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Breaking the silence about miscarriage

05 April 2019

Rebecca Paveley speaks to women who have experienced pregnancy loss and asks how the Church can better support them


SILENCE. Silence that a newborn baby’s wail should break. Silence in place of words of joy, of congratulation. Silence — or, at best, clumsy words of support.

“The silence at the moment of delivery in late miscarriage or stillbirth is profound — an absence of sound echoing with loss and emptiness — the loss of the baby and the loss of all the dreams and hopes the parents had for this their child, the emptiness of their arms,” Elizabeth Figg, a former midwife, recalls.

Yet, perhaps, silence is better than some of the comments made to women who have miscarried: “At least you can get pregnant”; “It just wasn’t meant to be”; “You can try again”; “It wasn’t God’s will.” Clumsy words, which exacerbate the pain.

The Church has for so long been silent, too: no formal liturgy has been written by the Church of England (unlike in the Episcopal Church in the United States) for women who have lost babies before 24 weeks.

Theologians have also largely been quiet — apart from Martin Luther’s “Comfort for women who have had a miscarriage”, which is perhaps not as comforting for women today as it might once have been. But, slowly, theologians (such as Dr Serene Jones in the US, and Dr Karen O’Donnell in the UK) are beginning to explore and populate some of this void.

All the babies of the women I spoke to in writing this article were very much wanted. Most of the women, though not all, have been able to carry babies to full term, although this has not assuaged the grief, guilt, and anger that some of them still feel.

Even though some of the miscarriages occurred more than a decade ago, and some feel that they have “come out the other side” (to borrow the words of one), talking of their losses for this article brought back the grief and the tears for every woman involved.

PENNY LYON is a jazz singer and the mother of one teenager and ten miscarried babies. She has been open about her losses, writing of the impact that they had on her and her faith on her blog (pennylyon.com).

Her first child, James, suffered medical problems that caused such severe allergies that she couldn’t pick him up and cuddle him properly. She felt, she says, more like a “functional nurse” than a mother, and was tired and depressed all the time. “I remember going into the garden to escape for a few minutes, and saying, at one point: “Frankly, God, I could give him back.”

Her first miscarriage happened very late, at 18 weeks. She says that her first response was “to look at James, and say: I am so grateful to have you.” Then she miscarried again, and again, and again. Ten times in all.

“I still had this clear image that God was going to give me a child. Each time I miscarried, in a way, it restored my relationship with James as a mother.”

Despite the healing of this relationship, she felt angry with God, although she later came to feel that “he gave me so much, through the pain”.

Penny Lyon

In the years since, she has been able to make some sense of her devastating losses. “I don’t believe God causes suffering, and I’m not saying for a second I didn’t really want another child, but, also, I think there were things I needed to learn. I feel like God showed me that women are not just producers of children. I learned how much he loved me.

“I had a choice to be angry and resentful at God, and lose the most precious relationship in my life. I reached the point where I was practically just grunting at God . . . but I became a stronger, more trusting Christian, because I’d been through what felt like the worst, and it has been OK.”

Mrs Lyon says that she only realised, when she moved churches, “what it meant to be in a supportive church, where people come round and look after you, cook for you. . . I found in my other church that a lot of people did not know what to say, and I don’t think we are good at expressing grief to each other — although, if someone had offered me theological input, I might have felt like slapping them.

“We didn’t have any funerals — we didn’t feel a need to. I learned, though, to tell people what I needed when I was grieving. Often, it wasn’t words: it was just being there.”

Sue Keighley, whose husband, the Revd Andy Keighley, is Vicar of Holy Trinity, Hampstead, had three miscarriages. She felt great sadness, but, as she had been told that she might not be able to get pregnant at all, this was also mixed with delight that she was able to conceive.

Her third miscarriage — which was sudden, and very distressing — was followed immediately by the diagnosis of her husband’s serious illness. She says: “I don’t think I really grieved at the time. I would have done more for the last one, which was a later miscarriage, around 13 weeks, but it was eclipsed by my husband’s brain tumour.”

She was at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, where her husband was studying, when she had her first two miscarriages. “We were quite open about it. I did get support, and we felt supported by a good network of Christian friends there.”

In her heart, she felt quite peaceful, she says. “I always felt absolutely that they [the babies] were being looked after and they were quite safe. I felt the Lord was looking after them. We did not have a formal service as such, but I used to go to the Chapel of Rest in the hospital a lot. Everyone responds differently.”

