Presbyterian ministers break the silence about their fertility journey

Video offers support and solidarity to other couples’ experiences of hope and loss

by Gregg Brekke | Presbyterian News Service

Patrick and Jenna Heery. (Photo provided)

LOUISVILLE – The joyful update came in the form of a YouTube video posted to Facebook. Jenna Heery, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) candidate for ordination as a teaching elder and family services coordinator for Finger Lakes Donor Recovery Network, and her husband, the Rev. Patrick Heery, pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Auburn, New York, and former editor of Presbyterians Today, shared their pregnancy announcement on Feb. 13. Titled, “Our Infertility Journey to a Double Rainbow,” the video documents the couple’s struggle to achieve a full-term pregnancy after several losses.

An opening slide of the video begins their story saying, “When we were married we had big dreams…” It then shows a photo of a positive pregnancy test with the words, “1st Pregnancy, Due December 19, 2015.” But on May 1 the couple awoke with panic and rushed to the hospital, only to experience a miscarriage. “Miscarriage,” the video slide reads, “such a clinical word, for the loss of our baby.”

After another miscarriage in 2015 and months of testing, medication and a surgery, the Heerys “think everything is fixed.”

They would go on to experience the heartache of two more miscarriages in 2016.

But during Christmas 2016 the couple received the good news that Jenna was pregnant again, due Aug. 21, 2017, this time with twins.

“Babies, you have a lot of people who can’t wait to meet you,” a slide on the video states before displaying a slideshow of the Heerys’ family and friends, which concludes with the words, “Without the rain there would never be rainbows.”

The Heerys agreed to an interview with Presbyterian News Service to tell more of their story. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

PNS: What led you to announce your pregnancy in this way? What were your goals or ambitions for telling this story?

Jenna: In the depths of our grief, pregnancy announcements became very painful for us. While we were happy for other happy couples, this reminder of our own grief and the fear that we may never share in that joy was too hard to bear. So we knew that when we were going to announce our own pregnancy, we wanted to find a way that would honor our own journey and to thank all of the people who have helped us along the way. However, we also wanted to honor the grief that so many others suffer silently. In some small way, we wanted to bring others who were suffering in silence hope instead of pain. They call babies born after loss “rainbow babies,” and we wanted to share our miraculous double rainbow with those still stuck in the storm.

PNS: What has been the reaction so far? Has it spread beyond your circle of friends?

Jenna: Our video has been viewed over 1,100 times! The reach has been far beyond anything we could have anticipated. Women and couples have reached out to us privately, online and in person, daring to share their own stories or those of their loved ones. Friends of friends have reached out and said, “You don’t know me but I have been there too.” These are women and couples that we may never have known had shared a similar pain had we not dared to share our own story.

Patrick: In addition to what Jenna has shared, I think one of the salient responses has been simple gratitude for telling a narrative that doesn’t conform to the mainstream story of marriage, pregnancy and happiness.

PNS: What does the church, or even individual congregations and members, need to know about how to minister to those who miscarry?

Jenna: There are no rituals in our churches or in our culture to mourn the loss of a pregnancy. Because our losses were so early, we were never able to have a funeral, and there was no way to share our grief and our pain with others. One of the most powerful ways that the church can minister to those who have endured a pregnancy loss is to provide a safe space for them to grieve without judgment or shame.

Those who have endured loss need to be reassured that there is nothing that they did to cause their miscarriage. Advice, no matter how well-intentioned, is typically not helpful. So many well-intentioned people have unintentionally caused us incredible pain with their well-meaning advice. At a birthday party, a woman from church approached me and almost cheerfully said, “So I hear that you keep losing babies. Have you tried acupuncture?” Others blamed stress or recommended various diets or exercises. I was told to pray more and to be more positive.

Yet, whether it is meant to or not, I often heard this all as blame — I felt shame that I had done something wrong or that somehow I had caused this to happen. Yet, all I needed at the time was to be reassured that nothing I did caused my miscarriages to happen. I needed a caring presence. I needed empathy. I needed to be assured that if we even if we never were able to have biological children that we would be welcomed and loved.

Patrick: Rachel Whaley Doll, author of Beating on the Chest of God, summed it up for me: “The most beautiful thing a church member said to me during our struggle was ‘This just sucks, and I had words with God today about you.’” Sometimes, when you’re hurting, you just need folks to stop trying to fix everything. You don’t want to hear that “God has a plan,” or that “God just wanted another angel,” or that “God never gives us more than we can handle.” You don’t want advice. You just want what Christ offers — Emmanuel, “God with us.” You want a companion for the darkness, someone to hold you tight and let you cry.

PNS: Have you felt isolated or excluded because of your previous miscarriages?

Jenna: Amazingly, 1 in 4 women will experience a miscarriage at some point in her life, and 1 in 8 couples will struggle with a fertility issue. And yet, it is almost unspeakable and taboo. Society advises couples to wait until you are 12 weeks pregnant, when the risk of miscarriage decreases, before announcing your pregnancy, purely out of the fear of discussing miscarriage publicly. This stigma leads many to suffer in silence.

And while we knew many people who had experienced one or two miscarriages, as we progressed further and further on our journey, we did not know anyone whose experience was quite like ours.

As fewer and fewer people could relate to our grief, as more and more of our friends became happily pregnant, as one year and then two years passed, we began to feel like a burden. It became difficult for others to support us, as they began expecting us just to “move on.” But it is a kind of grief that is almost impossible to explain — mourning the past of the babies that will never be and an overwhelming fear of the future that may never come. We were scared that we may never be parents. And that was terrifying and isolating.

