhoodbereavementnetwork.org.uk