Sticks and Stones

A friend at Anchored by Hope (there’s a link to their site on the right side of this page) posted two comment threads yesterday on FB that I thought might be helpful information.  The first asked mothers who miscarried (“butterfly moms’) to share the hurtful things people had said in an effort to comfort them, and the second asked for the most helpful and comforting things people said in response to their loss.  If you’re on FB, you can see the actual responses (and get a little more info about a very sweet and nurturing ministry), but you might have to befriend Anchored ByHope.

I’ve written before about some of the hurtful things people say, and if I am smart enough to figure out the link, I’ll try to re-post it here.  Seeing what other women have heard makes me realize that most of the “wrong” things to say are pretty universal.  Among the worst, in my opinion, are: “You can always have another baby,” “You’re young – you can try again,” “Well, at least you know you can get pregnant,” and “It’s good that it happened so early if there was a problem with the baby.” (That one sounds cruel to me just typing it, but I have heard it too many times to count.)  Among the “churchy” responses, these are some of the hardest to swallow: “God wanted another angel,” “It’s just not God’s will right now*,” and “Have faith.”  The thing about the statement that it wasn’t God’s will is that it is a true statement, and it’s something every butterfly mom will have to accept, but hearing that immediately after a loss really only hurts.  The first few weeks and maybe months after a loss are the times that you need the love of Christ and the support of the body of Christ so that you can gently accept that your plans weren’t his plans.  Beating someone about the head and neck with the will of God is not a constructive way to show your love.

“Have faith” is still the one that kills me.  This one has become my least favorite thing to hear and is not likely to elicit a measured response from me.  I take comfort in the stories that other women have told me about their own experiences, most of which involve eventually having a child.  These women have been brave enough to share their own pain in an effort to help me heal, and I love them tremendously for that gift.  We share a horrible experience that not everyone can understand.  And then there are the people who feel they must share the story of their great-uncle’s friend’s daughter who had a lot of miscarriages, began the process of adopting a child, and then got pregnant with twins, “So don’t give up; God can do anything.  You just have to have faith.”  This conversation nearly ended with the early demise of a choir member last night.  I will at some point talk to her about it and explain why it was hurtful, but I knew I couldn’t control my emotions last night.  I will listen all day long to the people who have actually experienced this kind of loss; I am quickly frustrated by those who are throwing miracle stories at me.

Part of my reasoning here is selfish, and I know it: if God can do these tremendous miracles for all these other people I keep hearing about, then why can’t we just have one normal pregnancy?  But the main reason the “Have faith” people frustrate me is that they are unintentionally undermining my faith.  Obviously, God’s plan for these other people was to have a baby; what if that isn’t God’s plan for me?  Having faith requires that I be willing to follow God’s plan no matter where that leads me, and there’s a better than average possibility that my plan won’t involve a successful pregnancy.  It may involve adoption; it may involve ministry opportunities that children would hinder; it may involve anything God can imagine.  I have faith, do you?  Do you believe that God can do anything, including NOT giving me a child of my own flesh and blood?  If I didn’t have faith, I would not likely be attending church or participating in any ministry activity; if I didn’t believe that God can do anything, I wouldn’t be at church at all – I wouldn’t believe in God at all.  Telling a demonstratively active church member to have faith is a lot like telling a homeless person, “Take care of yourself.”  It’s completely useless and likely to incite a riot of negative emotions.

One sweet friend did tell me to “hang on to Jesus,” and I think that is a different statement altogether than “have faith.”  Hanging on to Jesus to means actively seeking shelter in the storm.  It may not be something that everyone would appreciate hearing, but it was a great gentle reminder to me to keep my focus steadily aimed at the author of my faith.  Based on the feedback on the Anchored by Hope post, most butterfly moms agreed that simpler is better where words of comfort are concerned.  Most of the women who responded said something along the lines of, “I’m so sorry for your loss.”  Several comments included that people should stop there, especially if you’re not sure what to say.  “I’m praying for you,” or “I’m here if you need anything at all,” are also good things to say.  There were some particularly sweet comments that people had heard, but most of us really aren’t that eloquent when we’re thinking on our feet.  We don’t need to be wordsmiths or fabulous orators to convey our sympathy; it is enough just to express our sorrow.  It seems that most butterfly moms (me included) just want to know that someone remembers.  It is totally acceptable to say, “How are you doing?  I know this must be a tough time for you.”  This is good to ask at almost any point after a loss, but especially on anniversaries, lost birthdays, Mother’s Day, and other holidays that tend to be child-centric.

The bottom line is that we want people to express their sympathy, and most women will overlook the occasional foot-in-mouth episode.  If you’re not sure what to say, keep it short and simple.  Do not veer off into weird territory just because you want to say something special.  There are really no words you can say that will provide comfort; comfort is derived from effort and time it takes to express your sympathy, not from any specific combination of letters.  Comfort comes from the love your words convey in between the lines.

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