On miscarriage and the church-sanctioned shame of loss

It was a Thursday morning. I was nine weeks pregnant.

For the past week I had felt noticeably less nauseous in the mornings, but I welcomed the change as it meant I could be a little more adventurous with my breakfast choices. I took some selfies snuggling with our cat before I got out of bed and sent them to my husband, already at work. It was a sweet moment for me, as my cat doesn’t often cuddle up to me in bed. In retrospect, this seems conspicuous now.

Did she know?

These happy, snuggly photos are now tinged with sadness.

The tiny, dark smears of blood were all I needed to see. Somehow, no matter how long your status as a mum has existed, it’s true, you do just know when something is wrong. Breakfast forgotten, I dialled my husband with quivering fingers.

“You need to come home.” In over three years together, this was the first time I had demanded he leave work early.

What followed was a series of anxious waits. We waited in a doctor’s surgery, then we waited for blood tests, then we waited for an ultrasound, which proved menacingly silent. Lifeless. The little kidney bean-shaped embryo that we had seen two weeks earlier sat motionless on the hazy screen.

Then we waited for the news from the obstetrician.

She walked into the room, mouth flat, eyes empty – no emotion, no sadness, perhaps empathy, but mostly just certainty and routine. This was clearly not uncommon.

“I’m sorry.”

The radiographer shook her head slightly and reached for my hand.

“I’m sure we’ll see you soon for your next pregnancy.”

What a whirlwind of loss is contained in the death of a child. No more hopes. No more games to play. No more breastfeeding. No more little outfits with matching bows. And added to the aftermath of miscarrying is the expectation that a mother and father will immediately wipe their memory clean of the kidney bean that was their child and announce a new pregnancy as soon as possible.

“It upset me to realise that many Christians – even pro-life Christians who loudly declare the value of the unborn – are very uncomfortable with the concept of grief and loss.”

It is a grief, a loss, a pressure and an identity shift all in one. Do you risk speaking about your loss to process and heal, or will this bring the sense of shame which comes from being a woman who failed to do what all women, particularly evangelical Christian women, seem to expect will be a cinch – keep a child alive?

I was one of the lucky ones. Early on, I recognised the need to speak about my loss, often. The journalist within me, ever curious about human behaviour, wanted to know how my friends, family and acquaintances would react to me sharing about my miscarriage. But also, I felt the need to both process my pain and normalise conversation around miscarriage.

In many cases, miscarriage is the norm, not some freak incident. The statistic most often recited is that 1 in 4 women will miscarry, however, doctors disagree on the exact numbers. Others cite it as closer to 1 in 4 pregnancies, and a growing number of experts believe that with the prevalence of chemical pregnancies and other unrecognised losses, the number is closer to 50% of all human pregnancies. That’s a large number, and yet the word ‘miscarriage’ still terrifies many with its inherent ambiguities and widely misunderstood causes. For most women, miscarriages are a one-off event or happen sporadically between live births, with healthy pregnancies occurring before or after the fact. Yet, for many, miscarriages occur with horrifying regularity, over and over, with no obvious cause.

I was fortunate enough to give birth to a healthy baby girl a year later, and this means I can only speak from my own experience. Many others have lost more than I did. But my experience as a Christian woman who lost a child brought with it some interesting realisations.

I was shocked to find an unsettling amount of cognitive dissonance around the value of life. It upset me to realise that many Christians – even pro-life Christians who loudly declare the value of the unborn – are very uncomfortable with the concept of grief and loss. In many cases, their response when I told them about my miscarriage was to look down at the ground, shift their eyes uncomfortably, then try to change the topic or tell me to ‘stop being sad’. It caused me to wonder how much unborn children really do matter to them. Are their beliefs just about being seen as ‘right’?

I wonder perhaps too if our focus on keeping ‘the joy of the Lord’ in all circumstances becomes an unhealthy obsession that crowds out the ability to grieve, or even properly care for those who have lost babies. The difference in care I received after my miscarriage compared to that offered after my daughter was born was stark. After I miscarried, loving friends dropped off one meal that night, however, after my daughter arrived, I didn’t need to cook a meal for two weeks. Why don’t we shower equal love and support on those families experiencing infertility and loss and those welcoming new life?

The identity shift that comes with a loss is perhaps the hardest reality of all. When the care and the meals stop, you are left with just you and your husband and the loaded question of ‘do we try again?’ Many around me, including doctors, reassured me that I was ‘more fertile’ after miscarrying and would fall pregnant again soon. While in my case, I did fall pregnant quickly, in many cases this statement is simply not true. The quiet anguish of peeing on a stick and getting a negative result month after month is yet another unspeakable one, shrouded in secrecy and embarrassment.

Furthermore, if we saw greater value in the achievements of women in areas other than childbearing, perhaps the pressure to ‘accomplish’ childbearing would be lessened. For 1 in 8 couples, having children is either impossible or only possible with expensive, time-consuming and health-impacting interventions. Children are no guarantee. Also, this is not the Regency era – women study, work and accomplish many meaningful feats other than birthing children, so let’s make more of an effort to celebrate all those accomplishments. The kingdom of God is made up of both parents and childless believers alike, and all of us are a meaningful part of His work.

Recently, a dear friend messaged me with a question. A friend of theirs had miscarried, and they wanted to know how best to care for them. For me, if this was the one outcome I got from sharing so openly about my loss, it was enough to make it worthwhile. The attitude of this friend warmed my heart and reminded me of what consistently helps us in times where we feel that we don’t have the tools to know what to do – the willingness to learn and grow.

As a church and a Christian community, may we commit to learning from the grieving among us, and may we resist the urge to shut them down.

Kirra Nicolle works in communications in the Christian not-for-profit sector and is a Masters student at the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advancing Journalism.