Joy M. Freeman and Tabatha D. Johnson, Still a Mother: Journeys Through Perinatal Bereavement. Judson Press. 2016. 168 pp. $15.99.
By Marilyn Williams
Anyone involved in a perinatal bereavement ministry should read “Still a Mother,” which gives new meaning to Henri Nouwen’s term, “wounded healers.” The painful sorrow of seven clergywomen is palpable in the telling of their own stories of perinatal loss. “We bring the unique dynamic of living in the tension” between the theology of the seminary and their own stories, write the book’s editors, Joy Freeman and Tabatha Johnson. “Grief can and does change theological beliefs.”
The experience of perinatal loss continues to be, in the words of Freeman and Johnson, “incredibly isolating.” In addition, they do not find the usual comforting Biblical texts to be a perfect fit for perinatal loss and infant death. For example, none of the psalms of lament speak to infant death or the mothers’ grief. The authors note that one narrative regarding the death of a child and the parents’ grief is the story of death of Bathsheba and David’s firstborn (2 Samuel 12:16-25).
The seven stories contain a few common markers for chaplains to consider in ministry. First is that the grief is for “the loss of not only a child we love but also the loss of a future.” Thus, women and their partners are grieving for a part of themselves — their dreams and hopes of being parents.
Secondly, in the midst of their emotional and spiritual pain, women experiencing perinatal loss are frequently stunned by the physical trauma of a miscarriage. Therefore, perinatal bereavement programs must make nurses and physicians available. “How could I labor for a baby I knew was already dead?” asked one clergywoman who didn’t know that after 20 weeks gestation, the mother of a baby who dies in utero must deliver her child.
In addition, many women will feel guilt or shame, as if they did something to cause a perinatal loss or should have prevented it. Furthermore, guilt and shame can be complicated. One woman who had had an abortion previously felt that the death of her baby was a punishment, although her feelings were inconsistent with her theology of a loving and merciful God. Likewise, some women feared conceiving again or losing their next child in utero.
Some stories told of women who struggled to find ways to ritualize their grief. Jennifer Harris Dault spoke of how she specifically requested Communion so she could hear the words “This is my body, broken for you.” She went on to say, “Recognizing that Jesus knows what it is like to have a broken body is life-giving.”
Perinatal loss affects an entire family, including children. For example, Freeman stated that her daughter, who was 2½ at the time of her miscarriage, “will occasionally talk about how much she misses Hope and wishes she could have been her big sister.” Another story highlighted how mothers and fathers can express their grief differently, putting a great strain on the marriage and leading to divorce.
These stories, however, are not just about journeys of grief but also of healing. As one of the storytellers, Diane L. Badger, puts it, “I began to realize I would not be the same person ever again, but I could walk once again in the sunshine.”
Marilyn Williams, BCC, is director of spiritual care at St. Mary’s Health Care System in Athens, GA.