Mrs Keighley and her husband did buy a memorial bench for their first baby, however, as they felt the need to mark the loss.

The Rev Andy Keighley and his wife Sue

“SAYING Goodbye” services to mark the loss of a baby were launched in 2012 by Zoe and Andy Clark-Coates, who lost five babies (Features, 1 December 2017). So far, 118 services have been held in cathedrals in the UK, the US, and France. “I spent weeks looking at what would have helped us in our darkest hour; that is when the idea of ‘Saying Goodbye’ was born,” Mrs Clark-Coates says.

The Revd Ruth Wells, who is in the second year of her curacy in Bournemouth, developed a service for use in her parishes after realising, through chatting to women in playgrounds and at mother-and-toddler groups, that women needed a “safe space” to talk about miscarriage, and that the church could provide this. In collaboration with a hospital chaplain, she developed liturgy to allow women to come together and mark their losses.

She believes that the Church of England should create its own liturgy for services to mark the loss of a baby. “There is a real need for the Church to respond to people who are grieving for babies lost in miscarriage. Services fulfil some of that need for some people, and provide them with the words to mark their loss. Many of those who came to the service I held were not churchgoers normally.”

Miscarriage is “still taboo, still very invisible, wrapped up as it is in women’s bodies; and it’s messy, and people still can’t deal with that”, she says.

“Some of the older women who came to the service to help out, shared afterwards how they had lost a baby, but it had never been talked about. It is important for women, however long ago it was, to mark the loss. We need to allow women to lament.”

She has had two miscarriages herself. “After the first, my vicar said: ‘What went wrong?’ And ‘Are you going to try for another?’ I know he wanted to acknowledge it, but it was fairly clumsy. I felt the need to grieve very much.”

And she recalls how painful some of the words used by medical staff were. “I was asked in hospital what I wanted done with ‘the debris’. The language was so hurtful. This child was so sacred and special to me.”

When a baby dies before 24 weeks of pregnancy, there is no legal requirement to have a burial or cremation in the UK, as there is for babies born after 24 weeks.

Guidance from the Royal College of Nursing says that hospitals should offer parents the option of arranging individual or shared cremation or burial of pregnancy remains, usually paid for by the Trust; or, if parents prefer, the option of taking the baby’s remains home and making private arrangements.

The Miscarriage Association says that actual practice varies a great deal, however, and some hospitals may still treat the remains of an early loss as clinical waste unless parents request otherwise.

Parents are encouraged by the Miscarriage Association to ask hospitals whether they can take their baby home with them. The policy varies from hospital to hospital, and depends on the gestation, and how the miscarriage occurs.

The Church of England does have an authorised prayer for a miscarriage, which is accompanied by a theological note, which sets out some difficulties of using words in the Committal of a funeral service — “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life” — when a child is under 24 weeks’ gestation, which is the stage when a foetus gains legal rights in the UK and is recognised as a human being.

DR O’DONNELL’s multiple miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies left her searching for support and words that would help her in her grief. She found nothing — neither in the Evangelical church that she attended at the time, nor in the Christian bookshop that she “defaulted to” in search of answers.

She found this absence of words of comfort or understanding deeply hurtful, and she discovered that some churches simply did not know how to provide them.

“Women who experience miscarriage, and their partners, can raise theological questions afterwards that the Church is not equipped to answer — such as: ‘How can God let this happen to me?’ It is compounded in churches where the idea of the family is at the centre, where having a family is seen as what you are supposed to do as a woman. Not having children undermines your purpose and your personhood.”

But women’s own responses to miscarriage, and the Church’s, are complicated by the abortion debate, she says. As a “pro-choice” woman, she believes that it can be difficult to frame the discussion about miscarriage.

The Revd Ruth Wells

In an article published in the journal Theology and Sexuality last year, she wrote: “Any attempt to give validity to the experience and grief of reproductive loss might result in validating the anti-abortion commitment to the moment of conception as the beginning of the life. This is certainly one of the reasons why feminists have steered clear of the topic.”

She suggests that the understanding of miscarriage needs to start from the individual woman’s experience of pregnancy. Does the mother think of herself as a mother carrying a baby, even in the earliest stages of pregnancy? Such an approach allows for the wide variety of women’s responses to miscarriage.

Although we are no longer at the stage of debating Aristotle’s idea of ensoulment (which focused on when a foetus gained a soul), anxiety about question when life begins has led to some of the Church’s silence on the suffering of miscarrying women, the Canon Theologian of Holy Trinity Cathedral, Gibraltar, the Revd Professor Robin Gill, says.

