Still A Mother: Journeys Through Perinatal Bereavement
Edited by Joy Freeman and Tabatha Johnson
I have a small stack of three books for which I’ve promised to write book reviews. I finally made the time to read them and sketch out my thoughts. These reviews will be appearing in my blog this week. Also reviewed this week are Lee Hull Moses’s More Than Enough and Carol Howard Merritt’s Healing Spiritual Wounds
In the always growing sub genre of pastoral literature concerning pastoral ministry, there is no shortage of writing about the multiple identities that ministers must live into–can one be a good, competent minister as well as a good spouse, parent, friend, citizen? While not the only concern driving the essays features in Still a Mother, in form and function, this type of question is never far from the minds of the writers in this collection of essays by clergy on their very personal experiences of perinatal bereavement.
The essays, chosen by Joy Freeman and Tabatha Johnson, two ministers who include their own stories of unexpected grief and hard choices, represent a significant spectrum of theological and vocational perspectives. Mennonites and Episcopals, Chaplains and Senior Ministers–all share very personal perspectives on how such loss impacted their lives, relationships and sense of call to ministry.
The essays are unflinchingly honest and detailed, not only often sharing experiences in hospital settings that range from mechanistic to warm, but also clearly mapping out theological dilemmas that emerge for women who live and work as religious leaders while grieving their own losses. These pastors and priests often find themselves strangers in their own bodies, asking questions about what it means for all of creation to be good when one’s body seems to defy such a notion; and at times, strangers in their own faith traditions, asking what it means to proclaim a God who is loving and just while they grieve children they longed to parent but whose first cries were never heard.
The wide range of experience included in an anthology like Still a Mother does give the pastoral care giver a good sampling of experiences of perinatal bereavement to consider as they consider their own responses. Kelly Hough Rogers’ essay–which includes struggles with fibroid tumors, infertility, and the loss of a child, tenderly describes her choice to baptize her stillborn son, an act that brings her significant solace in the midst of her grief. While I would not consider any of the essays in this book cliched, hers in particular resists the tendency of “inspirational” writing to look too quickly for a silver lining, finding healing in an unexpected resolution.
The editors themselves offer incredibly vulnerable narratives: Johnson shares how her grief following miscarriages and her own struggle with cancer interplayed, and Freeman tells a story of choosing to end a pregnancy that was ultimately unviable–a decision that was undoubtedly the right medical decision, but as Freeman indicates, carried some social risk for her and her husband. Other essays challenged my own understanding of the scope of grief, and others gave me great insight into the role of liturgy and story in healing from this particular type of loss.
On the other hand, the intersection of storytelling and pastoral insight can create blurry moments: do stories of unproven herbal treatments and hypnosis serve readers who may have shaky understandings of science and medicine? While it’s important to share one’s own journey, does a story told without caveat or qualification turn into an endorsement? Does pastoral authority undermine the needs of a critical healthcare consumer?
Outside of that, as a book geared for learning or deepening one’s understanding of pastoral caregiving, Still A Mother hits the right notes. The book is structured nicely–the essays are short enough to be easily digested by a busy student, pastor, or chaplain, and each is accompanied by questions that help inform the reader’s own pastoral practice. It also includes a section with rituals and liturgies, as well as a section of “Do”s and “Don’t”s for spiritual and emotional care. Caregivers will find new tools here, and those who have experienced perinatal grief will find a virtual community here, perhaps inspiring words for a grief that too often goes unspoken.