Meet Them Where They Are in Their Grief

Several years ago, still early into running the nonprofit I founded that works with families facing the loss of a child due to a medical condition, a pregnant momma reached out to me. She was referred to our organization after her 20-week anatomy scan showed the baby had a life-threatening medical condition. The high-risk doctor’s office typically refers these families to us so we can provide them with free maternity pictures and start offering support early on.

This also gives us the opportunity to suggest families get a second opinion from a specialist in a big city across the state, something that typically isn’t suggested by their doctor’s office in our smaller city. We have seen several times how these specialists have been able to save a child with a genetic condition or significant birth defect, when the local doctors didn’t think that possible.

This momma was young, late teens to early twenties. She was desperate for any help she could get and was facing a lot of pressure from her mother and grandmother to terminate. But Momma just wanted her baby to be okay. When I suggested getting a second opinion, mom clung to the hope that initial findings for her unborn child were wrong.

A couple of weeks later she called me: the specialists confirmed the original prognosis… nothing could be done to save the baby. She was so heartbroken… and so angry with me. Angry that I suggested it and the outcome didn’t improve. In her desperate heartache, she decided to end the pregnancy.

I begged her to carry to term. I was looking at her situation through the lens of the years of teaching from the churches I grew up in that her choice to end the pregnancy early was the penultimate sin. Nevermind the emotional heartbreak she was feeling. Nevermind the fact that her child likely wouldn’t even survive in the womb to full term due to the severity of his medical condition, let alone survive the delivery.

Momma’s grandmother got on the phone with me, berating me for pushing my faith agenda on her granddaughter — that our organization was supposed to support her and instead added to her sorrow. She was angry, too, insisting that her granddaughter could not emotionally handle carrying this child to term, knowing he would likely pass during birth, if not in Momma’s arms just moments later.

When that call ended abruptly, so did my connection to that momma. We never did maternity pictures for her like she initially wanted. No one was there to photograph the child she longed for the day the baby passed. We never provided any support for her because they blocked me from all access to their lives.

At first, I felt such guilt that I had failed that child by not convincing his mother to carry him to term. But as time has passed and I’ve seen and learned so much more about grief through the families On Angels’ Wings serves, I recognize now that I failed the mother more than anything.

Instead of meeting her where she was and loving her unconditionally in that space, I made my love conditional to her meeting my expectations based upon my belief system at the time. MY belief system. This momma was pregnant with a child desperately wanted, but already grieving that child’s death. Every time she felt her child move, it was not accompanied by joy but drenched in sorrow. I had become so engrossed in pushing for birth, absorbed in my agenda, that I had completely overlooked the broken heart right in front of me, and the lifetime of grief the mom would endure. Regardless of when the child was born, the outcome would be the same: Momma would hold her lifeless child and never take him home, never watch him grow, never be able to protect him. Her love for him would always be floating on the wind, never able to envelope him.

It’s through this experience and others that I’ve come to realize I could no longer put every circumstance in the same box. It’s not a black or white issue, it’s a gray one. And in that gray fog, I failed to provide compassion and love to a young woman desperately in need of it. Instead, I made it about me, pushing my belief system on someone who was completely unreceptive to it. If anything, my actions may have actually pushed her further away from God because she did not see love in that moment, she saw an agenda.

Maybe a year or so after this incident, I walked into the hospital to photograph a birth loss session. When I arrived, the parents told me they didn’t believe in God or Heaven, but their other children were about to arrive and meet their brother who had already passed. They asked me what they were supposed to tell their children. And I told them that whatever they were doing to cope with this loss, to share it with their children and they will grieve together in the same way.

Weeks later, one of the parents told me that, before I arrived to do pictures, everything was a blur. It was chaos and fuzziness, unrelenting sorrow with no idea what to do moment to moment. “When you walked in,” she said, “it was like a light shown around you, the fog lifted, and there was an immediate sense of peace in the room.”

In that moment, I could have told them that God, in fact, does exist and that their son was in Heaven with Jesus. Because that’s what I believe. But that just would have alienated them, pushing them even deeper into the abyss of loneliness and heartbreak they were experiencing. But I had learned from my mistake and, instead, met them right where they were. I loved them without stipulation or expectation, and I’ve continued to do so over the years since. That same parent has told me “I see God in you.”

Regardless of where you stand on polarizing issues, families in these situations need unconditional compassion without putting expectations on them. We need to meet them right where they are, full of grace, offering a hand to hold and a shoulder to weep on. It’s like lighting a solitary candle in a pitch-black room. The dark becomes less overwhelming, less foreboding, when we choose to simply love.

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