“The Church should be more sensitive; it needs to help people find ways of expressing the grief involved.” Grief related to miscarriage is harder to express, however, without a sense of who that baby was and is, he says.

“There are a series of stages that people go through in the grieving process. But, with a miscarriage, people do not know whom they are grieving for. Parents may have fictionalised ideas of who that person was, but it was not actually somebody they knew; so it makes their grief more difficult.

“Midwives, in my experience, are particularly good in helping people to think of the baby as a person; it helps with the grief. The Roman Catholic Church is also better: part of the churchyard here in Gibraltar is for miscarried babies. The Church [of England] should be more sensitive: it needs to help people find ways of expressing the real grief involved.”

Dr Serene Jones has drawn on the doctrine of the Trinity for an understanding of God’s solidarity with women who have experienced miscarriage. She writes of the death of Christ as a death that happens deep within God — “perhaps the womb of God” — and yet “this death-bearing grave of a God, paradoxically, does not die but lives.”

In “Hope Deferred: Theological reflections on reproductive loss (infertility, stillbirth, miscarriage)” in the journal Modern Theology, she writes: “As an image of God with them, this rupturing, anti-maternal tale of the Trinity won’t stop their sorrow, but might lessen their sense of isolation, which is no small step in the process of healing. Even more importantly, if a woman can imagine this God with her, then perhaps she can glimpse the resurrection and remember that although she may have wanted to, she did not die.”

ELIZABETH KENNEDY* had three miscarriages before going on to have two boys, now aged three and almost six. Of all the women I spoke to, her miscarriages were the most recent, and the most raw. She voiced anger at herself, as well as with God.

She says that she felt supported by the church that she and her husband attended at the time, and felt with the first two miscarriages that her faith was strengthened, and that the experience helped to glue her relationship with her husband.

But an experience that she had before her third miscarriage has resulted in her “closing herself off” and no longer wanting “the strain of trying to reconcile it with my faith”.

“I had a dream in which I was holding a baby boy, and I felt [I heard] God’s voice speaking to me. It felt very authentic. I took a test the next day and found I was pregnant.”

The baby was a girl; she died at ten weeks, as a result of a chromosomal abnormality, Turner syndrome. Mrs Kennedy says: “My problem after was, I didn’t know any more what God sounded like. If it was God’s voice, it was mean of him to send me a dream of a baby, and [for the baby I was carrying] to die. . .

“It was one of the few times in my life when I would have said: this was the voice of God. Do I want a faith where it is so hard to understand what is God’s voice? I closed myself off, and didn’t want the strain of trying to reconcile myself to it.”

She also felt angry at herself, each time, for allowing herself “to figure out when the baby would be born; what school year they would be in. . . Your world expands to include this little person who is going to join you. I felt such a numpty for allowing myself to do this. But I know now I’m not a fool for having loved [them], even for a short time.”

In common with some of the other women, Mrs Kennedy has comforted herself with the thought that she will meet her lost babies again, one day. Yet she censures herself even for this hope. “I worry: if my son knew I was secretly pining and grieving these three lost pregnancies, how would he feel? I try not to let the three lost ones, who aren’t living, get in the way of my giving my best parenting to my two lovely boys.”

A bereavement counsellor told her to think of her heart as a jar filled to the top with thick, black grief. But, as time goes on, the black thins, and there is room for other things, too, again. But the black grief will stay there, for ever.

And it is in acknowledging this ongoing grief that Mrs Figg, a former midwife, says that accompanied silence can also be “an instrument of grace”.

“As nurses and midwives, our instinct is to ‘make things better’, but some things cannot be ‘made better’. In our own grief and discomfort at witnessing a bereavement, we can be tempted to rush in with words we hope will comfort, and to find comfort ourselves in withdrawing into the busyness of paperwork and protocols.

“I have found that just allowing yourself to, as it were, sit in the ashes with the woman for a while, to be wholly present and not distracted by ‘what needs to be done’, is powerful and appreciated.”

From the Episcopal Church’s Enriching Our Worship 5 supplementary liturgy, “Rachel’s Tears, Hannah’s Hopes: Liturgies and prayers related to childbearing, childbirth and loss”: Heavenly Father, your love for all children is strong and enduring. We were not able to know N. as we had hoped. Yet you knew his/her growing in his/her mother’s womb, and he/she is not lost to you. In the midst of our sadness, we thank you that N. is with you now.




*Name has been changed

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