This is what the Lord says: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”
Jeremiah 31:15 (NIV)
A service for a baby is hard. I’m not even sure where to start. Whether the baby died before birth or shortly after, there are questions and emotions and pain that seems unending and unstoppable.
And yet, we have to start. We have to provide a mixture of words and silence that somehow helps these people move from this moment to the next.
So how can we be the most help in moments of deepest pain?
I’m not a fan of starting to help you by telling my story. This time it’s appropriate.
In 1989, Nancy and I sat at a graveside service for our own five-week-old daughter. Kathryn died of a genetic disorder discovered a few months into the pregnancy. She was about 5 pounds when she was born at full-term. She came home with us after three days and died at home after five weeks.
We chose to do a visitation at the funeral home, followed by a graveside service. All our family and a few friends gathered around. My colleague and friend, Carl, had talked with us when we first heard the diagnosis. And Carl was the perfect choice to stand where you are going to stand, next to a small, white box and a pile of dirt. As much I appreciate Carl’s presence, I have no idea what he said that day. I’m not sure anyone else does. But in that moment, I know that God was present. And I even knew it that day, a little.
I do, on the other hand, remember clearly a baby dedication service a couple weeks before Kathryn died. We knew that she was going to die. The genetic evidence was clear. If anyone asked, we made it clear. But the pastor who held her to speak her name before God and to dedicate her to Him, didn’t understand. From what I remember, he used a fairly generic liturgy and prayer. He talked about her healing, about her life of service.
I almost took her back from him, almost walked us out.
I understand what I’m saying. We’re more likely to remember atrocious words than helpful words. And as those leading services in times like this, we are desperately afraid of messing things up.
But now, take a deep breath. You can do this. You can be present and compassionate and help this family make it through this hour and on to the next hour. You can. And what I’m about to say can help you be helpful.
We can help by understanding the vocabulary of this loss.
Miscarriage is the word for when a pregnancy ends before 20 weeks. Stillbirth is the word for when a pregnancy ends after 20 weeks. In the United States, up to 1 in 5 pregnancies ends in miscarriage, usually in the first seven weeks. About 1% of pregnancies end in stillbirth. All together, we could be talking about a million unexpected deaths in a year, though when asked, people believe miscarriage is much rarer.
Whether we are talking about a miscarriage, a stillbirth, or the death of an infant following birth, a person was alive and then wasn’t. Which means that when you talk about the person for whom you are doing this service, no matter how many weeks along, you are talking about a baby with a name.
And so, that is the key to the vocabulary. In the healthcare setting, we talk about “fetal demises”. In the setting of loss, we must talk about a baby. Regardless of the gestational weeks, regardless of the number of breaths taken or not taken, regardless of the size or the appearance, this is a baby, a person.
We can help by understanding the losses.
When an older adult dies, there are stories to tell. They may be good or bad stories, but they are history.
When a baby dies, there is little history. What we’ve lost are dreams and plans and hopes. This may have been the son to carry on the family name or the daughter to carry on the family business. This may have been the only chance for a child. The nursery may be decorated, the tiny shirt from the favorite team on the dresser. And now all of the stories that the parents have been hearing from others and telling themselves have ended.
Or maybe, the message from the doctor that the pregnancy was over was the first clear confirmation of the pregnancy. Within hours or minutes, a family has learned that a baby was coming and then was leaving.
For the mom, the loss is deeply personal. Many groups put a high sentimental or spiritual value on having babies. In this view, the highest role of a woman is to be a mother. Because of this, when the baby dies before birth, the mom has questions about her identity as a mom. If the cause of death was a breech or twisted umbilical cord or mismatch between the mother’s body and baby’s, there can be a self-inflicted perception of an inability to protect a child.
The New Testament writer Matthew reaches back to the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah and gives us a soul-searing image for this endless moment of loss. After the murder of toddlers at the command of Herod, we read about “Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted because they are no more.” For all we say about resurrection and hope at these moments, that is the physical truth: they are no more.
Depending when the death happened, the father may not be sure what kind of feelings to have. If the baby hadn’t started to move in utero, he’s aware of the mother’s deep grief more than his own tangible loss. It’s still real, but knowing how to feel may be confusing.
Beyond these two, there are grandparents, siblings, friends. In this moment, in this room, everyone has their own losses, their own stories, their own grief. And the fact that the losses are not rooted in history makes them harder to address. They are the individual losses of the might-have-been and the I-was-hoping-to and the legacy.
