How to Help Grieving Families Through the Death of Their Baby
Published: February 24, 2023
One mom reveals what families dealing with the death of a baby need from you and your ministry.
In April of 2016, my husband, Josh, and I were thrilled to find out we were expecting our fourth child. We excitedly announced the big news to our kids, our friends, and our parents. We went on one last vacation as a family that could still fit in our small car (although we did have to squish a little), and we prepared as much as we could for our Thanksgiving baby to join us. I kept telling everyone, “I don’t even mind the morning sickness this time, because I know I’ll never do it again.” We were ridiculously excited to grow our family again, even though there were some who considered us nuts to go beyond three kids. To put it simply, we loved every second of the pregnancy.
My 20-week ultrasound showed us a thriving, active baby. My 30-week checkup came and went, and everything was perfect.
And then the world stopped.
“I haven’t felt the baby move today,” I anxiously told Josh. Not wanting to be the paranoid mom, I decided to go to bed that night rather than waking up the midwife. I’ll always regret that decision, even though the doctor assures me nothing would’ve been different had I gone ahead and called. By the time I made it into the clinic, I had a sinking feeling that there wouldn’t be good news for us that day.
I sat in the chair while the midwife tried to find a heartbeat. When she called the nurse to check, I cried. I sobbed when she called the doctor to confirm what we all knew by that point: Our baby had died.
The next few days were a nightmare. We went home to tell our children that their sibling was gone. Then we made some phone calls to let our family know and to arrange child care for when we’d be at the hospital. We shopped for a preemie-sized onesie. We called a funeral home, and then we checked in at the hospital and started the process of induction. Two agonizing days later, in the early morning of September 21, our daughter Miriam Abigail was born silently into a room full of silent people. She weighed 3 pounds, 2 ounces, she looked like her big sister, and she was beautiful. We were desperately in love with her, and as soon as we met her we had to say goodbye. A few days later, I did the hardest thing I’ve ever done; I left my baby behind and walked out of the hospital.
We buried her, planted a tree in her memory, and tried to continue our lives as best we could. Our church and our family were a huge support to us in our darkest hours, and they helped us in such simple, gentle, loving ways that I never felt alone. I always felt prayed for, loved, and understood. I’m so grateful to them.
How Churches Can Help
We’re only one of the 24,000 cases of stillbirth that happen in the U.S. every year (according to the CDC). That’s 24,000 silent delivery rooms and 24,000 mothers who leave the hospital with empty arms. And it’s 24,000 families who’ll readjust to life without their precious babies. This number only accounts for the loss of a baby toward the end of pregnancy; 15 to 20 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage before 20 weeks. We like to say Miriam was a small life, but not a small loss.
The chances are good that in your church and in your children’s ministry, there are families who’ve struggled with the loss of their baby. Despite the fact that it happens at an incredibly high rate, pregnancy and infant loss is still treated as a taboo subject, adding to the pain these families are already feeling.
So how can our churches help?
We change our language.
For example: When a woman is pregnant, she’s not a “mom-to-be”—she’s simply a mom. From the moment I saw those two pink lines, I was in love with my Miriam. As a pregnant woman, I was a mom. A stillbirth mom is still a mom. A mom who miscarries is still a mom. Her baby is not “on the way”—her baby is here and is a member of the family now.
We learn that staying silent is rarely helpful.
By talking about their child, we aren’t reminding these families of their loss; believe me, they don’t ever forget. In reality, we can give them a great gift by acknowledging that their baby was real, loved, and not forgotten. It’s vital that we talk about the issue of the loss during or after pregnancy. It might be uncomfortable because it’s something none of us ever want to think about. But ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. Let’s embrace the pain our families are feeling and ensure they don’t feel their hurt is unwelcome in our churches. If their baby had a name, remember to use it. Say, “I was just thinking about Miriam this week. I want you to know that she won’t ever be forgotten.” Send a card on anniversaries, holidays, or whenever the family is on your heart.
