Women Who Go to Church Report Higher Mental Health Levels Following Miscarriage
By Helen Gibson
Jennifer Roberts stood in church one Sunday morning a few years ago and tried to hold it together.
At the time, she and her husband, Eric, had a young daughter named Anna, and they’d been trying to have another baby. They wanted Anna to grow up with a little brother or sister close in age, but it hadn’t been so easy.
In fact, this Sunday marked Roberts’ first Sunday back in church since experiencing her second of two painful miscarriages. The emotions she felt suddenly became too much to bear.
“We were worshipping through song, and I could feel myself beginning to lose control emotionally,” Roberts said. “I left my seat to escape and headed toward the back of the auditorium.”
When she reached the back of the room, she was surprised to see a familiar face. Her small group leader, Toshya, was standing there, as if she’d been waiting for her.
“I fell into her arms and sobbed my heart out, and she held me until I had nothing left,” Roberts recalled. “I left my unborn babies at the foot of the cross that day. And I knew everything was going to be OK.”
Roberts isn’t alone in her struggles with miscarriage. Anywhere from 10 to 25 percent of clinically recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage, according to the American Pregnancy Association, which defines miscarriage as “a pregnancy that ends on its own within the first 20 weeks of gestation.”
But even in the midst of such indescribable loss and grief, Roberts had something to cling to that morning: her faith and her community of believers.
Her story is emblematic of the results of a recent study by Ball State University sociologist Richard J. Petts, which found there may be a positive connection between high levels of religious participation and the mental health of women like Roberts who struggle with miscarriage.
The Benefits of Church
Analyzing data from six waves of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, Petts found that higher levels of religious participation are generally associated with higher mental health levels for all groups.
However, there may be a special relationship between those who’ve miscarried and report high levels of religious involvement.
“The difference in mental health between those with low and high levels of religious participation is greatest among women who experience a miscarriage,” Petts wrote.
This is significant, as Petts points to previous research that suggests women who experience miscarriage may suffer from decreased mental health, with outcomes such as “depressive symptoms, posttraumatic stress, and anxiety.”
Petts’ own findings in this study suggest that miscarriage is linked with lower mental health only among women who’ve experienced a live birth as well as a miscarriage. However, among this group of women, he found that mental health levels were 8 percent higher in frequent churchgoers than they were in infrequent churchgoers.
“The social support and framework provided by religion may be especially beneficial to mothers who miscarry but also have a live birth, as results from this study suggest they are the most likely to experience declines in mental health and may be in need of support and guidance on how to cope with their loss,” Petts wrote.
Additionally, among women who’ve experienced a miscarriage but never a live birth, Petts found that mental health levels were 6 percent higher among frequent church attendees than among infrequent church attendees.
For women who were currently pregnant but have experienced a miscarriage in the past, Petts found mental health levels to be 3 percent higher among those who reported high levels of religious participation than those who reported low levels.
“Religious participation may provide much needed social support to women who miscarry, as social support and resources for dealing with miscarriages are often limited,” Petts wrote.
“Attending religious services frequently may also expose women to teachings and messages on how to find meaning in loss, which may serve as a useful coping mechanism.”
Room to Grow
After experiencing two miscarriages, Jennifer and Eric Roberts were finally able to welcome a healthy baby boy into their lives. Their son, Dean, is now 3 years old.
Looking back on her own experiences, Roberts said the results of Petts’ study didn’t surprise her at all.
“When you are part of the body of Christ and are involved in church, you gain much more than the secular world thinks,” Roberts said.
“Not only do you gain an understanding of a God who loves you so much He gave His only son for you, but you gain friendship, family, and relationships that go far beyond the church’s front door.”
It was these relationships that comforted her during such a difficult time.
“Because I had friends in my church who cared about me and ministered to me, I felt less alone in my sorrow,” Roberts said. “My friends were bearing my burden.”
Christian writer Lore Ferguson Wilbert has also experienced multiple miscarriages — each while she was living in a different place and circumstance.
Through her most recent miscarriage, she said she felt covered by support from her church community. Some of her other miscarriages, however, have been incredibly difficult and isolating, she said.
Wilbert added that she wasn’t surprised to learn that the presence of faith was helpful to mothers who miscarried. However, she said she does think “the church still has a long way to go in terms of learning to grieve and mourn.”
“We spend a lot of money and a lot of time and energy dreaming and planning about weddings, but we’re surprised by death when it happens,” Wilbert said. “We don’t know what to do. We’re not good at mourning. We want people to kind of get over it quickly.”
In the midst of a miscarriage, Wilbert said women need time to mourn for their unique loss, and it’s easy for them to feel alone.
“I do think it tends to be a very isolating subject, and a lot of women feel really alone, and so walking into the church when they’ve just had a miscarriage, it feels embarrassing, isolating,” she said.
However, Wilbert suggested opening up and talking about topics like miscarriage within the church could be a way to help.
“We just get really uncomfortable with miscarriage, so most people don’t want to talk about it,” Wilbert said. “They just want to bleed silently for 10 days and then move on with life. And that’s why I say it needs to be talked about — not in a gratuitous way, but it needs to be talked about.”
Wilbert has spoken and blogged openly about her experiences with miscarriage and other pregnancy complications, and in doing so, she said she’s been approached by many women who’ve had similar experiences but often felt alone.
Speaking out, she said, creates a place of help for women.
“We’re complex people,” she said. “We’re not just our spirits. We are bodies and souls and minds and all of those things, and so I think a faith community provides a place where those things can be talked about in a relatively safe environment.”
HELEN GIBSON (@_HelenGibson_) is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tennessee.