We can help by not being unnecessarily stupid.
I should apologize for being so blunt, but I won’t. There are times our words hurt, and we could, by reflecting just for a moment, remove those phrases from our vocabulary.
For example, when we say, “God needed another angel”, we’re saying that humans become angels (not true) and that God killed the baby. When we say, “You can have another child”, we are making a prophecy we can’t know. Imagine saying to a wife as her husband is dying, “At least you can get another one.”
This is a human who lived and died and is irreplaceable. The grief will change in time, but the person will not be replaced.
People won’t “get over” the loss of a baby.
There’s another dimension to being unnecessarily stupid. Don’t use the service as the time to say things directly to the parents that you haven’t said to them face-to-face in private. We have the opportunity to talk to the group on behalf of the mom. To give them advice about how to be helpful, to give them counsel on how to be supportive. That allows us to be an ally of the person and people most closely involved. However, if we choose to use the service as the only place to give mom advice about how to grieve, about the process and the pain, we run the risk of having family and friends quote us back at her. And that isn’t fair.
We can help by not increasing the uncertainty and pain.
I once went to a funeral for a young child that left me feeling worse about the death than I had felt when I walked in. To feel worse took some work. I knew this death well. I had been with the family just before and just after the child died.
A little background is helpful. There had been an accident at daycare. The parents were called to the hospital. I had spent time with the parents who, over the course of a few days experienced the hope for a miracle and the resignation to the implications of a brain without oxygen. They had to make the decision to stop treatment.
The family and I talked about the next steps of how people would offer support and say dumb things. “They mean well,” the child’s mother said. She taught me about sadness and about small steps forward.
And then I sat in the funeral.
The leader of the service, who was their pastor, acknowledged the pain. And then spent time describing all the ways in which this was tragic. And then left us with a message that emphasized how tragic and confusing and uncertain this death was.
But here’s the truth about these services: we know that this is hard. The parents, the family, the friends, all know that this is a difficult time. But they want us, the leader of the service, after acknowledging the difficulty, to navigate toward the future, just a little.
In the pain, where do we look? How might we breathe? What can we do with how we feel?
My only memory of that service is that feeling of hopelessness and fatalism from the pastor. But as I think about it, I’m guessing that he hadn’t done this before. I’m guessing that he was in the middle of his own pain, his own questions about how to speak in this time.
At a practical level, we don’t need to remind the family of how awful they are probably feeling. We don’t need to play songs that will always make the grief come back. We can be cautious about playing songs that are already emotional.
So, what can we do?
We can help by offering space to grieve.
In the service we can be unhurried, leaving intentional silence, deliberate pauses. We can tell people how the process of grieving progresses, teaching family and friends not to rush, not to assume.
We can help by offering sad smiles.
When the service is for an adult, we can tell the stories the person told, the funny things, the silly things. But with a person who never took a breath, or a person who never talked, those stories don’t exist. But we can find stories that can bring a sad smile.
For example, if you spent time with the family and a stillborn baby, the conversation that happened about Uncle Harry’s red hair or the family nose can be an appropriate story to tell. Wise comments from young children about the baby are appropriate. Even telling the group that you are going to teach them how to be helpful can bring a sad smile.
We can help by offering simple next steps for breathing.
Explain that there will be waves of grief that come and go without warning, and that this is what it means to be human.
Affirm that words of faith that may not feel helpful at the moment can be helpful in the future, and that this is what it means to be human.
Acknowledge that there will be reminders all the time about the loss.
Assure those closest to the center of the pain, mom and dad in particular, that there are no rules for how to feel, no requirements for how to grieve, no deadlines for being done with hurting.
A Sample Service
So what kind of service can support the family in this moment without adding to the pain? What can be said to help those around the family understand what they can do to be helpful?
I’ve written the following as if it would be used in a small funeral service, to be followed by a graveside service. It’s an outline that reflects what I’ve been saying in this chapter. It’s an outline of pieces, not including any music, or any specific stories you would add, or any details of the family or situation. But it does give you a sense of what could be said–the tone, the ideas.
After the family is seated and the time to start has arrived, step to the lectern and take a deep breath.
And start talking, something like this:
This is hard. I don’t have to describe the pain you are feeling right now. We can, however, look at each other and acknowledge the pain. Because, this is hard.
