A resource for pastors addressing infertility, miscarriage, & child loss
Content Warning: miscarriage, infertility, child loss, and trauma related to childbearing
“Seen” Art by Rev. Lisle Gwynn Garrity, inspired by 1 Samuel 1:1-18. You can license this art & read the artist statement here.
Dearest colleagues, thank you for taking the time to engage this resource in relation to the story of Hannah. There are few stories in the biblical narrative that hit like this one, so your care here is much appreciated. I am an infertile pastor mom, having been through the whole spectrum of emotions you’ll read about below. I’m offering this resource for you as a tool to help you navigate some of the feels you are likely to encounter when preaching on Hannah’s story. Because of my own experience with infertility, I have a lot of insight on what could happen. However, my journey, though similar to Hannah’s, is only one of many. Unfortunately, we cannot cover all of them in one blog post. So, at the end of this post, I will share with you some resources for further reflection and study.
Why we’re resourcing you
Hannah’s story intersects with the 1 in 8 infertile women and 1 in 4 women who will miscarry, in addition to fathers/partners/spouses/parents who have lost children. These people *are* in your congregation. Unfortunately, the story of the Church over time has elevated motherhood in unhealthy and often harmful ways. Most of what we see in the biblical narrative about motherhood or parenting, whether it has a “happy” ending or not, is tainted by these cultural expectations of womanhood. But we believe the story of Hannah gives us an opportunity to upend those expectations, to see and honor the people whose stories mirror hers, and to finally deconstruct the harmful narrative that says womanhood equals motherhood.
What you should expect
The spectrum of hurt in relation to children is wide. We simply cannot anticipate every situation that could come your way when you broach this topic, but below is a non-exhaustive list of some of the most common stories.
Miscarriage: 1 in 4 women will miscarry, and because it is so common, many people believe it is not a big deal. This is grievously untrue. For a family desiring to expand, a miscarriage is devastating. For a family unready to expand, a miscarriage is devastating. And often we suffer in silence, especially men. So, be prepared to hear this story often.
Infertility: 1 in 8 women will suffer some form of infertility. 7% of men are infertile. And, please hear this: there are many, many, many ways we can be infertile. From PCOS, to trauma, to unexplained infertility and many other causes, the spectrum is, again, wide.
Child loss: This could be miscarriage, stillbirth, SIDS/infant death, or the death of a child later in life. In my previous congregation we had one family who had lost 3 adult children, in addition to many others who had lost one or more. It is shockingly common.
Black maternal health: One of the least talked about and most insidious diseases in our society is the racism in maternal health. Many Black women die in childbirth, which is entirely avoidable in most cases. Serena Williams almost died after giving birth because of the racism in the system. If she can’t get a doctor to listen to her, imagine what it must be like for non-famous Black women. If they aren’t in your congregation, you likely know a Black woman who has experienced this, even if they don’t share it with you. Make sure you are a safe place for all eventualities.
Queer community: Many people who identify as queer face similar struggles to infertility. For them, in addition to all the other potential land mines, language is of the utmost importance. Referring to sex between a man and a woman (PIV or “penis in vagina” sex) as “natural” indicates that their sexual relationship, and therefore their relationship, is unnatural. For instance, saying something like, “Hannah struggled to get pregnant naturally” is harmful to our queer siblings. I have made this mistake enough times, and likely you will too. Have grace for yourself, and keep trying.
Abortion: There may be people in your congregation who have had an abortion and never spoken of it for fear of being shamed. There may also be people who feel no shame, but still don’t speak of it for other reasons. There can certainly be grief around abortion. It is multifaceted and it cannot be taken for granted that we experience abortion in many ways. It can absolutely elicit grief, even when it is the right choice. Be prepared to set aside your own judgments and offer care for whatever emotion comes up.
Pregnancy: This one may be a bit more surprising because most of Christian history celebrates pregnancy. However, as an added note to the discussion of abortion above, not everyone who gets pregnant wants to be. And, I say this from experience, pregnancy can be really difficult. Nearly 10 months (yes, 10) of growing a human *and* a brand new organ (the placenta is a whole organ, like a kidney) is tremendously difficult in and of itself. And many pregnant people experience all kinds of complications—too many to name here. Just be mindful that pregnancy is not always the joyful experience we want it to be.
What not to say
I don’t want to spend too much time here, because I could go on forever. You probably already know most of the standards to avoid such as, “I know how you feel.” But there are some specific to childbearing that need to be explicit. Above I mentioned “natural” means of pregnancy. Others to avoid include:
“You’ll understand when you’re a parent.”
