Still a Mother (Joy Freeman & Tabatha Johnson, eds.) -- Review

STILL A MOTHER: Journeys through Perinatal Bereavement. Edited by Joy M. Freeman and Tabatha D. Johnson. Foreword by Richard P. Olson. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2016. Xi + 156 pages.

                No one is really ever ready when death knocks. It is, scripture suggests, the last enemy. Christians take comfort in the message of the resurrection, but the loss we feel when death comes is real and often overwhelming. This is especially true when death takes a child. A parent’s grief can be overwhelming. When death takes a child in the womb, too often parents, especially mothers, can suffer in silence. It is a form of death that we as society often deem different and thus not worthy of our attention. This forces families to grieve in silence. Indeed, the church is often bereft of any true signs of support. We have rituals and prayers for most forms of death, but rarely if ever will you find resources that speak to miscarriage. As a pastor I was never prepared in seminary or afterwards to respond appropriately. Only recently did one family’s grief after a miscarriage bring me to awareness of the deep and abiding need for spiritual support. Death in the womb is as real as any other form of death, and I finally, after over thirty years of ministry, finally understood this reality.

                Once you end the silence and begin to pay attention, you being to discover that miscarriage and other forms of perinatal bereavement are quite common. You begin to hear stories of deep loss and grief, which endure over many years. As a result, I have begun to pay attention, and when I encounter resources that can be of help to families and to those who come to their support, I must share the news. 

                When I was asked by Judson Press to review Still a Mother, I responded affirmatively. I am glad that I did. The title is revealing. One is still a mother even if the life of the child ended in the womb. The cover of the book itself helps us take in this reality. There is an empty swing that casts a shadow on the play area.  The shadow of this swing is not empty. Riding on that swing is the figure of a child. Furthermore, just because a family may have additional children doesn't mean that the child who died in the womb is not considered part of the family. The child may not have emerged into the daylight, but that doesn’t mean the child isn’t missed by the family who looked forward to welcoming him or her into their midst.  

                This book contains the stories of seven clergywomen who experienced a perinatal (in the womb) or infant death. It was edited by two clergywomen from the Kansas City area. One is American Baptist and the other is Disciples of Christ. Joy Freeman is American Baptist minister and serves as a hospital chaplain. Tabatha Johnson is Disciples and serves as a local congregational pastor. Both of the editors experienced the death of a child in the womb, so they speak from personal experience (theirs is among the stories recounted). 

                The editors write that perinatal and infant loss is among the least discussed form of death. Women who have experienced such death can feel as if they are part of a secret society. They may feel shame and guilt, wondering what they did to cause the child to perish. The editors hope that by telling their stories, these women can open the conversation up and help women discover that they are not alone in their time of grief. There are seven stories, and each is different. The situations are different and the responses differ. All are clergy, and their own ministries have been impacted by their experiences. Their journeys of healing continue.

                As one reads each of these stories, and each is unique to the person, one begins to discern what it means to lose a child to death, whether that child died in the first trimester, at seven months into pregnancy, or eight months after birth (SIDS). Each of the writers tells of their hopes, dreams, and grief. As I noted early, just because one is clergy doesn’t mean that one doesn’t struggle to make sense of such realities. Therefore, it is not uncommon to feel shame and guilt, and thus it is not unusual to keep silent and suffer alone. Because men and women, husbands and wives, can grieve differently, this can be difficult for both. Anger with God is not uncommon as well, even for those who are clergy. Indeed, one may feel abandoned by God.  As Kelly Hough Rogers puts it in reflecting on her experience of the death of a child during the process of giving birth:
In my head I screamed the last words of Jesus, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46). I have always told my parishioners God never causes suffering, but God is present during our difficulties. In fact, I had instructed many to seek God in the midst of their trials. Yet, at the birth of our son Wallace, I felt God had left the building (p. 94)
                I must say that as a man who is a father, the full nature of pregnancy remains something of a mystery. This is especially true of the physical dimension of perinatal death. My eyes have been opened. This can be a very painful experience for women, especially if it is necessary to induce the birth of a child who is already dead. I know that birth can be painful and even traumatic, but when the child you are birthing is dead there will be no sense of joy at the end. There will only be grief.  

                What is needed differs from family to family. Each chapter features Pastoral Care Points, making this book very helpful for clergy, whom I believe should read the book closely. The book also includes three appendices. The first provides a set of prayers and rituals that can be used in church services and at home. The book reminds us that there is a real need for such resources. This appendix provides a starting point. The second appendix offers us a set of things to say/do and what not to say. Again, this helpful, for even well-meaning words can end up being hurtful. Even if the child is in God’s hands a mother will wish to have that child in her own hands, so saying that they child is in the hands of God is not comforting.  Finally, there is a glossary that offers definitions of terms such as D&C and APGAR.

                I see at least two primary audiences for this book. One audience would be families who have experienced perinatal bereavement. These personal accounts may open conversation and offer some solace that one is not alone in this journey. The other audience, and perhaps the intended audience, is clergy. We who are called upon to give pastoral care need resources like this if we're going to be of help to those who grieve. We need to understand the deep realities that people are experiencing. We need to know why the birth of a child doesn’t relieve the grieve felt for the one that was expected but then was not born. Knowing what a family is experiencing—physically, spiritually, emotionally—is absolutely necessary if pastoral care is to be provided.

                If one is clergy this book is a wonderful companion volume to Richard Voelz’s e-book Tending the Tree of Life: Preaching and Worship through Reproductive Loss and Adoption, (Shook Foil Books, 2015). Richard’s book offers insights into preaching with regard to reproductive loss, sharing out of his wife’s experience of being unable to conceive and subsequent decision to adopt. That book was insightful, and this book only opens up the conversation more fully. If only I had known of these books earlier in my ministry I would have been a much more compassionate and supportive pastor. Now, we are without excuse. Thanks be to God!  


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