It’s hard because there is so much we don’t understand.
For those who are in the middle of this, we had our dreams and announcements and plans. None of them included nightmares and invitations to this room, to this moment.
For those who are a little further outside the circle, we are trying to know how to help, how to support, how to be present.
We need strength for this time and wisdom for the future.
So let’s talk to God for a moment.
This is hard. For every person in this room, this is hard. And there are big questions and bruised and broken hearts. We thought we knew some truths about you and your love and your blessing, but at this moment, if we’re honest, we’re not sure what we know.
Beyond knowing that this hurts.
And knowing that you know what’s it’s like to lose a child. And that you know what it’s like to die.
We know you love us.
You know we can’t understand right now.
But we need to know that you are with us. Through the quiet presence of your Spirit, through the tearful presence of your Son, through the patient presence of you, Father.
Scripture is full of words from God and about God. Many of those words, though true, feel a little jarring at times like this. But there is a thread of emotional honesty that runs through Scripture. A sense of lament and longing. Listen to these words.
Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, the friend of Jesus, had died. Jesus knew he was sick, and chose to not come and heal Lazarus. John tells part of the story this way:
When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
David knew pain and loss and was willing to talk to God about it. In the book of Psalms, we find more honesty than we may realize, more lament and longing than we may have spoken ourselves. Listen to these words from David, found in Psalm 142:
I cry aloud to the Lord;
I lift up my voice to the Lord for mercy.
I pour out before him my complaint; before him I tell my trouble.
When my spirit grows faint within me, it is you who watch over my way.
In the path where I walk people have hidden a snare for me.
Look and see, there is no one at my right hand; no one is concerned for me.
I have no refuge; no one cares for my life.
I cry to you, Lord;
I say, “You are my refuge,
my portion in the land of the living.”
Listen to my cry, for I am in desperate need;
rescue me from those who pursue me, for they are too strong for me.
Set me free from my prison, that I may praise your name.
Then the righteous will gather about me because of your goodness to me.
If the family is in need of assurance that Jesus cared about children:
People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.
If the family is in need of a vision of the end of time:
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
Dear friends gathered here.
Most often when we gather at these hard moments, I talk first to the family. But I’ve asked Ellen and Bob for permission to talk to the rest of you for a bit today. I’ve talked with them already, wept with them. I’ve warned them a bit about you, about how hard it is to know what to do and say when we simply don’t know what to do and say. And much of what I would say to them, I already have said, in quiet, not in front of a crowd.
Here’s the truth. Right now, they aren’t going to remember much of what I might say. Shock, numbness, fierce concentration on the next breath. I’m convinced that part of God’s gift to us in how we are created is to have that numbness.
So I can talk with you who will remember, and when the shock begins to wear off, you may be better prepared to help them. Because the shock will wear off. And about that time, many of you will have gone back to work, back to daily life. You will have slept. You will have eaten. You will have seen countless sad and happy pictures on Instagram and the news.
You will remember, of course, this day. And that moment two days ago. But to be helpful, to sustain your friends, you will need to do more than remember. You will have to take fleeting thoughts and put them in your mouth and your hands and your body.
And I want to help you help them.
Knowing what happened, in detail, may not be a helpful story to tell. Because when we tell that story, we will add interpretation, we’ll add details of feeling. And when we add those details, we may not be accurate. And so, for this moment, here is what happened. Baby Helen died.
I don’t know why this happened. And honestly, neither do you. We want to provide an answer because answers can lead to blame, and blame gives us a place for our anger and frustration and fear. God, why did you do this? Doctor, why didn’t you stop this? Healthcare system, fate, stress.
Please understand. If you start pushing too hard with this, drawing conclusions, making assumptions, you may do more harm that you can imagine.
But there is another layer of why, and that is the why of meaning. We want to determine the story of this death? What are the lessons we can learn? What is God trying to teach us?
Though I know God is present, I’m not sure that God is providing us lessons. And at this moment, we don’t need to know what we can learn, what Helen’s death means. It means that she’s not here with us, and no lesson can lessen that pain in this moment.
We can talk about life. This life was, and still is. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. For those of us who place trust in God, Helen is with God.
But, it is possible for two things to be true at the same time. It is possible for her to be great and for us to hurt. Too often people focus on the greatness, as if that’s a reason for us to not hurt. But it is also possible to focus on the hurt and not hold that healing in the other hand.
