“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:
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
Infant Loss Memorial Mass
Miscarriage Memorial Service and Burial
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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.