I have found myself seated on both sides of the fertility table. I have peered over my full plate into my sister's tear filled eyes, grieved by the emptiness of her womb and the pain of loss. I have also stared longingly at what my sister has been given, questioning why the tiny life I carried was not sustained while the one within her grew and flourished.
My nephew is a sort of marker for me of where our little one would be had he or she not died in the womb. My sister and my due dates were 3 weeks apart. Every milestone he hits, though I rejoice over his development, is a reminder of the milestones we will never experience with the child we lost: smiling, rolling over, sitting up, laughing, starting solids. As time has passed, the sting has lessened, but I have a feeling the sorrow will never fully subside. Because death is tragic. Because life is precious.
My first born son is a marker of this kind for someone very dear to me. I ached each time we were together while I was pregnant with him because I knew that my growing belly was a trigger for her, a reminder that her womb was empty. Even now each time I watch her playing with my son, who simply adores her, my heart aches for her over her loss. I miss her baby too.
To this day, these women are two of my dearest friends. But those initial weeks and months following each of our losses were admittedly painful and awkward, on both sides. The "survivor's guilt" that so often seems to plague the woman with full arms and a flourishing womb in the wake of her sister's grief can be a terribly lonely emotion. It can also be accompanied by a feeling of responsibility for her sorrow, a desire to "fix" the pain of your sister, or even self-loathing or feelings of unworthiness.
I fumbled to love my mourning sister in the wake of her loss as my belly grew. My sister who gave birth to her baby near the due date of the little one we lost has loved me so well in my grief and pain. If you, like me, find yourself plagued with guilt, at a loss for what to do to comfort your sister, or wondering how to share the news of life within you as she grieves the loss of hers, perhaps these suggestions, gleaned from my experience on both sides, may be of help.
Let Yourself Off the Hook
You are not sovereign over life. God alone opens the womb and he alone numbers our days. You did not bless yourself with the gift of children, and being faithful to carry them to term and care for them is not a sinful stumbling block, its an act of obedience. You are also not responsible for the loss of your sister. It was an effect of the fall allowed by God for purposes we may never understand. But we can have confidence as we see his authority over history that God knows what he's doing. Throughout scripture, fertility is so mysterious (barren women conceive in old age, the savior of the world is born to a virgin…), but what is clear is that God is sovereign over the womb, that he works all things together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose, and that nothing happens apart from his loving and watchful eye.
While it is true that in bearing one another's burdens we fulfill the law of Christ, weeping with those who weep does not require that we feel guilt over what we have been given in light of what they have not received. God is sovereign over the events of both of your lives, and will use you both in the life of the other. You can trust him. Let yourself off the hook as you ascribe to him the sovereignty, power, and might he possesses.
Don’t Add to Her Burden
The woman struggling with infertility or mourning the loss of life in the womb is walking through true grief. While it may very well be true that the flourishing of your family is a difficult thing for her to behold because it highlights her own lack, you do not need to be forgiven. Do not place upon your sister the burden of helping you feel at peace with the situation. Don’t cause her to feel like she needs to tell you that "it's okay" or that she's not mad at you. You are responsible for your own faithfulness to weep with her, not enforcing the commandment to rejoice with you upon her. Should she celebrate you, however, let her. Don't make it weird. Just communicate your gratitude for her role in the life of your family.
My own discomfort with my grieving sister caused me to want to rush her grief. I wanted her to be better and feel better so that things wouldn't be so awkward or feel so sad. This led to me saying unintentionally dismissive and belittling things. You don't need to burden her with a timeline that you're comfortable with for her grief. Your role is to support, encourage, and pray for her for as long as this season may last. Her grief, however uncomfortable it may make you feel, is not sin. You can affirm her lamentation as biblical. You can agree with her in her outrage over death.
Accept the Role You're Allowed to Play
We don’t always get to play the role we long to play in the grief of others, and the reality is, the fact that you are a walking trigger for the pain and trauma of your sister may mean that you are not the best person to minister to her during this season. Ask permission before acting. Don't pretend to know what she would want. Give her the opportunity to tell you.
You also should not assume that you're the person she most wants to confide in and share with, even if you have been in the past. If she asks for space, send her a resource, then respect her wishes. Loving through non face to face actions like mailing a resource or sending flowers is a great way to communicate your availability without placing pressure on her to respond.
Entrust her to the Lord
When you don’t feel the freedom or cannot figure out how to talk to your sister, you may be tempted to talk about her. Perhaps with the intention of seeking advice or the desire to feel more involved or closer to her, you may betray details of her story or add to the drama of the situation by making the perceived chasm between you feel even wider. But rather than talking about her or strategizing to fix her situation, a better course of action is to intercede for her, and to let her know you're doing so. Praying for her is the most powerful thing you can do to love and practically help her. God knows her intimately and is able to care for her perfectly, even when you find yourself at a complete loss.
A Final Word
Nothing about this situation is simple, but refusing to take things personally or think too much about yourself are two of the best courses of action you can take. The truth of the gospel enables us to selflessly love others. I would encourage you to move beyond these words and ask your Father for wisdom on how to love your sister well. His word tells us that he is faithful provide it when we ask.