One of my dearest friends from seminary, Elise Erikson Barrett, wrote a book that was released a little more than 3 months ago, and I have only just now gotten around to reading it. It took me awhile in part because there were so many things going on in my life. But mostly it took me so long because I was ashamed. The book is entitled What was Lost: A Christian journey through miscarriage – and from reading reviews I knew that part of the book would cover how to handle the insensitive things that people say when someone they know has suffered such a loss. I had, myself, said more than a few things that I wished I could unsay, and I wanted to avoid reliving not being there for Elise in the days after her first miscarriage, in the early days of our friendship.
But as I have known her to do so often in analogous situations, Elise handled the offense graciously – which is to say, in the way of a woman who is infused with the assurance of God’s grace offered freely to all people, and relates to others accordingly. I found me (that is the group of persons to whom I belonged, but the words were almost word for word what I remembered saying in frustration one day) on page 111:
“Women who are secretly lugging around the unrelenting frustration and grief of infertility often will react out of their own pain, rather than being able to sympathize with your loss. They think [or in my case, say out loud – right before time for lecture to begin], ‘If I could only get pregnant, if I only knew that I could have children, it would be such a gift!’ And so they act out of their longing and envy, hurting too much themselves to be able to open themselves to your pain. Of course, this doesn’t make these comments any easier to hear.”
See what I mean? In one paragraph, she is sensitive and pastoral both to the person who has lost their baby through miscarriage, and the person who is, ignorantly, thinking that any pregnancy would be better than no pregnancy at all, blinded in their own grief to the concreteness of their friend’s grief.
To what Elise wrote, I would like to add, just because a friend is spiritual and smart and emotionally healthy does not mean that you need to share your every ugliest thought with them. I could have chosen my audience better – shared that little “insight” with my husband or my therapist, or just about any good friend who was not in the midst of grieving the loss of their baby!
In the area of empathic imagination, I am not the sharpest tool in the shed. I have to have a hook, a way in to another’s feelings. Sometimes my hook has been literary – I have been blessed in the time I have had to read, the breadth of reading material available to me, and my ability to enter into what I read – to experience along with a narrator, and to assimilate what I have learned into my emotional toolbox. But more effective is when I can find a way in through my own experience – and I have a lot more experience than any parent wishes for their child.
When Elise had her first miscarriage, not only had I never read a book even touching on miscarriage, but I had never been pregnant, I had never known of a friend losing their baby, and I had never lost anyone close to me. It is only now, having known Elise and her loss, having been pregnant (and knowing the reckless optimism tempered with fear and every other emotion times 10, all wrapped up in your marriage and your childhood), and finally having lost my father, that I realize how hurtful my words must have been, and what an act of faith it was on Elise’s part not only to continue to pursue, but to deepen our friendship. I am grateful beyond expressing it.
Lots of people will recommend this book for people going through the grief of miscarriage. I haven’t had one myself, so I can only imagine (vaguely – as I said, my imagination is only but so good), that Elise’s book would be a welcome traveling companion for those who have experienced that loss. But I can certainly recommend this book to those who have not had a miscarriage. One of these days, even if you do not, one of your friends will experience this kind of loss – and perhaps you will be better able to be there for them. Perhaps you will be spared the later grief of realizing that you said something that was… lacking in empathic imagination.