Augustine once described us preachers as peddlers of words. I was a novice word-peddler when we had our first miscarriage. And in those moments of pain, I ran slam out of my own words. That is not to say that no words came to me. But they weren’t my words. Nor were they words that I actually spoke aloud. The words that came to me most frequently in that dim season were these: “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” It was these words of Paul that gave me permission to take leave of words for a while, to lean into the dark mysteries of loss, pain, and grief without words getting in the way. It didn’t matter that this sentence was originally penned by Paul, a bachelor itinerant preacher who almost certainly never struggled personally with the loss my wife and I were experiencing. What did matter was that these words, more than any other, gave me consolation. They consoled me because they lifted the burden I felt to interpret the loss in real time and in my own words–first to myself, then to my family, and finally to my churches. They comforted me because they promised that even as I failed to find words that would carry the freight of my raw emotions, God received my inchoate moans as prayers. I found deep reassurance from Paul’s promise that even when I didn’t understand what was happening around me or within me, even when bitter tears flowed more readily than words, God’s own Spirit was faithfully conveying my heart’s needs and desires to God’s heart.
Part of my difficulty with finding words was because I felt helpless. I watched as Elise endured the physical as well as the emotional anguish of the miscarriage. It was her abdomen and legs that were wracked with cramps and it was her body that endured invasive tests and painful procedures. It was she who felt the reality of the miscarriage as a corporeal loss. I stood by, gripped with my own grief, horrified at the all-encompassing nature of Elise’s pain. In the face of her profound physical, spiritual, and emotional suffering, I felt as if my role was to speak as little as possible and be present as fully as possible. Looking back, I believe that I also felt some guilt. It was our relating as husband and wife that had led to this pain, and now Elise bore the greater part. This is fine and good when there’s a new creation at the end of the suffering. But when there is an empty womb and an empty crib, the pain seems all the more harshly uneven. And since I’d had cancer and radiation treatment in the past, my head was full of questions about whether something about my contribution had led to this happening.
Flooded by all these internal uncertainties, I found myself wanting to hug Elise. A lot. I would have said then that I was offering those hugs to console her. And that was true, as far as it went. I understand now that in addition to seeking to help Elise by hugging her, I needed her hugs as much or more than she needed mine. I would encourage all partners of a woman who has experienced a miscarriage to examine the care you offer to make sure you’re crystal clear about how much is for your partner and how much is trying to meet your own need for comfort. There will always be some of both. That is the nature of a mutually supportive marriage. But now, years later, I see that precisely because of the unevenness of the experience between spouses, a supportive partner’s job is to keep the ledger balanced in favor of what feels kind and comforting to the person who endures the lion’s share of the suffering.
Which brings me back to words. My muteness in the face of our loss was an important anchor for me. I believe it was precisely the right way to respond to the miscarriage, especially early on. It helped me lean on God and interact with Elise instinctively and compassionately in the deepest darkness of our shared grief. Here’s the thing. In the 11 years since our first miscarriage, the words above are the first time I’ve ever written on the subject. Sure, I’ve thought about it. I’ve even talked about it, though infrequently. I even helped edit my wife’s book about it. But I don’t think, until now, I’ve processed my own feelings sufficiently to move beyond the silence. The toll that has taken on me and my marriage is a story that’s still being written. Falling silent can see you through the funnel of a tornado, but cleaning up the debris, rebuilding in the storm’s wake, will almost always require patience, discipline, and yes, words.