Helping Heal Hearts Wounded by Miscarriage

Mourning the Loss of a Child“Open your hearts to life!” has become a recurring theme in Pope Francis’s pontificate. It’s also the theme for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2013-14 Respect Life Campaign that kicked off in parishes across the nation on Respect Life Sunday.

Cardinal Seán O’Malley, Chairman of the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities, issued the following call to action in his Respect Life Sunday statement, “Let us open our hearts and reflect on how God might be calling each of us to witness the sacredness of human life and assist in pro-life efforts.”

When many think about the hot button pro-life issues, a handful readily come to mind: abortion, contraception, euthanasia, in vitro fertilization, embryonic stem cell research, and capital punishment. However, there’s one area that seems to be a bit off the radar screen that weighs heavily enough on our hearts to call us to action.

The phrase “Open your hearts to life” can be a difficult one for many couples who are quite open to life yet find their hearts overflowing with grief due to pregnancy/infant loss or infertility.

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A little over six years ago, Lisa miscarried our first child. It was a negative experience in nearly every possible way. First and foremost, we lost a child. That might seem obvious, sure, but we’ve learned through this process that many do not view miscarriage as a loss of life to be mourned. To them, if it’s a loss of anything, it’s the loss of expectation of parenthood and a medical issue to be dealt with by the mother.

Second, at Lisa’s 12-week prenatal appointment, no fetal heartbeat was detected. We were then sent to the hospital for an ultrasound which confirmed the baby had died. Unfortunately the ultrasound technician failed to put us in contact with the hospital’s perinatal bereavement coordinator.

Third, we contacted the clinic that had been the primary care provider for Lisa’s pregnancy. They offered us nothing aside from the assurance that, “Don’t worry. You’ll pass it naturally.”

Fourth, despite the fact that our spiritual community reached out to us with emotional support, there was nothing tangible in terms of grief support, spiritual counsel, or parish outreach.

We were distraught, confused, physically and emotionally wounded. We didn’t know what to do, so we didn’t do anything. And two days later, Lisa passed the baby in our home. One of our biggest regrets is not properly burying that child. It still makes our stomachs churn that, not knowing what to expect, we so carelessly disposed of our child down the toilet.

We didn’t take time to mourn; Lisa went to work the very next day. We didn’t give our child a name, and we didn’t do anything to ritually entrust Jesus with the eternal care of our child or the spiritual care of our grief. We did probably the worst thing we could have done; we simply moved on.

A year later we experienced a second miscarriage. The medical and emotional process was somewhat different because that child was the twin of a healthy baby Lisa was still carrying. Given we were one for three, our focus turned to the healthy, viable baby growing in Lisa’s womb rather than grieving the loss of a second child.

Fast-forward to present day, Joel is in his final year of deacon formation, a four-year process here in our diocese of Des Moines, Iowa. Joel and his fellow deacon candidates are individually required to develop a ministry plan for the diocese, and Joel discerned there was a ministerial void in terms of miscarriage support in our area. He has since collaborated with several local partners to develop a wide-reaching apostolate focused on caring for the needs of parents grieving the loss of an infant, particularly in utero.

Here are a handful of initiatives with which we’ve become involved:

Miscarriage Memorial Service and Burial

If I let you go, do you promise not to poop on me?

Infant Loss Prayer Service

This is an ecumenical collaboration between Hamilton’s Funeral Home and Des Moines area hospitals, particularly Mercy Medical Center. The hospitals collect the names of those who’ve lost babies and pass them along to Hamilton’s. The funeral home coordinates the prayer services on a quarterly basis, which Joel regularly facilitates.

Blessing of Child in the Womb

This rite, recently approved by the USCCB and the Vatican, can be used within a Mass and provides support and God’s blessing for expectant parents and their child in the womb. It is also an effective witness to the sanctity of human life from the first moment of conception. Lisa has worked with a local Elizabeth Ministry group to incorporate the blessing into the Mass. Our goal is to share this information with every parish in our diocese.

Infant Loss Memorial Mass

This is a partnership with the diocesan Marriage and Family Life Office. With Bishop Pates as the principal celebrant, the full institutional presence of the Church is brought to this distinctively Catholic healing opportunity for those who have lost children in the womb or shortly thereafter. The readings and prayers are especially selected or composed for the occasion, and the Mass includes an opportunity to name the child. Those names are then turned over to the Sisters of Life who pray for them throughout the month.The next Mass will be held on Monday, November 4 at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Des Moines. More info/printable flyer here.