We remember that the siblings of the baby who died are also grieving.
As a children’s minister, you can be a safe person the children can process with. They may have questions or just need to talk, and they may feel nervous about doing so with their parents. My 7-year-old daughter once asked me what caused Miriam to die. Through tears, I explained that we don’t have any answers. I heard her twin brother whisper, “Stop asking her stuff! You’re making her cry!” I was so glad to have heard this, and I quickly reassured them both that crying isn’t a bad thing and that I loved being able to talk about Miriam. Still, I’m grateful for the people who were slightly more removed from the situation and could talk to my kids. They could speak with grace and empathy, but they weren’t falling apart like I was.
We meet their physical needs.
Our church offered to set up a meal service for us, which we declined. We didn’t want to burden anyone or draw more attention to ourselves, but in reality, we were struggling to hold ourselves together. Several people just brought food anyway, and I will always be grateful to them. We were “ding-dong-ditched” countless times by people bringing food, coffee, chocolate, flowers, and other thoughtful gifts. And I was thankful they didn’t stay. That first week or so, I was rarely out of my pajamas and I certainly didn’t want to talk to anyone. Other families may need more interaction. As children’s ministers, we have relationships with the families in our care, and we can provide support in the ways we know they’ll best receive it.
Remember, physical needs aren’t limited to food. In many cases, families face the decision of whether to request an autopsy, which may provide the answer about what happened (though they often don’t). This can be expensive. Medical bills may also be weighing on them. A financial gift can help remove one burden from the family and allow them to focus on healing and grieving.
We inform the family of available counseling services through the church or community.
Counseling and grief support groups can be key to getting through traumatic circumstances. You can point families toward support and find ways to help them get it—even if it means driving them, providing child care while the parents go, or finding ways to ease any financial burden.
We absolutely, positively avoid clichés.
No, God didn’t need another angel. And although we know that the child is “in a better place,” the only place we want our baby is in our arms. As a children’s minister, your faith in Jesus allows you to be authentic and hopeful. We can bear one another’s burdens better if we stay real in times of grief as well as times of triumph. Don’t offer packaged phrases and platitudes. They don’t help.
We avoid using the phrase “at least.”
“At least the baby didn’t suffer,” “At least you’ll see her again,” “At least you have other kids.” There is no “at least” with a loss, and we risk making the family feel like we’re trying to minimize their pain. The best thing we can do is grieve with them and cry with them. Acknowledge that the road they’re walking is a dark, sad, and awful one, but remind them that they’re not alone.
We offer to help the family remember and honor their baby. Our pastor did a baby dedication for us as we planted Miriam’s tree. He shared about the meaning of her name and talked about how much Jesus loves children. We felt like he had honored her little life, and that meant a great deal to us.
Josh and I often comment that we had a jump-start in our grief in many ways. We began our journey with hope, something far too few people have. There is hope that we will see our baby again. We have hope in God’s strength, though we often feel weak. Most importantly, we have hope that God is with us and will never leave us. Still, our experience was eye-opening. Our family has been changed forever. And my personal ministry will never be the same. A silver lining of our tragedy is that we’re more able to help others walking their hard roads. We can say with authority that no matter how dark things get, the light of Jesus still shines brightly.
Recommended Resources for Infant Loss
These resources provide support and hope for families grieving the loss of an infant.
- Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep is a volunteer organization dedicated to providing professional-quality photos of babies to grieving families.
- Madison’s Closet is a free service provided to women who lose their babies, clothing them at a time when their regular clothes don’t fit but maternity clothes are painful to even look at.
- I Will Carry You by Angie Smith is a beautiful account of one mom’s journey of faith through her grief; a perfect gift for anyone grieving the loss of a child.
- Hope Mommies is a group of women seeking God together in an online community that understands loss.
Beth Mitchell and her husband, Josh, lead CHRISTchurch in Apple Valley, Minnesota. She hopes to raise awareness of the issue of pregnancy and infant loss as it relates to churches and children’s ministries.
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