Amy Watson is a wife and mother of eight children, two of whom died before they were born. Amy is a graduate of Ricks College, Brigham Young University and is a certified life coach who helps other moms who have experienced pregnancy or infant loss. She also supports moms going through a new pregnancy after loss. If you would like to contact Amy, please visit her website. Amy brings together her own experiences, coaching tools and the answers to so many questions that arise after the loss of a baby to empower moms to own their grief and find hope for their future. Amy’s service in the Church involves a lot of primary, a little Relief Society, and some youth Sunday School teaching.
I knew it happened, but I never thought it would happen to me. Four days before my due date I didn’t feel my baby kicking, and later found out she had no heartbeat. She was born early the next morning. Perfect. Beautiful. Still.
Approximately 1 in 4 known pregnancies will end in loss. A miscarriage is generally defined as a loss before 20 weeks, and a stillbirth is after 20 weeks gestation.
Losing a baby before you really get to meet him or her is a unique kind of pain, and it can feel very lonely and isolating. Especially in a church that is very family focused. Because it’s not something people are comfortable with it’s kept quiet, leaving families to suffer and grieve in silence.
It Happens More Often Than You Think
I’m going to share some insights to help you understand what this loss is like, and then give some practical tips to help you, as a leader, so you can support your families better.
When a baby dies before birth there are a lot of questions. The first one is often “Why?”
”I have meditated upon the subject, and asked the question, why it is that infants, innocent children, are taken away from us, especially those that seem to be the most intelligent and interesting. The strongest reasons that present themselves to my mind are these: This world is a very wicked world; and it … grows more wicked and corrupt. … The Lord takes many away, even in infancy, that they may escape the envy of man, and the sorrows and evils of this present world; they were too pure, too lovely, to live on earth; therefore, if rightly considered, instead of mourning we have reason to rejoice as they are delivered from evil, and we shall soon have them again.”
He also taught that,
“A question may be asked—‘Will mothers have their children in eternity?’ Yes! Yes! Mothers, you shall have your children; for they shall have eternal life, for their debt is paid.”
These doctrines can bring a lot of comfort, but they are also often used inappropriately by well-meaning ward members. When a mother has just said goodbye to her baby, she doesn’t want him to be in a better place. She doesn’t want to rejoice. She wants her baby there, with her. She doesn’t want him in the eternities or the Millenium. She wants to watch him grow on Earth… now.
Those experiencing this loss may also question their faith because they are so heartbroken. They think, “If I just had more faith it wouldn’t hurt so badly.” It’s so important to normalize grief as a natural byproduct of love and not as something that has gone wrong.
Elder Shane M. Bowen described how he felt after his baby son Tyson passed away:
“It is impossible to describe the mixture of feelings that I had at that point in my life. Most of the time I felt as if I were in a bad dream and that I would soon wake up and this terrible nightmare would be over. For many nights I didn’t sleep. I often wandered in the night from one room to the other, making sure that our other children were all safe. Feelings of guilt racked my soul. I felt so guilty. I felt dirty. I was his father; I should have done more to protect him. If only I would have done this or that. Sometimes even today, 22 years later, those feelings begin to creep into my heart.”
Another question people often ask is, “Your baby was only a few weeks. You didn’t even know them. Why are you so sad?” Sometimes when we are grieving for a baby, it seems like it should hurt less because they were tiny and it was “just a miscarriage” or because we have other children. But each of us is a precious son or daughter of God regardless of our time on earth. It’s ok for the family to mourn as much and as long as they need to. It doesn’t mean they don’t have enough faith. It just means that they are humans going through a tough time.
Tips for Leaders Immediately After a Family Loses a Baby
Don’t be afraid to show up or send ministering families to the hospital or the home if they are wanted. My bishop came to the hospital and gave me a blessing and visited with me while I was in labor and it meant so much. During COVID restrictions, do the best you can.
When a family must bury a baby who has died, they will have the condition of the mother to consider, and the shock of having a funeral for a baby they never really got to know. They will need guidance from leaders as far as options like a simple burial, cremation, a viewing, etc.
When a baby dies before birth, they are not officially recognized by the Church. On a clerical side, it is understandable. On a personal side, it can seem like your baby doesn’t matter, doesn’t exist and isn’t part of your family. The wording in the handbook is vague and only says that some babies can be added to a family tree with stillborn in parentheses. There is really no direction for a miscarried baby.
I remember the general conference after our daughter died was particularly difficult. When the auditor read how many new children of record there were a feeling of intense sadness washed over me knowing that our daughter wasn’t included there.
Stillborn and miscarried babies are also not able to be sealed to parents. This can be confusing and distressing to parents who want to ensure they will get to keep this baby in the eternities.
I received a question from a family I helped in the hospital when their baby was stillborn. She explained that they are members but they do not attend services. They teach their kids about Heavenly Father and believe in Him, but they wonder if they will be able to be with their baby in the next life even though they don’t go to church. These questions are not isolated to less active members of our congregation.
Another friend said, “I wanted to know if we could bless our baby in the hospital. I also wanted to know if we could do his temple work. I was very disappointed when they told us he didn’t need it done because he died before the age of accountability. I was grasping for ways to become spiritually closer to our baby and felt like the temple was one way to do that. It still was, just in a different way than doing work for him.”
If you can counsel with the family about this as well as directing them to search for their own answers through the Spirit, it could be very helpful. Anything you can do to acknowledge the baby, such as blessing them, if it is allowable, should be done.
