By Jennifer Peloquin
As a pastor’s wife, I know effective ministry can present many challenges. One of those challenges is how to minister to women who’ve lost a child through miscarriage, stillbirth, or infant loss.
As pastors, you’re called to comfort these women. Despite seminary training, however, many pastors I know admit to being ill-prepared for these difficult times.
I asked several women to provide examples of the best and worst ways ministers assisted them during their losses. I hope these examples help you understand these mommas’ hearts so you can be better equipped when the next woman walks through your door in the valley of grief.
1. Life Isn’t the Only Thing That Begins at Conception
Yes, life begins at conception. But that also means parenthood begins at conception.
A life that ends before birth is still a life. A child was nestled close to his or her mother’s heart. That truth will forever have an impact upon a mother who’s grieving.
Often, when a woman miscarries, it’s viewed differently than if a child’s death had occurred after birth. For that mother, however, the loss may be just as profound.
• “People will often overlook the pain from a miscarriage and give more sympathy to someone who’s lost a child after they’ve been born. (Crystal W., miscarriage at 12 weeks)
• “Approaching the loss as legitimate and recognizing the reflection of God’s image in the child that’s been lost is so very important.” (Amy R., two miscarriages)
• “The thing that stood out most was when people acknowledged that my baby was a person and didn’t just treat the child like a pregnancy. [After a miscarriage,] acknowledge that the lost child was a baby and that losing a child is hard no matter how far along a mother was.” (Heather D., miscarriage ten weeks)
• “It’s like any other loss…I don’t know that people who’ve not experienced this understand it’s just as much a loss as any other.” (Janice R., miscarriage at three months after 10 years of secondary infertility)
How You Can Help
How can we practically acknowledge a miscarried child? Here are some ideas.
• Encourage the parents to name their child. A name holds significance and, in future conversations, will give the child permanence instead of he or she just being referred to as “the baby.”
• “We named all of our babies and always celebrate their lives. Helping me honor their lives was one of my favorite ways of being ministered to.” (Robyn S., three miscarriages)
• “We were encouraged to name our baby to help us grieve and remember her.” (Claire P., miscarriage at 10 weeks)
• Create a reminder for the child’s due date and contact the parents on that date. This lets them know you’ve not forgotten their loss. Don’t be afraid to ask how they’re doing after three or six months have passed. You’re not bringing up “old hurts;” you’re addressing current grief.
2. Understand Different Processes of Grief
Another common thread between these women was that they encountered people who didn’t understand their grieving processes. Every woman is different and will grieve in her own way.
Dr. Katie Garcia, a licensed marriage and family therapist, states, “Women who have experienced deep loss, don’t journey through each supposed ‘stage,’ as if you should be able to finish up the grieving process with a nice, big red bow.”
How You Can Help
Allow mothers time to grieve in their own way. If mothers are struggling to come to acceptance with their loss, consider recommending a female professional counselor.
• “Grief is a process, and the death of a child is a grief that never fully departs.” (Angel S., stillbirth at nearly 41 weeks)
• “We often feel the need to say, ‘I know how you feel.’ In actuality, we don’t know how that person feels. We may go through similar circumstances, but everyone processes things differently.” (Cheryl P., twin miscarriage at 12 weeks)
• “It was unexpected and gut-wrenching in every way. They [the church] came to pray with us and were broken with us. They grieved with us.” (Natalie C., Infant death at four and a half months)
Remember, a lost child is a part of each church’s family. As Christians, we need to come around families and grieve together.
Many respondents had the experience of being told to “stop grieving and get on with their lives” or were told that “God must have wanted their attention.” This type of advice makes a woman feel “isolated and like a social outcast.” (Claire P.)
It can also contribute to a false sense of guilt.
3. Avoid simple platitudes
• We know “God works all things for good,” Romans 8:28. This is a true encouragement to some, but others “aren’t ready to hear that the loss of their baby can in any way be considered a good thing or that it holds any purpose for their lives. I think this has to do with spiritual maturity—knowing God can use your sweet baby’s life by encouraging and helping others through your life experiences.” (Natalie C.)
• “What I didn’t need to hear was ‘God has a plan’ or ‘God must have wanted the baby with Him.’ Oh my word, these are the worst things to hear during grief. What I needed most was someone to say, ‘I am so sorry.’ And ‘Everything will be okay; I’m here for you.’” (Jessica A., miscarriage at 12 weeks)
How You Can Help
Many pastors realize a woman is best equipped to minister to another woman through the grieving process of loosing a child. If you know of other women who’ve walked this road, ask them to come alongside the grieving mother. This can offer an even greater level of comfort.
• “The most effective person to minister to a couple who’ve had a miscarriage is someone who’s experienced the same loss.” (Janice R.)
• “Another infant loss mommy was the most inspirational and godly example to me of how to lean into Jesus.” (Lori B., infant loss at 73 days)
• “A pastor trying to counsel a woman after the loss of a child can come across as one of Job’s ‘counselors.’ A lot of what Job’s ‘friends’ said about God was true and right but out of place and offered no comfort at all.” (Angela L., two stillbirths)
4. Don’t Hurt the Hurting
We need to guard our words so we don’t inadvertently hurt the hurting. This period of acute loss is a time to demonstrate the love of Christ, not a time to twist biblical doctrine.
These lives that were lost didn’t “become angels” and our sovereign God didn’t “need them.” No, now is the time to minister through your prayer and presence. You’re not expected to have all the answers.
• “So many women don’t share their stories of loss because they don’t want to hear the insensitive comments.” (Crystal W., miscarriage at 12 weeks)
• “Understand actions speak louder than words.” (Claire P.)
• “Just be a listening ear—demonstrate real, active listening.” (Robyn S.)
• “People don’t need to say anything. A hug and a ‘love you’ is enough with the power of presence.” (Janice R.)
5. Remember the Fathers, Too
A final pattern that emerged was moms being concern for their husbands. While grief may look different for the mother who carried the child than it is for the father, mothers are still concerned about the pain and grief their husbands are experiencing.
• “My husband wasn’t quite sure what to say. However, he finally broke the silence and said, ‘Honey, this hurts.’ I was so surprised to hear him say that. He’s a man. But it made me realize we don’t need to forget it’s not just women that deal with the loss. Men do as well.” (Cheryl P.)
• “We didn’t talk because we didn’t know what to say. At that moment, we didn’t know how to encourage each other, and we couldn’t find the silver lining.” (Claire P.)
I hope our combined experiences will better equip you to minister to the next woman who walks our road. For National Pregnancy and Infant Loss month (October), consider using your platform to recognize this opportunity for ministry.
Jennifer is married to Heath Peloquin, senior pastor at Summer Grove Baptist Church in Shreveport, Louisiana. Jennifer has been the featured speaker at women’s conferences and spoken alongside Heath at marriage conferences, bringing practical counsel from their time in ministry and as the parents of four children.