I had it wired. I read the books. I attended the seminars. I had t-shirts, even a lapel pin, that touted my proud claim to be a "Promise Keeper." The second line of my personal Life Purpose Statement was a bold pronouncement that I would support and encourage my wife in all ways and love her "as Christ loved the church." We'd already ridden the emotional roller coaster of pregnancy together three times and had three wonderful boys to show for it. So when the happy-go-lucky lady I'd always known dissolved into a sobbing mess one day, I didn't even flinch. I was ready to take care of things.
Her shoulders hitched as she tried to force out words that blindsided me. "I … I was pregnant … but I lost the baby."
She'd found out she was pregnant four weeks into her first term, but wanted to surprise me with the news during a weekend getaway we'd planned to take in another two weeks.
As many as 50 percent of all pregnancies end in miscarriage, most unnoticed by the mother. But for the 15 to 20 percent who miscarry and are aware that they were pregnant, the ordeal can be traumatic. It's a tragedy for which a husband rarely prepares. I never considered it until it happened—and then it became clear that I didn't have a clue how to help her deal with it. It was months before I realized that, despite my prideful notions about my capacity to love and empathize with my wife, miscarriage was an emotional experience I could only try to understand.
There are many circumstances that may significantly affect the physical and emotional facets of this trauma. Was it a planned or unplanned pregnancy; a repeated or one-time occurrence; spontaneous or a medical necessity following the death of the baby; an early-or late-term event? The impact of each will vary. But for husbands there are three considerations that may soften the pain for you both, no matter the specifics.
You can't understand it
This may be by far the most difficult realization. Mental health professionals acknowledge what many women have always known instinctively: the emotional attachment a woman feels toward a newly conceived child is instantaneous. This may result from the physical changes her body undergoes or even the spiritual presence of the new creation within her. Whatever the reason, it isn't something a husband can share or even fully understand.
My wife's miscarriage occurred less than six weeks into the pregnancy, yet she had narrowed down possible names for the baby. She'd decorated the nursery in her mind. She'd already welcomed the new addition to our family. I, on the other hand, felt a detached loss for someone I never knew. Not having felt the depth of her joy in anticipating the new arrival, it was difficult to instantly share her despair.
It's important to remember that, more than anything else, your wife needs you to hold her up during this time. Many marriages have been irreparably damaged after a miscarriage because of a husband's inability or unwillingness to do just that. She needs support and encouragement. She needs non-sexual affection that she'll probably be unable to return. It may be as simple as a card, flowers, a note left on the sink, or an extra phone call from work during the day.
Your wife wants to know you're grieving too
If the pregnancy was difficult to achieve, or if it was a late-term or recurring miscarriage, you too may feel an unbearable burden. Friends and family may offer condolences and support to your wife and never look your way. But that doesn't mean you should hide your emotions. Share your grief with your wife. She needs to know you're hurting too. Realizing she isn't alone may help her overcome her feelings of anger or despair.
You can't make the pain go away
The pain that comes in dealing with such a traumatic event doesn't subside easily or quickly. For your wife it may never disappear. Family scientists at the University of Nebraska found that, even 42 years after the loss of a pregnancy, emotional side effects still lingered with some women. On top of the psychological aspects, she also receives a physically graphic reminder each month when her menstrual cycle returns. This can reignite emotions she's begun to conquer.
No matter how deeply you share the grief with your wife, you may find it difficult to understand the length of time she clings to it. After contending with months of unprovoked emotional outbursts, I found it easy to become impatient with her. There was a tendency to challenge her to "get over it." You may feel the need to escape the emotional crucible, then feel guilty for doing so. At times I would clam up or simply leave the room, frustrated that there seemed to be nothing I could do or say to help. There wasn't. And that's the point.
Patience is paramount. This flies in the face of the normal male tendency to try to fix things and put them behind you. Men are wired to solve problems. But this is one problem you just can't fix. Indeed, there may be absolutely nothing you can say that helps. If you insist on being profound, concentrate on being a profoundly good listener.
The tragedy of miscarriage can tear your marriage apart. It can also force you to turn toward each other for support. More than 60 percent of couples who have experienced miscarriage report their marriage to be stronger afterward. This was certainly true in our case.
But not because of any seminar I attended, any lapel pin I wore, or any of the platitudes I professed to hold so dear. It's true because I was forced to come to grips with what those platitudes really meant.
Both of us would have gladly bypassed the pain we experienced during that time. I'd give anything to mend the hole that still exists in my wife's heart as a result. But the value of the lesson we learned is immeasurable not only to me, but more importantly, to the wife I've learned more fully to love.
Bob Perry, a freelance writer, lives in suburban Cincinnati with his wife of 21 years.
Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.