PNS: Conversely, how have you been supported through the process?

Jenna: Thankfully, we were also able to find some much needed support when we needed it most. We had the support and love of our families and our friends. With both of us trained in ministry, we were wonderfully surrounded by other ministers. We also found a support group at our local grief counseling center that was specifically meant for parents who had experienced miscarriage or stillbirth. Several of the couples whom we met there are still dear friends of ours to this day. I received the support of therapy and found the tranquility of acupuncture. And we surrounded ourselves with the miracles of modern medicine.

We are among the lucky few who received any kind of infertility coverage. Something like 90 percent of all health insurance plans provide no coverage for infertility and treat it instead as elective procedures. Thankfully our insurance through the PC(USA) focuses on principle and not merely the bottom line, and we were able to seek the health care that we needed.

Honestly, as clergy, it was somewhat difficult to find support in our churches, without blurring the boundaries between minister and congregant too much. Still, we knew we were surrounded by prayer and by love. We attended another church’s Longest Night of the Year service shortly before Christmas.

Patrick: The church where Jenna and I went for their Blue Christmas or Longest Night service was Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church, on December 16, 2015. The moment I remember most distinctly was pastor Jane Larsen-Wigger hugging us, long and amid tears. We had just lit two candles, and the pastor was on hand for prayer and the laying on of hands.

One of the hardest and yet also most beautiful challenges was discovering how Jenna and I could support one another. It wasn’t easy. Our grief and experiences were different. The ways we processed and communicated that grief were different. For me, the loss was deep but abstract. I felt shorn of the dreams I held for who these children would become. But for Jenna, the loss was immediate and physical in a way that I couldn’t experience. These children had been a part of her body and had been real to her in a way that hadn’t yet occurred for me.

PNS: Do you think it’s “brave” to tell your story at this time?

Jenna: Admittedly, vulnerability is scary. And it is especially scary being so vulnerable so publicly about a subject that is considered to be too personal and taboo to typically share. From the beginning, though, we knew that this pregnancy would be scary in many ways — the fear of yet another loss, the fear of facing that indescribable grief yet again, the fear that ultimately we may never be parents. At each ultrasound, we still both hold our breath until the doctor tells us that there is a heartbeat. So we were admittedly afraid to tell the world our good news, terrified that this would somehow jinx it.

Patrick: It felt more like joy than bravery to me. What was brave, I think, was trying again… and again… and again. It was Jenna undergoing surgery. It was Jenna injecting herself daily with multiple shots. It was us deciding to take several months as a Sabbath to regather our strength, reconnect in our marriage and discern our next steps. The true bravery now belongs to all those who still face losses and infertility, to those who grieve, or who are trying again, or who are beginning the long road to adoption.

PNS: Are there any concerns for this pregnancy? If so, how would you articulate that given the wide distribution of your video?

Jenna: There is always a concern. Throughout this pregnancy, we have been very closely monitored by our medical team. This is our first pregnancy in which we have had the additional support of medications to help maintain the pregnancy — injections, pills, suppositories, blood draws and even IV infusions. We had one bleeding scare, only a few days before our video announcement, which sent us to the emergency room to make sure that the babies were OK. And thankfully, so far the babies look healthy — they are growing on track and have two strong heartbeats. Nevertheless, we are not naive to the possibility of another loss. Our chances of another miscarriage are higher because of our history, and twins are especially risky. However, as one dear friend told us, “With any luck, even if all goes well, you will be worried about these babies for the rest of your lives!”

In choosing to share our story so publicly, we knew that our little family would be surrounded by countless prayers. We also knew that if the worst should happen, we would be surrounded by the support and the love of a great cloud of witnesses, which is exactly what we would need.

PNS: How can the church better minister to those who have experienced difficulty in conceiving or bearing children? Namely, grief and disappointment are hard things for churches to address corporately, so how can that be done?

Jenna: Church can be an especially difficult place for those who have experienced infertility or pregnancy loss. Church is so family-centered that there is almost an expectation on young couples to have children. When facing such a personal pain, what may seem like an innocuous question — “When are you two planning on having children?” — can be indescribably painful, and I feel that we faced these questions at church the most. Christmastime was triggering. The entire season is focused on a pregnancy and the anticipated birth of a baby! And Mother’s Day celebrations became so painful for me in church that I would skip the day entirely.

Yet, there are many ways that the church can help minister to this very personal pain. Offering a safe place to grieve without shame or judgment. Naming fertility issues from the pulpit — the Bible is filled with the stories of couples who experienced loss and faced infertility! Offering services, like a Longest Night of the Year service, where those who are grieving can be surrounded by love and prayer.

We were given a prayer shawl, which has been a helpful reminder of the prayers of our community. Providing a space for more personal rituals for losses that are not typically acknowledged with a ceremony like a funeral.

Recognizing all women on Mother’s Day and all men on Father’s Day, being sensitive to the many kinds of pain and grief that may surround those particular days. All of these are ways to help those who have gone through loss.

Patrick: In addition to all the wonderful suggestions made by Jenna, I’d just add that churches might consider creating or connecting with existing support groups for those who have experienced prenatal losses and/or infertility… or for those who have adopted or fostered children… or for single adults (or couples) who do not feel called to have children or may not have the opportunity to do so.

The best thing a church can do is simply recognize the diversity of human experience and minister to that; provide opportunities for people with similar experiences to gather together and love one another; use language that is inclusive and inviting and that doesn’t reinforce that dominant narrative about who we should be, realizing not all of us are going to be happily-ever-after married with two children in a house with a white picket fence.

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