And as we lament, we can long. We can long to be in the presence of God. We can long to be in the presence of Helen. We can long to understand the story, with a confidence that at some point there is a story to understand.
You and our friends will move forward, but this family will never get over this moment. How do you get over a life? How do you move on from a life. Because Helen is a person, and you never move on from a person. As Nora McInerny tells us, we will move forward carrying Helen with us.
Pour your comfort in and your pain out. It’s tempting to help someone by telling them that this is hard for us, too. To tell them that we understand their pain because we hurt, too. But if we talk about our pain to this gracious family, then they will start having to comfort us. They will be afraid to express their grief because they are afraid that it will hurt us.
That’s nuts. Bear their grief, don’t add to their burden.
At first, don’t ask what you can do. Eventually, ask before you do. You know that the lawn will need to be mowed, that the drive will need to be shoveled, that the gas tank will need to be filled. So mow the lawn, shovel the drive, and sneak into their driveway with a five-gallon can of gasoline. You know that the thank you notes will need to be addressed and stamped, that the freezer will be too full or will be empty. You know that it will be next Tuesday, and then it will be a month from two days ago. You know these activities of daily living which will be hard to remember. So at first, don’t ask what you can do, do them. Invisibly. Faithfully.
Put Helen’s birthday on your calendar, week-by-week for six weeks, then month-by-month. And be particularly helpful on those days.
Eventually, ask permission before doing specific acts of love. “I’m stopping at Kroger, can I get you bananas or anything?” As your friends start to breathe again, they will be able to pick up some of those activities.
Helen is always one of their children. When you talk about how many children they have, always include this one. You aren’t going to make them feel bad by mentioning her. They will always remember her. But by including her, your friends will know that you remember her, and that you remember them.
Stop staring at them and petting them and deciding what they must be feeling. Seriously.
But now it’s time for me to stop talking about later. And it’s time to talk about right now.
Right now, at this moment, we will ask God’s blessing. And we will say good-bye for now. And we will walk away.
And this is hard.
So let’s pray.
You are God of our going out and our coming in. You are aware of all our days, all our thoughts. You are aware.
You know that in this moment our pain is growing, our grief is coming in.
And so, in this moment, we ask you for a deep awareness of your peace that passes understanding, of your presence that knows inside and out the pain of this moment. We ask you for the breath and strength for this next step.
And we know that you hold this family close and this child closer.
We are counting on you for this. Because you promise to be with us to the end.
In the power of your Spirit, God,
Through the name of Jesus, God,
Finishing the service
In other chapters of this book we’ve looked at the various ways to end the service depending on whether there is a graveside service. Read through those and adapt them to this situation. If there is a graveside service, you can use the sample graveside service for a stillborn in the next chapter.
- Kathryn Anne Swanson, July 28-September 1, 1989. She had Trisomy 18. I tell more about our story in the appendix to Lent for Non-Lent People (Createspace, 2014). ↵
- https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/stillbirth/facts.html. Accessed April 29, 2017. ↵
- Jonah Bardos. "A National Survey on Public Perceptions of Miscarriage." Obstet Gynecol, 2015, June; 125(6): 1313-1320. ↵
- Patrick and Kristen Riecke explain the loss of miscarriage and stillbirth and ways to be helpful. No Matter How Small: Understanding Miscarriage and Stillbirth (Fort Wayne: Emerald Hope Publishing House, 2020.) ↵
- Matthew 2: 18. He’s quoting Jeremiah 31:15. ↵
- I'm putting this comment in a footnote, so you don't accidentally read it in a service. The parents, the mom in particular, is already wondering what she could have done to prevent this The more people push for answers, the more risk there is for her to blame herself: "I should have taken better care of myself. I should have found a better doctor. I shouldn't have had that one sip of coffee." ↵
- 2 Corinthians 5:8. ↵
- Nora McInerny, “We don’t 'move on' from grief, we move forward with it.” TED Women 2018. https://www.ted.com/talks/nora_mcinerny_we_don_t_move_on_from_grief_we_move_forward_with_it/transcript?language=en. Accessed 1/22/2020. ↵
- For more of this idea of pouring comfort in, you can read about the Silk Ring Theory. Susan Silk and Barry Goldman, “How not to say the wrong thing,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2013. https://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-xpm-2013-apr-07-la-oe-0407-silk-ring-theory-20130407-story.html, accessed 1/22/2020. ↵