December 2, 2018 • Josh Caldwell
A saffron-colored sunset crawls through the hospital window as I sit on the edge of the bed next to my wife who has just given birth to our lifeless, twenty-nine-week-old son. We lost a son three years before but were graciously given another son a year later who was staying with his grandparents during this hospital stay.
I vividly remember staring at the sunset through eyes clouded with tears, holding my son for a few minutes, knowing I would never hold him again. Holding him, I felt the familiar pain of infant loss while experiencing the new, nearly unbearable pain of knowing what we had lost. No matter how rooted, knowledgeable, or mature a Christian is, no one is immune to the need for support when going through the tragedy such as this.
I hope my experiences and advice below will be helpful to you, brother pastor, as you help couples in your small church setting cope with pregnancy and infant loss. These five points are by no means exhaustive, but I hope you will find them to be practical and biblical.
A shepherd isn’t required to have the “perfect words”.
Before both of our boys’ funerals, my wife and I gathered to pray. Among the list of items for which we prayed, we asked God to help us kindly and graciously handle people who, while well-meaning, would try too hard to come up with the perfect encouragement, quote, quip or poem to magically make our grief disappear. These comments were the opposite of the intended effect and were often profoundly painful.
Proverbs says, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Prov 25:11 ESV). Before speaking with a couple coping with infant loss, pray for wise words that will accomplish their goal of encouragement.
Be a listening ear for the couple as well. There is no quick solution to their suffering, so listen to their struggles and walk with them through their grief. Share more scripture with them than your own thoughts. Sometimes it is best to be with them and simply say, “I’m sorry”.
Build a “church as family” culture.
When couples are going through the pain of pregnancy and infant loss, they will need a support system to help them navigate their grief and continue with life. This task cannot fall solely on the pastor and his family.
As shepherds, we should be building a “church as family” culture. “Church as family” could be defined in several ways as it relates to ecclesiology and family ministry. What I mean by family ministry is a culture that encourages all members of the church to rally around couples in crisis to bring meals, offer help, serve, sacrifice, and pray.
I would argue that this type of church culture is biblical. Shouldn’t we be “serving one another” (Gal 5:13), and “bearing one another’s burdens” (Gal 6:2)? If we work to build this type of culture in our churches, when crisis comes (and it will), people will be ready to gather around their hurting brothers and sisters in Christ as they make the Gospel visible to all.
Preach about the Sovereignty of God in Suffering
Before we lost our first child in 2011, I had spent several weeks preaching through the first chapter of James. I was unaware that God in his kindness was sovereignly leading me to preach through those verses to gain a better understanding of, “Count it all joy…when you meet trails of various kinds” (Jas 1:2).
The study of passages like these found in James, Romans, or first Peter gave my wife and I hope and strength through our struggle. We as pastors should preach expositionally through books of the Bible that teach how we should look at suffering.
Because of my experience, I have talked to people from other perspectives and theological backgrounds who have dealt with pregnancy and infant loss. Because of weak Theology, I have spoken with some who believed they went through tragedy because their faith was weak, or perhaps God had abandoned them or become angry with them. Some thought they might have done something to cause their suffering.
Our members need to understand that a Sovereign, wise, loving God is king of every inch of the universe.
I find this weak theology to be inconsistent with Scripture. Our members need to understand that a Sovereign, wise, loving God is king of every inch of the universe. They need to understand that in their suffering, they are sharing in the sufferings of Christ, and the subsequent glories. They need to understand that there is always a lesson to be learned in their pain, and often God is near to them when they feel He is far away. Give your members an anchor of the soul for later use by preaching the Sovereignty of God in suffering.
Allow couples opportunities to share and opportunities for normalcy
This point is more practical than theological. As my wife and I have journeyed together through our loss, there have been days where we wanted to talk about our suffering. We needed to feel our emotions as we made sense of them in light of the Gospel. Other days, we just wanted things to be normal.
When spending the week picking out a casket for their child while planning and attending their child’s funeral, couples might look at a trip to Burger King as a welcome outing. Some days,couples in your church going through suffering might need you to talk, or they may need some space. Remember to listen to their needs. You are their shepherd.
No matter what attitude they adopt in their grief, the best strength and encouragement is the Gospel.
I am not implying by this last point that effective pastoring means telling couples in crisis not to grieve because they are saved by the work of Christ. I am saying that as couples learn to cope and work through their grief, remind them of the great love and sacrifice of their Savior.
Remind them, “He who did not spare is own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things” (Rom 8:32)? When they are feeling the depths of their sadness and despair, graciously encourage them to turn their gaze upwards on the cross of Christ because as Matt Papa wrote, “the calm will be the better for the storms that we endured.”
Ultimately, the greatest strength and encouragement we can cling to is this message: The Lamb of God came to transform objects of His wrath into objects of His affection by his death and resurrection. No matter our circumstance, we have this hope.