“My children have completed me.”
“You’ll make a great mom/dad some day/when God sees fit.”
There are many, many, many variations on these, and so many others. The best advice, though, is to choose your words very carefully, and to think about what those words might be ahead of time. I’ll help!
Good things to say
“I’m so sorry.”
“I can’t imagine what this must be like for you.”
“I’m glad to be here for you.”
“I’m honored you would share this story with me.”
“God loves you.”
“God created you whole and beloved.”
It’s very similar to regular pastoral care! Yay! But that last one is so, so important. For centuries, women in Christianity have been told, explicitly or implicitly, that childbearing is the ultimate goal of womanhood. Fortunately, we are able to understand womanhood very differently now. And hearing and knowing that God loves us as a whole human person really can be life-giving. However, as with all pastoral care, it’s important to know your audience. Because everyone is different, you’ll have to gauge whether or not any of these will be received with the care they are intended. Remember, in this instance especially, impact is far greater than intent.
It will come as no surprise that the language you use here matters immensely. That is true, always. I have long been a proponent of choosing our words more carefully; becoming a member of the infertility community has heightened my awareness of the ways we need to monitor ourselves. Again, impact is greater than intent. So, if your intent is good, make sure your words reflect it clearly and without ambiguity. Many times, as preachers, we temper our language in sermons so as not to make anyone angry. It becomes a habit. We use flowery language that becomes almost meaningless in our attempts to keep everyone happy. You cannot do that when preaching on Hannah’s story. The people most hurt by this story will see you attempting to skirt around the issue and once again will feel that their story is less important than everyone else’s comfort. Please remember that in this moment, our call to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable has never been more acute. The Spirit is moving through you to advocate for the beloved children of God.
The journey never ends
Finally, I want to impress upon you that this is a journey. Doctors can give us a snapshot in time of what is happening in our bodies, but that is only a small part of the story. From every period that says “NOT PREGNANT” to the graveside service to say goodbye to a child, our grief never leaves us. I would venture to say that in the midst of her joy over finally having a child, Hannah remembers in her bones what it felt like to be childless. Your congregants remember, too. Whether they are in the throes of grief or decades removed from it, whether they have processed it in a healthy way or not, the journey is lifelong.
Further Study and Reflection
Below are some links I encourage you to click through and read. These are written by people who have experience in this area from all different perspectives. From Michelle Obama to pastors to doctors, we each come at this journey from a different place and experience it in different ways.
From Young Clergy Women International (YCWI)—a checklist similar to the ones I’ve given you above, but shorter and perhaps a quicker read: youngclergywomen.org/10-things-i-wish-all-clergy-understood-about-pregnancy-loss
Also from YCWI—an Advent liturgy for grieving parents: youngclergywomen.org/a-prayer-for-unseen-parents
From The Atlantic—Why Michelle Obama’s story is especially significant for Black women: theatlantic.com/family/archive/2018/11/michelle-obamas-ivf-story-means-lot-black-women/575824/
From the New York Times—An illustrated discussion of grieving a miscarriage: nytimes.com/2017/03/14/well/family/grieving-a-miscarriage-an-illustrated-discussion.html
From an academic—Talking about infertility in academia: universityaffairs.ca/features/feature-article/fate-and-infertility/
From an ELCA clergy woman—How frequently we struggle with our faith in the midst of grief concerning children: boldcafe.org/struggling-cope-keeping-faith-times-infertility/
From a British journalist—Experiencing grief in the midst of everyone else’s joy: portsmouth.co.uk/news/people/being-childless-not-choice-has-been-loneliest-experience-my-life-1312931
“In Hannah, I see a woman who has been mocked, shamed, diminished, and ignored. However, she refuses to be silenced. In the presence of her pain, she grits her teeth, pours her heart out before God, and insists that we see her: ‘Just look at my pain and remember me!’ (1 Samuel 1:11) I decided to render her body as fading into the scene to symbolize the invisibility she feels, and also the vulnerable transparency she exudes.”
—Rev. Lisle Gwynn Garrity, from the artist statement for “Seen”
Rev. Bethany Benz-Whittington (she/her) is a stay at home mom to her two kiddos (one of whom is brand new) and a gig pastor. She teaches Bible studies and officer training over Zoom, in addition to building a grassroots advocacy campaign for parental leave in the PC(USA). She is passionate about justice issues, gentle parenting, and loving her spouse. You can often find her on a computer at the church playground.