Understand that the family is in shock and they likely can’t express what they need. Rather than asking, “What can we do for you?” try “We have some sisters who can watch your other children”, or “We have meals set up for a week. What day would you like them to start coming?” Offer what you can and be specific.
Make sure the family has GREAT ministering brothers and sisters. Going through the loss of a baby before birth is very isolating and needs special, sensitive support. You may even want to ask the family who they would love to have.
A friend shared this: “I remember my RS president genuinely caring. She came to my house and cried with me. I was inactive at the time so to me this was a huge support. She was so sweet. I felt like she didn’t come to me out of obligation, but she came to me to genuinely care for me.”
There is actually very little doctrine specifically for stillborn babies, and even less for ones lost earlier. There is even some confusion among members as to whether these little ones were truly alive or had received “the breath of life” which some people have defined as breathing air. This lack of clarity can be distressing.
Further, it seems so incongruent with a loving Heavenly Father, that a child born at 18 weeks alive and takes a few breaths would be counted as a whole soul and belong to the family forever, but one born still at 40 weeks would not. However, this belief persists and is something leaders should be aware of.
Some people believe the spirit of a miscarried baby will come back in a different body. I have heard this said by mothers who believe this about their children and that is ok. For anyone else to suggest it is NOT ok. It is my firm belief that these babies are alive and are individual spirits and that they are a part of the family forever.
Most people want their child acknowledged. If you can find a way to do that, please do.
After we lost another baby at 14 weeks, our stake presidency sent a heartfelt card. It meant so much to know they were thinking of us even though we were new to town and didn’t know them well.
It can be painful when members of the ward have their own interpretations of why this happens and they want to share it with the grieving family. We had someone come visit us and tell us that they knew through revelation the reason our daughter died and proceeded to tell us. Although these people mean well, this kind of speculation is not helpful.
Another difficult thing for these families will be baby blessings. A simple comment of support recognizing that you understand this Sunday may be hard for them or that you are thinking about them and their baby would mean so much. There is no timeline on this. Listen to the Spirit and look in their eyes. Notice that they are not there on Fast Sunday or that they come in late. You’ll be able to see if it’s still painful for them.
Other challenges after the loss of a baby are Mother’s/Father’s Day, especially if they lost their first child. For so many reasons, these days should acknowledge all women and men equally. Please don’t have mothers stand or only give treats to the fathers.
Talks on trials can be heartbreaking and reinforce this belief we have in our Church culture that if you had more faith, you wouldn’t be in such pain. We also teach that trials are given to us so we can grow, or that Heavenly Father gives us these trials on purpose. We often skip the “messy middle” part of these lessons and forget to tell people that it’s ok to be lost, hurt and struggling. These feelings are not a reflection of testimony or faithfulness.
We teach that God and Jesus will be with us in trials but often these families feel very alone and get the message that they are doing something wrong because they can’t see it. We teach that all things are made right in Christ, but He can’t fix their baby dying.
Although all these messages are true and can bring comfort, be aware that for those who are in deep grief they can sting. Help them understand that this process takes time, and it’s ok if they aren’t finding solace yet. Remind them that God still loves them.
Losing a baby is physically, emotionally, and spiritually challenging. In some cases, releasing someone from their church calling might be the best way to support them in their grief. But in others it might be the worst thing to do without checking in first. Understand that many people will feel obligated to continue serving when it is too much for them.
I had a friend who was in the process of miscarrying but still showed up because the primary children were singing in sacrament meeting and she was the chorister. Working to create an environment where people feel like they have support and back up if needed is important.
Another friend said: “About a month after we lost and had to bury one of our babies, I was asked to accept a new calling. I was 100% not ready to accept any kind of calling, but had always felt like I should accept one because it came from the Lord. I wish I would have said no, but more importantly I wish that they hadn’t asked me. I was in no shape to teach the youth when I hadn’t even figured out how to grieve.”
Open communication and creating a safe space to discuss solutions would be best. Think outside the box. Perhaps they want to stay in their calling but they need some help or some time. Be aware that some callings like nursery or primary may be difficult if the class they teach is near the age their baby would have been. Giving space as you extend a calling to let them voice this can be a great opportunity to council together.
Announcing the Baby
This is a lovely thing we do in our church, letting everyone know there is a new little one in the ward. When a baby dies before birth, this is another thing that we don’t get to have. Check in with the family and see if they would like you to tell the ward what has happened and announce the baby even though it died. Remember that the baby is still loved and important even though they are not with us physically. In our case, we were relieved to have it announced so we didn’t have to tell everybody. We were very close to our due date and everyone was waiting for a birth announcement. Please be careful with sharing what has happened if the family does not want everyone to know. Some families will prefer to keep their loss private.
The last thing I want leaders to know is that the grief process is only beginning when the meals stop coming. No matter how brief the life of the baby was, it mattered, it counts, and the family will grieve that loss. They love and miss their baby. Fathers need support. Siblings grieve, too. Primary and youth leaders can bring a lot of comfort by supporting them and recognizing that simple questions such as, “How many brothers and sisters do you have?” can now be complicated.
I Trust That All Will Be Revealed
This kind of loss is unique and yet so incredibly common. We can all do better to support these families and comfort those who stand in need of comfort and mourn with those who mourn. With these ideas as a starting point, and the guidance of the Spirit, going through this trial can be made easier.
I know that God loves these babies and although we don’t know the reasons now why so many are called back early, I trust that all will be revealed. I can’t wait to hold my babies in my arms someday. I send all my love to anyone who knows this pain personally, and I thank everyone reading this for striving to improve as a leader.