Gordon H. Cook, Jr.
Little One Lost, Living with Early Infant Loss, by Glenda Mathes. Grandville, MI: Reformed Fellowship, 2012, 139 pages, $10.00, paper.
Infertility, miscarriage, still birth, infant death—these are issues which are rarely discussed within the church. Yet they are a reality for some of the members of your congregation. Are you prepared to support those in your congregation who experience these personal tragedies?
A friend of mine, a pastor in a different denomination, learned of the miscarriage of a prominent young couple in his congregation. Their first pregnancy was widely known in the church and the community. They had already picked a name for their little one. So the pastor suggested that they have a funeral. The couple was uncomfortable with this, but agreed to a brief memorial following a regular worship service. The young woman suggested that they open the service up to anyone who wanted to share a similar experience. It was agreed and announced to the congregation. That next Sunday there were more than the usual faces in the congregation. After the worship service concluded, they took a few minutes for coffee and a snack, and then reconvened for the memorial. Most remained. This memorial began with the appropriate formalities and a focus on the love of God for this young couple. Then it was opened to others to share. More than three hours later the pastor felt compelled to bring the service to a close. Dozens of women, young and old, had shared their stories. Some were sharing information which had never been heard by anyone except their doctors and their immediate families.
Glenda Mathes shares the stories of eight couples whose experiences cover the broad range of loss surrounding childbirth. Their stories are poignant and come with the ring of authenticity, drawing you in so that you share in their turmoil. Mrs. Mathes has done a wonderful job interviewing these couples and then bringing us their stories in an engaging way. One warning, have a box of tissues nearby, there will be no dry eyes for those who read these stories with an open heart.
Overwhelming sadness, guilt, shock, fear, questioning, tears, frustration, anger, moral struggle, emotional confusion, coming to the brink of despair, disbelief, a mind-numbing fog, shattered dreams, life and death struggles, questioning God's love, spiritual distress, overwhelming helplessness, emptiness, deep and desperate longing, isolation, financial burdens, and sometimes a very dark hour—this is the emotional rollercoaster of those who face the loss of their littlest ones. The openness of these couples in sharing their struggles and their deepest emotions is striking and most commendable, providing a service to any couple going through similar experiences and to pastors who would rightly shepherd all of the flock of God.
Glenda Mathes writes from a distinctly Reformed perspective. This is evident from the early chapters which affirm her strong pro-life stance, to the chapters on covenantal and confessional comfort. There is much comfort from God's Word offered here, and it is carefully presented by one who has wrestled as much with the Scriptures as with the issue of miscarriage and infertility. The covenantal character of her theology permeates the entire book and is shared by all the couples whom she has interviewed. It is rare to find a book on healthcare issues of any kind which is so thoroughly Reformed in its perspective.
This is a book which you can share with couples, confident that they will be comforted by the grace of Christ conveyed in God's Word. But this is not the wise counsel she brings to pastors and elders. In a chapter entitled “Compassionate Care” (129–32), which should be required reading for every pastor and elder who seeks to comfort others in times of suffering, she allows the couples to tell us what is really helpful in a pastoral visit. She cautions that it is not always necessary to say something, describing one visit from “a man who didn't say much, ... but simply sat with me and cried.” They share another visit where an elder simply prayed with the couple. She cautions about the wrong things to say, and then encourages visitors to become compassionate listeners, affirming the loss, affirming the suffering, being available to the couple, allowing them to share the amount of information they want to reveal, giving them the freedom to express their true feelings, letting them know that you will be available to them when they are ready to talk. Your compassionate presence can be a gentle reminder of God’s love. Without saying a word, you remind those who are struggling that “God is in control of every minute detail of ... life.” (Nowhere in the chapter does she suggest giving the couple a book to read. It may be helpful to do so with the suggestion that it be read at a later time, when the couple is ready.)
If this review doesn’t prompt you to add this short book to your library and read it so that it helps shape your pastor's heart, then go online and read the fine review by the Rev. John W. Mahaffy.
Many who endure suffering experience feelings of anger toward God. You may have experienced these difficult feelings yourself, if you are willing to admit it. The couples interviewed for this book were no exceptions. They felt the broad range of emotions, including anger and doubt; yet God brought each through their struggle to a new and, I dare say, more mature faith in him and in his sovereign grace. One of the women, Stephanie, initially “questioned God’s love,” saying “We had prayed for a healthy baby, why [has] God chosen to answer us with a dead baby” (45). Near the conclusion of the book, Stephanie brings perhaps the greatest comfort for hurting couples: “God is with you in this tremendous pain, you are not alone. Rest in the sovereignty of God and His love and care for His own. He will restore your soul and fill the void in your life with Himself.” (132) How she had grown!
Many couples in your congregation never experience the pain and suffering described in this book. They conceive and bear covenant children who are then baptized and grow up in the fear and admonition of the Lord. But a few couples know the distress which is so ably described by Glenda Mathes. Pastoral care for these couples will require the sensitivity and compassion which Glenda and the couples she interviewed provide us in these pages.
Gordon H. Cook, Jr. is the pastor of Merrymeeting Bay Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Brunswick, Maine. He coordinates a Pastoral Care (Chaplain) program for Mid Coast Hospital and its affiliated extended care facility and has an extensive ministry as a hospice chaplain with CHANS Home Health in Brunswick. Ordained Servant Online, March 2013.