Miscarriage Memorial Service and Burial

Bringing this story full circle, in conjunction with Hamilton’s Funeral Home, Mercy Hospital collects and stores the remains of miscarried babies, unless the family has requested a private service. Every five years, give or take, these remains are cremated and buried at no cost to the families. Last month, Joel participated in the most recent ecumenical graveside prayer service (see photo). Ironically, this burial service might have included the remains of our first miscarried child, had we known better at the time.

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What’s next? We would really like to develop some sort of an ongoing infant loss support structure for the Catholic community. However, we are still discerning what form that might take.  Should it be a monthly support group? Perhaps, an annual retreat? Something else? We would love to learn what has or has not worked in your area. Please comment in with your suggestions and experiences.

7 comments to Helping Heal Hearts Wounded by Miscarriage

  • God bless you both in this mission. We are blessed to have met you because of it and are thankful for your friendship and support in this area. As I have mentioned to Joel before, if there is anything we can do to help, you know you can count on us.

  • Jennie Stanbro

    Thank you so much for sharing the story of the loss of your babies. My daughter also has babies in heaven. She miscarried her first child at 10 wks, her second child was ectopic and to peacefully allow her child to pass on in order to save her life, she had her fallopian tube removed as well. Through the grace of God her 3rd child was born healthy, a baby boy she named Noah Matthew, her “rainbow” baby. This year she suffered the loss of her 4th child at 9 wks and as I type this she has been blessed again with her 5th child and is 7 wks. pregnant. Of course it is so hard to revel in the joy of this new life as she wonders if she will get to meet this little one. I try to encourage her to take it one day at a time, enjoying each moment she has with her new baby and of course….we pray… I share all of this because a few months back after the loss of her 3 baby, we talked about how the Church is failing in reaching out to parents who have suffered the loss of children in utero. So much exists for the healing of mothers who have suffered abortion but it is silent when it comes to miscarriage. You are so right that society does not acknowledge this tremendous loss and couples are often left to grieve alone. Even well meaning family members and friends declare that “it is better now than later” or “you will have another” but the one place where comfort should be found is in the Church. I thank God that my daughter has a strong faith that has grown stronger due to her sufferings but it would have been nice for her to have had the services available that you are starting. Joel I want to express my deepest sympathies in the loss of both your children who are with God. Though we do not know each other, I will give a prayer of thanks for your “rainbow” baby, for indeed God is good. My sincere thanks for bringing attention to this very needed ministry. When my daughter is ready, I will share this with her as I know what you wrote will reach her heart deeply and who knows, maybe someday with your inspiration she will start a similar ministry in her parish. It is how it all starts! God bless you. Lisa and your little one!

  • Renee

    Great article. I have long thought we need this ministry and one for couples suffering from infertility or sub-fertility. We have experienced miscarriage and fertility struggles in our marriage and it is stunning how paralyzing of an effect these experiences can have on couples. I am in the omaha area and would be interested in helping with a ministry like this. We need to educate and provide tools for those suffering and for family and friends to support them.

  • […] coming back to one thing: miscarriage. If you have read our previous columns, you may know we have suffered two miscarriages ourselves. Through those experiences, we found our local Catholic community was rather ill-equipped to deal […]

  • […] was our first pregnancy about a year before Lucy was born. We named them during our diocese’s Infant Loss and Memorial Mass. The photo here is from Mercy Hospital’s A Walk to Remember event that Joel helps out with […]

  • Barbara Abbate

    Since you mention stillbirth & infant loss, I am wondering if you know about Alexandra’s House (www.alexandrashouse.com)? They have been amazing helping our dear friends whose precious baby girl died at birth. Alexandra’s House started helping them from the moment that they had an ultrasound that showed problems. It is a wonderful Catholic organization.

  • My friend Lisa and I started a ministry called Embrace in October of 2012 it is for pregnancy and early infant loss in our Fresno Diocese. We currently hold three main events every year. Our Healing and Rememberance Mass near Mother’s Day, our Memorial walk in October and our Christmas ornament making in December. we are looking to add a summer retreat to the list soon. we also hold support group meetings in the off months. we hope our ministry can continue to grow and help families.
    http://www.embracefresno.com
    sara@embracefresno.com

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